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The Rooftop

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Occasionally, buildings use only walls to enclose and define a space and have no need for a roof.

Prayer Room at the Tehran Carpet Museum, Kamran Diba, 1978

But, if one sees the provision of shelter as the defining or at least the dominant characteristic of a building then it’s reasonable to expect a roof like most origin myths of architecture do. Buildings in rainy places are of course going to need roofs that keep the rain out but the problem is that seeing and defining roofs only in terms of their ability to shelter what’s beneath them means we haven’t really paid much attention to what can happen on top of them.

People living in places with little rain were a couple of millennia quicker to appreciate the rooftop as an additional surface that can be used for other things. Below is the standard teaching model for an Egyptian house circa 2,000BC. The house has a front courtyard where much of daily activity took place. It had a sheltered room for all domestic functions but these could also take place on the rooftop which was also used for drying meat, fish and vegetables for preservation. This simple house has five kinds of space with different amounts and types of enclosure, each of which provides a degree of shelter/openness the others don’t.

Often however, the roof is seen simply as a surface to be built on, creating a new roof or roofs in the process. Penthouse apartments and rooftop extensions both fall into this category, but it’s taken to extremes in Taipei where many buildings have layer upon layer of illegal rooftop extensions.

In some countries, rights to build on rooftops are legally recognized as property that can be bought, sold and developed. This resetting of ground level can be used to aesthetic effect and, just offhand, I can think of MVRDV’s 2006 Didden Village project in Rotterdam, and Frank Gehry’s 1983 Wosk House in Los Angeles.

There’s also a sub-category of buildings that regularly make internet and YouTube weird lists because their surface characteristics have a surreal relationship with their location which is usually New York.

Other rooftop additions play it straight. This is BWAO’s 2019 Roof House in Beijing.

A rooftop can also be regarded as property by cultivating it. The Hanging Gardens of Bablyon may have existed but, for all practical purposes, the first person to see the potential of rooftops as a place for a garden was American architect Edward Tuckerman Potter. Here’s his 1888 proposal for an apartment building with improved daylighting and ventilation, and a roof garden as tenant amenity.

Potter presented his design and model at the International Congress on Low Cost Housing in Brussels in 1897.

That such an international congress existed and attracted presenters such as Potter from the US makes me think Peter Behrens just might have been curious enough to attend. I doubt Henry van de Velde would have as, only the year before, he’d completed his own house in Uccle, Belgium, and for which he’d designed house, interiors, furniture, tableware and even some frocks for his wife to wear, depending on the room. This may have been a huge commitment to each other and The Complete Work of Art but the fact they decamped to Berlin only three years later suggests it was a publicity vehicle and career builder.

Sky and sunlight aside, the rooftop is a place whose specialness comes from it being not only outside the house but above it and all it contains. Simultaneously close and remote, it’s a place of escape defined as much by what it isn’t than what it is. This other-side-of-the-same-coin aspect of the rooftop was put to good cinematic use in Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 Contempt filmed at Adalberto Libera’s 1934 Casa Malaparte.

Perhaps following in Libera’s footsteps was Takefumi Aida with his 1968 Stepped-Platform House, although here there’s little incentive to be on the rooftop other than to have an increased awareness of the house below – a sensation strengthened by the middle crevice. Curiously, inside the house produces a heightened awareness of being beneath something, as you’d expect from seeing the underside of a staircase.

Still in Japan, there’s also Shinichi Ogawa’s Glass Box House from 1989. A ramp spirals around the living quarters to a space that’s still enclosed yet above and external to the other functions of the house, if not the enclosure. It could be that being on a rooftop is about being removed from the activity of the house, rather than the house itself. The rooftop makes us wonder how much of relaxation is about escape in an out-of- sight-out-of-mind kind of way.

In this vein, we also have Alberto Campo-Baeza’s Casa Rufo from 2009,

as well as his 2014 T House (a.k.a. House of the Infinite) in his hometown of Cadiz.

Venetian altane are lightweight terraces built above both house and roof mainly in order to enjoy any cool breezes on hot Venetian nights.

Altane are an example of vernacular intelligence. They are different from roof terraces where the terrace floor is a roof slab that absorbs heat during the day and radiates it back at terrace users in the evening. With an altana, all the cooling and much of the pleasure comes from it being external to the enclosure of the building.

In all these examples, the enjoyment of being on the roof comes from the house being beneath but in John Lautner’s 1974 Arango House in Acapulco, Mexico, it is only the residents who are aware of that. The rooftop has the entry and main reception areas, a kitchen and a guest bathroom. Visitors need never go farther.

That lower level has bedrooms and a backup living room (with jacuzzi), all accessed without corridors.

Being aware of what’s below the rooftop may be part of the enjoyment when it’s the roof of one’s own house, but when the rooftop is that of someone else’s dwelling we like to pretend the roof is akin to a regular terrace providing some outdoor space and the open sky above. The rooftop begins to be perceived and function as pseudo-property since one never gets to access what’s beneath it. These next images are of the Iranian village of Masouleh. Every household is using someone else’s roof for the usual rooftop purposes but also for access. These houses have light from only the one side and on that side is a public, or at least a communal thoroughfare. Deck access.

It’s not a typology that can really go anywhere but Asma Bahçeler Residences in Izmir in Turkey, by Marti D Mimarlik, riff on it. I mentioned this project in Misfits’ Bienalle. Open public access pathways are kept away from apartment windows by lawns crossed by paths leading to access stairs.

Maximizing daylight while maintaining privacy is the main challenge with terraced mat buildings. I can’t say they’ve been solved in BIG’s Mountain Building. Each apartment has its own terrace and the roof of the living room is the curiously detached garden of the apartments above, with perimeter planting preventing direct overlooking.

The only access is from the rear but those detached gardens are the other side of what looks like shared fire escape paths but plans show gates between adjacent properties and there’s no stairs anyway. Curious.

I don’t know how Glen Howard Small solved these problems in his 1983 project Turf Town.

Kiyonori Kikutake came closest to solving them with his 1974 Pasadena Heights, a project I never miss an opportunity to refer to. Kikutake’s improvements were twofold. One was to elevate the building so it had a secondary entrance from the rear, and the other was the layout that stacked light/ventilation shafts when successive floor plans were flipped and stepped back. Spaces at the front of the plan have the most daylight. As with the previous Iranian and Turkish projects, there’s still public access at the front but now, instead of a buffer zone of grass there’s a void and a bridge separating the apartment from the path.

Pasadena Heights was a potentially useful building prototype that, possibly due to its combination of excessive surface area, under-insulation and the first oil crisis, was never developed further. Some time ago, I applied Kikutake’s stacked shaft invention to a building I hoped would have enhanced climatic and land-use advantages, and with the potential to perhaps lessen the Emirati aversion to high-density living.

PROJECT X (original 2)

Apartments were mirrored and offset from those immediately below to create four-storey lightwells that lit spaces in proportion to their distance from the front of the plan. Planter boxes kept people away from the edges of their terraces and directly overlooking. I doubt there’s a better way. High walls aren’t the answer and it’s not the place for Arango House perimeter moats.


This is a study that reduces the above to its principle but doesn’t require a slope to make it work.

I don’t think it’s necessary to go the full Paul Rudolph and fetishize what’s beneath. And I also don’t think it’s necessary to mimic BIG’s Mountain Building and contrive parking to occur wherever it can between ramps that shift and an apartment structure that doesn’t. I’ll settle for a single-story loop of double-sided car parking to push the building up in the middle and limit apartment depth.

As for the apartments, I intend to adapt this next layout from a separate project I’ve been working on. Apartment access will be my biggest problem as I want to avoid long access corridors like at Mountain Building or Habitat ’67. The layouts will have to accommodate access positions that differ according to the length of apartment. I don’t know if it’s going to work. I do know it’s not going to happen this week. [first full week of fall semester]

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