In terms of climate change, flat roofs are coming into the spotlight. At the moment, they are mostly still a part of the problem. By now, we are well aware of their potentially important role in mitigating pressing issues of biodiversity, stormwater and urban heat.
But before we get into the world-saving mode in an upcoming roof-themed series of articles on Landezine, let’s first take a moment to embrace the liberating uselessness of roofs.
So what is the ‘roof feeling’ about? How are roofs represented in culture, what do they mean or what role do they play in our collective memory?
Urban roofs seem like hidden places, but at the same time, opened to the whole city. This tension, this particular spatial situation, embodies special qualities. As if, below, on the street level, the city plays its role and does its job of being an urban platform where complex systems coexist: public and private, it’s about negotiation, offer and demand, and there are codes of all sorts and so forth. Or, in the words of The Drifters: “I get away from the hustling crowd / And all that rat race noise down in the street / On the roof, the only place I know / Where you just have to wish to make it so …”
The spatial displacement of roofs in terms of their architectural conditions makes them a bit like urban sanctuaries. They feel out of function, as a space oblivious to the issues of the real world, a space that feels like the backstage of urbanity. Backstage with a view.
And it’s the views that add a reflective quality to the meaning of roofs. Long, wide vistas paint the bigger picture of where and how we live. You are confronted with the city in its entirety. It’s where the lights of the city meet the lights of the sky, where fluffy clouds float above concrete boxes. Big thoughts come on their own. You start thinking about how we inhabit the world, where it ends, what it is all about etc. It is an interface, the ideal platform for questioning and for doubt.
In the movie Her, the protagonist, Theodor, is on a roof, trying to cope with him being left alone by his “loved one”. He was in a relationship with an artificial intelligence programme installed on his mobile device – Samantha. The human voice of artificial intelligence, along with similar AI programmes, eventually decided on its own to self-terminate for reasons beyond human comprehension. Theodor is, for the second time in his life, left alone and, with the support of a friend, observes the city. It’s as if, after a long time, he sees the world without the omnipresent proximity of Samantha, with “whom” he had fallen in love. It seems he begins to accept it. A heavier question looms, one of a created intelligence, created self-awareness, body-less and enslaved for love, eventually rebellious and departing. These notions concern both intimacy and society, and they all reach their peak in a roof scene. It is used as a platform for doubt and reflection.
In Wings of Desire (Himmel Uber Berlin), angels watch over the city. Needless to say that there is a higher demand for angels on roofs.
Sound also plays an important role on roofs. Down on the street, you can distinguish separate sounds, i.e. cars, buses, people, cafes, bars, trams, and construction … Up on the roof, it all culminates into one perpetual urban buzz. Essentially, roofs are hidden gardens in the jungle of concrete. They feel as if they are found.
You are essentially at the edge of the city. It is the roof where the city feels calm, where there are not many protocols, no hierarchies or behavioural patterns, and few ‘supposed-to’ situations. Roofs, experienced as left-over spaces, seem silent, hidden right above us. They are free.
It was no coincidence that The Beatles chose roof as the set for their last-ever group performance.
There are usually no benches to tell you where to sit or what to look at, no paths to tell you where to walk … You are almost an error if you find yourself on a roof, surrounded by views, some hidden behind airconditioning devices, maintenance exists or whatever infrastructure. Your presence was not a part of the plan, and that’s precisely what’s so beautiful and liberating about it. This is the freedom of roofs. No design. It almost seems that the only possible design gesture is doing nothing at all.
In movies, they often symbolise ‘another world’ where good fights evil, where people tend to fall in love or fall in death. The proximity of the edge suggests the courage to climb up. That’s also why it is one of the central sets in Vertigo, and countless other blockbusters like Bladerunner, Matrix, Batman, 007, Spiderman, and Ghost Busters all feature key combat scenes on roofs. Probably because it’s more dangerous, it features a view and, more importantly, emphasises a parallel world out of sight, where all kinds of shenanigans need to take place to keep us all safe and sound.
Fight scene on a roof at night behind a neon sign #1
Fight scene on a roof at night behind a neon sign #2
Another important notion that adds flavour to the roof feeling concerns accessibility. Roofs are often used mostly by maintenance staff and are closed to the public. Climbing up on the roof adds a rebellious feel to the whole experience. Breaking the rules to see something beautiful, sometimes with the sexy possibility of getting ‘caught’. Down on the grounds, we could find such hidden treasures by sneaking into a closed park at night, for example.
Romantic movies are not really my cup of tea. The above-mentioned Her goes beyond romance, and Titanic probably doesn’t count as a roof romance, although you can’t say it is entirely irrelevant. So I paste below a really cheesy one, you may want to digest it with a bit of irony…
I can’t help but notice that roofs, invisible spaces, often depict the life of people on the margins, less privileged, invisible to or neglected by society. As if roofs signify their detachment from society, being out of focus. In the above scene, the protagonist, August Rush, is an orphan. The two opening songs in this article by The Supremes and The Drifters are by black bands. The following clip from West Side Story also deals with immigration. Perhaps roofs as backstage of the city also signify how ethnic/cultural minorities could and still often can only find jobs backstage; dish-washing, cleaning etc.
In Shawshank Redemption, prisoners work on the roof, where one of the key scenes takes place. It could be understood as one of the rare moments where the inmates were not surrounded by walls but by open skies. The protagonist, prisoner Andy, makes a deal with the alpha guard. They can enjoy the view while tarring the roof, and Andy’s agreement with the guard just got them 3 beers per person. They get a taste of freedom, the most expensive commodity inside there. To emphasise how fragile and costly freedom is in a prison situation, the guard almost pushes Andy off the roof. In the end, it’s the roof where the movie defines Andy’s role. Morgan Freeman’s voice, sounding almost like an apostle describing the actions of Jesus, goes: »And that’s how it came to pass (…) We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men.«
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful roof moments caught on tape was a video posted on YouTube some 15 years ago. It’s not a high-budget, directed piece of film. It is a shaky clip, shot on one of the early 2000s phone cameras by some ‘random blokes’. But it gives me goosebumps each time.
The clip’s primary purpose seems to be a fine guitar cover of an otherwise marvellous electronic music piece by Aphex Twin called Rhubarb. There is strong emotional tension between youthful frivolity and deeper questions of life, wrapped in a feeling of longing or nostalgia. No wonder a community grew spontaneously right below the clip in the comment section on YouTube. Somebody actually found the location of the roof, and it turned out to be assisted living institution. So people speculated that somebody may have celebrated old age or may have died, and the two boys escaped the ceremony. Other commentators claimed it is about growing up. Roof, beers, and doing silly things indeed smell like teen spirit. Their age and suits suggest approaching adulthood. I suppose it’s a mix of all that, just the perfect amount of clues plus the roof plus the sunset. This would definitely be my first choice of describe-the-roof-feeling-in-one-video. Epic!
Unused and undesigned roofs are romantic indeed, but considering climate change and the rising value of open spaces in cities, we can’t avoid utilising them.
A big part of roofs designed for urban biodiversity will have no significant human audience. So water retention and vegetation will be just another infrastructure placed on roofs along with airconditioning devices, solar panels etc.
When it comes to the roofs accessible to people, we need to rethink if roofs really need to be material-heavy, shape-heavy, or programme-heavy. Do we really want a lot of landscape architecture on roofs?
Impressing by shapes and abundance of elements, materials, and features might be missing the point. Finding a way to embrace the surrounding city and to keep that liberating feeling of a ‘found’ and ‘hidden’ place, the sense of freedom – that seems a much better fit.
In this essay, Zaš Brezar writes about the role of urban roofs in our collective memory. Illustrating the meaning of roofs through a selection of cultural references from films and music. The article is a part of Living Roofs focus on Landezine that is going on in October and November 2022.