My view goes down from the sky to the ground. It is the bird’s eye view on a city. I am standing on one of these “skydecks”, which every larger city has to offer nowadays. But I am less interested in surrounding skyscrapers, the bustling street life, or the sunset scene. I am searching for these small hideouts on top of (residential) buildings: rooftops – an urban refugium between function and lifestyle.
Technically every building has a rooftop. However, most often these rooftops are concrete, blank, and desperate. Power distributor boxes are standing next to water tanks and satellite dishes. Except for rebellious youth, the janitor is often the only person who can get up to the rooftop – but primarily to fix technical problems and not to enjoy the view or any other amenities. On the other hand, there are rooftops which were put to use by architects and/or residents. These rooftops can be very useful for simple things such as hanging the laundry or beating the dust out of carpets (people are still doing that!?). On a more elaborated level, rooftops can be for sunbathing and barbecues. A very different way of use is, however, a rooftop that is only accessible through a particular unit of a building. At that point, the difference to the previous uses becomes more distinct.
While they may not be many in number, rooftop units have been/become the ultimate expression of urban lifestyle – in previous years more broadly in big cities in the Global South. What I have described as vertical gentrification in another article (here) is accentuated in the case of exclusive, luxury rooftop apartments. These rooftops can still perform many roles for functional uses, but I would assume that most of their tenants/owners choose these rooftop apartments for reasons of amenities and representation.
And indeed: Rooftops with plants and flowers, a pond or a pool, barbecue facilities, deck chairs, and nice lighting design can provide plenty of amenities, which are less easily available in highly urbanized, high-density cities – particularly in the Global South (e.g. Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Bangkok in Thailand, and Mumbai in India). Eventually, it often does not make much difference concerning equality aspects if such high-quality rooftops are accessible to only one unit or the whole building, as these apartment complexes for themselves are already only accessible to a limited, privileged class of people.
Even though there is this inequality feature embedded in these fashioned rooftops, they are still an advantage to the urban fabric: Through natural greening, they can reduce the heat island effect, absorb rain and ideally channel it into the building’s water system; they can improve the architectural appearance of the neighborhood, and: get tenants out of their apartments to let them enjoy the wind, sun, rain, or view upon their city.
It would be great if similar rooftops would be planned more often also for lower-class residential buildings. In the end, these rooftops can be interpreted as a private-sector response to a lack of amenities provided by the public or the city in general (with private developers possibly being both, the cause and the solution of the problem). If the urban fabric on the ground has been dedicated to the built environment – with little space left for pedestrian walkway greening, public parks, or window-board plants and flowers, rooftops can be one of the last refugia in otherwise less livable cities. In that sense, does the rooftop embody a space of liberty, which people might have sought in cities, but which they would have idealistically found in the countryside?