Great Photos of NYC Rooftops

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2012 12:01 AM

Oh My, That’s Not What I Thought You Had Up There

Alex MacLean’s Up on the Roof peeks in on NYC’s most mysterious (and underutilized) spaces.

Roof Launcher 2

There are few lines in New York City more powerful than “Come check out my roof.” The promise of a rooftop viewing prolongs mediocre dates, ensures attendance at impromptu parties, and solidifies connections among neighbors who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with one another. (“Shall we have a beer on the roof?” “Why not!”)

Even an unfinished, borderline dangerous rooftop can dramatically alter one’s life in positive ways, connecting a claustrophobic ( “cozy!”) studio apartment to a sphere of possibilities accessible only to richer neighbors: gardening, sunbathing, hosting dinner parties, smoking-without-suffocation, flirting with a view, adequate AT&T reception.

The only thing better than possessing one’s own roof is visiting a neighbor’s roof. Because ultimately we all are desperate to know: What’s up there?! This is precisely why Alex MacLean’s Up on the Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces is utterly addicting. It answers this question for 183 buildings across the city, many of which we are not likely to garner an invite to. (The mini-forest on Bette Midler’s Upper East Side 3,100-square-foot rooftop space, for example, or 77 Water Street, with its model of a World War I British fighter plane. ) Often what’s up there is not what we’d expect from below: Playgrounds, pools, beautifully landscaped gardens, and messages to aliens above pop up in surprising places throughout the city.

MacLean, a pilot and photographer, has long been known for his incredible aerial photographs. For this project, he flew low around the city in a helicopter, making his way around skyscrapers and wires. (Someone else was piloting, don’t worry.) Occasionally you can sense that people know he is there, as when a beer drinker waves from atop the Standard.  Other times, people don’t know or don’t care: A topless sunbather seems unperturbed, and a bride chats up her guests, immune to yet another photographer.

White Roof
Light colored roofs, such as these in Chelsea, help cool the city.

Alex S. MacLean

Roofscape makes up “about one-third of the impermeable surfaces of Manhattan,” the introduction by architectural critic Robert Campbell explains, referring to surfaces that don’t let water through at all, like streets and parking lots. (A park, on the other hand, is permeable.) In the text between each section, MacLean builds the case for thinking more strategically about rooftop spaces. White roofs help cool the city, while dark roofs collectively raise the ambient temperature of the city by as much as 6 degrees. Roof gardens provide a host of environmental and community benefits. So why aren’t there more?

Up on the Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces
Up on the Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces
by Alex MacLean
Princeton Architectural Press

MacLean’s work often draws its power from the way he discovers patterns on the earth’s surface, capturing monumental forms hidden in everyday places—the beach, a field of ice, a housing complex. Perhaps because MacLean is making such an effort to get up close and show us the context for these roofs(the side of the building or the street below), we get less of his mind-blowing sense of composition in Up on the Roof.  Stunning shapes are replaced by a kind of benign voyeurism. Still, the photos will inspire city-dwellers to reconsider how they’re using the space above their heads. And that, perhaps, is MacLean’s point.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?