11/21/2012 12:28 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Up on the Roof: City Over the City

I read with interest the recent New York Times article encouraging us to look up and appreciate the changes that are taking root in our dense, built-up environment that is New York City ("To Find Fields to Farm in New York City, Just Look Up"). While the rooftop urban gardens cropping up all over our city may not be so prevalent in my direct daily line of vision, I certainly have been acutely aware for some time that rooftops are indeed perhaps the last slice of available real estate in the city -- and from the neighborhood where I stand, this market has already been tapped.

Living up high in the landmark district of SoHo, I have my own unique view over the rooftops and downtown. In the late 19th century, SoHo was known as "Hell's Hundred Acres," for its plethora of bars, brothels and generally disreputable clientele. Times have changed.

The past 20 years have resulted in scores of rooftop additions that have thoroughly changed the bulk and typology of the urban condition, as if two or three stories have been added to the entire district. These additions may not seem problematic when considered alone, but taken together, they have significantly changed the density and morphology of SoHo.

This development is particularly notable when looking at SoHo as a landmark district. Landmark districts in NYC are designated because of their cohesiveness and special character as urban environments, the general focus being on architecture, not urbanism. Among the primary responsibilities of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, beyond the identification and designation of landmark buildings and districts, is the adjudication of proposed changes to both landmark buildings and additions within landmark districts. These changes can take many different forms -- restorations, recreations, additions to buildings, new buildings, even removals of buildings. Nevertheless, the commission's focus remains on the individual projects and not on their aggregate, cumulative impact upon the districts and the city as a whole.

All buildings or additions in a district are thought of as seen only from the public way and judged primarily on their impact to the buildings or streetscapes being added to. This criterion has, in fact, permitted myriad examples of "invisible" additions, which in fact are far from hidden when seen from above the street. Furthermore, new buildings in the district use the same strategy: adopting the bulk of typical lofts up to street-wall height, then loading more program "wedding-cake" style above that, where it theoretically can't be seen and, therefore, doesn't really count, positively or negatively, toward the overall bulk.

I live in one of SoHo's rooftop additions, and have watched with great interest and occasional alarm the transformation of my neighborhood's industrial roof-scape of bulkheads and water tanks into a modernist menagerie of additions in every imaginable type of aesthetic. The days of "tar beach" are long gone.

I can see elaborate gardens, terraces, decks, even a golf green with real grass. Pavilions of wood, glass, steel and stucco abound, accessorized by umbrellas, lounge furniture, pools and bamboo forests. There's Mediterranean style, High-Tech-style, Minimalism, Ocean Liner Modernism, Arts and Crafts-style, East End Fish Shack-style, and so on.

Living up on the roof is totally different than life one floor down in the relative shelter of a loft building built for light industrial uses. It's a much more fragile existence with much more extreme wind and weather; like living in the country or at the beach. Up on the roof, you can hear songbirds and seagulls, boats in the harbor and church bells -- and are made particularly aware of rain on the roof. Life exists in the same way up here as on the street, with neighbors talking, dogs barking at each other, parties and music reminding us daily of the density of urban living, while isolating us from the sonic canyon of the masonry street downstairs, all garbage trucks and car horns.

It's interesting to think that all this is considered "invisible" from a regulatory point of view -- nothing could be farther from the truth. It's a riot of individuality and expression, totally at odds with the notion of uniformity and cohesiveness that is supposedly the making of a landmark district. This parallel universe is a city on a city (maybe more like a small town): it's been grafted onto the pre-existing one. A plan of it would look like single family houses in a neighborhood, where the plots of land are the loft building rooftops.

Has it changed SoHo? Absolutely, from the point of view of all of us who live up here. It's the upside to the downside of the gentrification that has so changed this place as to make it unlivable, the silver lining to a neighborhood under assault due the appeal of its own unique character, now almost unrecognizable.

Aerial images ©Alex S. MacLean from his new book Up on the Roof: New York's Hidden Skyline Spaces

Up on the Roof