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The Sixth Wall

Photo by Emily Lesk, Marcela Delgado
Is the rooftop wasted space?

Architects and designers with a sustainability focus are increasingly looking at the roof as more than simply a covering for a building. The most salient aspect of a roof -- that it faces the sky, generally unimpeded by other structures -- triggers the most commonplace reconsiderations of the roof. Green roofs, white roofs, solar power roofs... all meant to take advantage of (or, at least, respond to) the roof's role as the face our buildings show the Sun.

But there could be more to the rooftop than this. Four interns at the San Francisco-based design firm McCall Design Group took the summer to embark on a study -- part urban anthropology, part design brainstorm, part philosophy -- of the roof, in particular the ways in which urban rooftops could have a greater role in our material environment than simply holding places for antennas and HVAC units. Calling themselves the "Groundless Interns," the four (Emily Lesk, Marcela Delgado, Javier Galindo and Jeremy Dworken) explored different ideas for reimagining the roof, putting their evolving concepts down online in a weblog. This weekend's San Francisco Chronicle looks at what they've accomplished.

The self-proclaimed "groundless interns" emerged from the exercise with a roster of proposed interventions that included putting the space to use for advertising, water collection and even sports.

Then, just in case anyone doubted how really smart they are, they concluded with their "what ifs": "What if stadiums were in the sky ... what if Alice Waters began championing 'rooftop organic' ... what if the 'painter of rooftops' put Thomas Kinkade out of business ... what if the rooftops were used as a wind farm ... what if the rooftops were the modern-day form of the stocks ... what if gangs fought each other to control the rooftops ... what if there were fishing ponds on rooftops, accessible to all, without the hassle of planning a big fishing trip?"

Even if some of the "what ifs" seem a bit, well, silly, many of the ideas they explore in their blog show real insight into the role that external spaces play in urban culture. The question of advertising, for example, was a clear point of struggle for the group. While some looked at the ways in which rooftop ads might be structured to fit the demographics of the people who would be looking from different heights, others argued for rooftops as sanctuaries from advertising, going so far as to explore how to construct an urban "treeline" to blot out ads or even ways to place ads on the sides of buildings that would be recognizable from the ground but visual gibberish from above.

The question underlying their efforts is a good one. The rooftop covers the same footprint as the building upon which is sits, so why is that area so often ignored? This seems a legacy of an age in which all of our concerns were in front of us; our lives no longer have that simplicity. We need to pay attention to the world in a much more expansive way. The roof is the best location for solar power, wind microturbines, and water catchment, as well as for static environmental sensors and monitors. Rooftops -- whether the flat roofs common in the city or the canted roofs found in residential suburbs -- could serve as the explicit intermediary between the resident and the environment.

(Via Inhabitat)

Comments (3)


"This seems a legacy of an age in which all of our concerns were in front of us; our lives no longer have that simplicity. We need to pay attention to the world in a much more expansive way."

Nicely stated.

Roofs are such wasted space. I say convert them all to rooftop pools, gardens, and bars. Or at least make them living green roofs that will help cool cities, slow rainwater runoff, and give those of us on the top floor more to look at than or neighbour's black boring roofs.

If you're going to put all that cool stuff on the rooftop, please make the building's elevator go up there. Wheelchairs do not climb stairs! :-)


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