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Ten of the world’s most incredible rooftops

A new book celebrates amazing urban spaces in the sky. Fiona Macdonald picks out ten projects that have helped transform cities across the globe.

Museum of Modern Art Roof Garden, New York, by Ken Smith (2005) (Credit: Credit: Peter Mauss/ESTO)

Museum of Modern Art Roof Garden, New York, by Ken Smith (2005)

“From the strategic high placement of ancient fortresses to the more studied gardens of Le Nôtre – laying out a seemingly endless view of the king’s domain – a view, and thus a high place, has been reserved to those who rule,” writes Philip Jodidio in the introduction of Taschen’s new book Rooftops: Islands in the Sky. Yet despite its height, the urban rooftop has often been neglected. Jodidio points out that in New York, museums such as the Guggenheim by Frank Lloyd Wright or the original Whitney Museum of American Art by Marcel Breuer did not make full use of their rooftop spaces. That is now changing: Renzo Piano’s new Whitney has several outdoor terraces open to the public, and the Museum of Modern Art features a roof garden, though this was designed purely to improve the views from neighbouring buildings. “It cannot be visited or even seen by museumgoers”, says Jodidio. Created on top of MoMA’s extension by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the space appears like an oasis of nature from above, and yet in the tradition of a Japanese ‘dry’ garden, it contains no plants. Inspired by military camouflage, Smith used plastic rocks, crushed glass, recycled rubber mulch and roof ballast to sculpt artificial nature high above the streets. (Credit: Peter Mauss/ESTO)

Guzman Penthouse, New York, by LOT-EK (1996) (Credit: Credit: Paul Warcol)

Guzman Penthouse, New York, by LOT-EK (1996)

According to Jodidio, “rooftops have become a prime site for urban renovation and development… beyond the phenomena of excessively high and expensive aeries in the sky”. While the penthouse is prized real estate, some spaces have been overlooked. “The attraction of the roof is double: views are of course best, but so, too, urban rooftops have often been neglected and space in these locations can more easily be found and at a lower price than on the ground, where density rules.” New structures can take the form of houses added to the top of existing buildings, such as Shigeru Ban’s Cast Iron House, restoring an 1881 building designed in the “Italianate cast-iron” style. At the other end of the scale, this penthouse in the shadow of the Empire State Building was created from a truck container. Inserted into a typical older New York roofscape with a water tank, the modest house includes a compact bedroom beneath a patio – with a bed that moves in and out of the wardrobe on tracks. Windows are made out of refrigerators and newspaper dispensers, and an internal steel ladder connects the bedroom to the living room. (Credit: Paul Warcol)

Fichtebunker, Berlin, by Verde Gartengestaltung (2008-9) (Credit: Credit: Cordia Schlegelmilch)

Fichtebunker, Berlin, by Verde Gartengestaltung (2008-9)

Some projects absorb themselves into the original structure. Built in 1876 as a gasholder to supply the lanterns of Berlin, and converted into an air-raid shelter during World War II, the Fichtebunker is the only surviving structure of its type in Berlin. The steel dome of the structure inspired the radial design of 13 new apartments and gardens built into the roof. “Clearly most older urban rooftops are neglected – the sort of ‘junk space’ that Rem Koolhaas has written about,” says Jodidio. “But a combination of rising urban density, high land and construction costs, and interest in ecology have promoted and encouraged the use of areas, even when they are not visible from the ground.” (Credit: Cordia Schlegelmilch)

Diane von Furstenberg Studio HQ, New York, by WORK Architecture Company (2005-7) (Credit: Credit: Elizabeth Felicella)

Diane von Furstenberg Studio HQ, New York, by WORK Architecture Company (2005-7)

Other rooftop structures are a marked contrast to the building beneath. Praised by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission as a “new model of adaptive reuse for the city”, this space is much more than a penthouse, including a store, showroom, and offices alongside an upper-level residence. With a diamond shape jutting above the pair of restored Victorian brick buildings, it doesn’t attempt to blend in with what’s below. The architects, “sought with their rooftop protrusion to convince the very conservative officials in charge of the historic district that it was necessary to signal the new function of the Diane von Furstenberg buildings,” argues Jodidio. He believes that “they succeeded, especially when lit at night it acts as a beacon in the district”. (Credit: Elizabeth Felicella)

Central Park West, New York, by Gunn Landscape Architecture (2012-13) (Credit: Credit: Donna Dotan Photography)

Central Park West, New York, by Gunn Landscape Architecture (2012-13)

Running along Central Park on New York’s Upper West Side, this terrace continues the greenery onto the rooftop. Contrasting with MoMA’s roof garden, which is designed to be seen from above, the oasis here offers a space for privacy. As Jodidio points out, a rooftop can also be “a hideaway, a place to be in the city while remaining discreet, or even invisible”; an eastern redbud tree provides shade as well as protection against being overlooked. It’s also part of a trend towards lifting nature into the sky. “Rooftop spaces are increasingly being used in urban environments to generate extra green areas, far above the ground,” writes Jodidio. Towers “have succumbed to the fashion of sky gardens.” For example, the French architect Jean Nouvel has collaborated with the botanist Patrick Blanc hor his One Central Park towers in Sydney, incorporating vertical gardens made up of hydroponic walls. (Credit: Donna Dotan Photography)

CapitaGreen, Singapore, by Toyo Ito (2012-14) (Credit: Credit: Kai Nakamura)

CapitaGreen, Singapore, by Toyo Ito (2012-14)

“Plants contribute to energy savings and also to a general feeling of well-being,” in both office spaces and residential buildings, says Jodidio. In Singapore’s business district, this 245m-high (800ft) tower has a ‘green façade’ – made up of plants – covering more than half of the building’s surface. The roof-top Sky Forest has 40 different kinds of tree and shrub, and includes a 45m-high (150ft) Wind Catcher that captures cool fresh air and distributes it to every office floor via a ‘cool void’ cutting vertically through the tower. According to Jodidio, green rooftops offer a means of saving energy that wasn’t acknowledged in the past. “It seems apparent that one of the most widespread new uses of rooftops is to reduce heat gain or loss,” he says. “It suffices to look at older skyscrapers anywhere in the world to be convinced that rooftop open spaces and, even more so, greenery were extremely rare above ground level.” (Credit: Kai Nakamura)

Vertical Forest, Milan, by Stefano Boeri (2008-14) (Credit: Credit: Laura Cionci)

Vertical Forest, Milan, by Stefano Boeri (2008-14)

The architects describe their Vertical Forest as “a tower for trees inhabited by humans… a project for metropolitan reforestation”. With 800 trees and 5,000 shrubs, which they call “ecology billboards”, the towers equal an area of 7,000 sq m (75,350 sq ft) of forest on flat land. “Given their usefulness in creating a heat shield, rooftop gardens are likely to become more and more frequent in contemporary architecture,” says Jodidio. Part of a broader urban renovation project in Milan, the towers were designed for a total of 460 inhabitants, but also 1,600 birds and butterflies. With foliage changing colour throughout the year, and gardens at every level, it’s a dramatic addition to the urban roofscape. (Credit: Laura Cionci)

Hedonistic Rooftop Penthouses, Copenhagen, by JDS Architects (2011) (Credit: Credit: Julien Lanoo)

Hedonistic Rooftop Penthouses, Copenhagen, by JDS Architects (2011)

Tasked with adding three penthouses to a densely populated area of Copenhagen, the Brussels architects JDS re-imagined the rooftop. With a lack of courtyard space, they came up with what they call a “missing garden” – taking the form of a sky-high playground, with shock-absorbing surfaces, a grassy hill, a suspension bridge and an outdoor kitchen. They quote Le Corbusier’s manifesto Five Points of Architecture, with the fifth being the roof garden, which they describe as “restoring the area of the ground covered by the house”. As they explain, “usually a roof defines a final measure of any construction. We imagine cities where people will be the last measure of the environment.” (Credit: Julien Lanoo)

House K, Nishinomiya, by Sou Fujimoto (2011-12) (Credit: Credit: Iwan Baan)

House K, Nishinomiya, by Sou Fujimoto (2011-12)

“Tokyo is a city that can only begin to be understood from a high vantage point,” writes Jodidio. “The rooftop becomes a way to better understand the seeming chaos of the city itself.” He argues that “it might be expected that Japan, with its very densely populated cities, would be the location of many interesting rooftop projects. The fact is that aside from numerous golf driving ranges set on top of buildings, gardens and outdoor spaces are relatively rare in Tokyo… where tiny spaces and very small footprints are the rule”. In an area between Osaka and Kobe, Sou Fujimoto has managed to squeeze a roof garden onto a house with a floor area of just 118 sq m (1,270 sq ft). A diagonal slope is dotted with plants and seating, so that the slanted roof becomes another part of the usable area of the house. According to Jodidio, “The codified or circumspect way that Fujimoto brings nature into his composition in the form of potted trees is a quite specific Japanese notion, where artificiality and nature coincide or cross through each other.” (Credit: Iwan Baan)

Penthouse Gardens, New York, by HM White (2011-12) (Credit: Credit: Nikolas Koenig Photography/HM White/Steve E Blatz Architect and Antonio Pio Saracino)

Penthouse Gardens, New York, by HM White (2011-12)

This project creates a landscape that appears to be floating on the Manhattan skyline: it won the 2014 Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture & Design American Architecture Award. The Athenaeum commented: “Up on the roof, the architects transformed barren tar and unsightly mechanical equipment into a glorious haven,” not only with lush grass but also a wildflower meadow. According to Jodidio, roof space “is being treated in a much more consequential and thought-out way than might ever have been the case in the past”. It’s now an essential part of architecture in the city. “More and more, every inch of urban space is counted and used,” he writes. “More and more, existing urban roofs will be converted to new uses, and contemporary buildings are less and less likely to be without any roof features.” What architects once thought of as “a leftover area where air-conditioning units or cell phone repeaters were hidden,” has suddenly assumed a new value. (Credit: Nikolas Koenig Photography/HM White/Steve E Blatz Architect and Antonio Pio Saracino)

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