Up on the Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces


Author: Alex MacLean (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012)

Up on the Roof is a playful photographic exploration of a secret world that exists high above street level, a world that floats above the sidewalks and busy streets of New York City. In this book, well-known photographer Alex MacLean explores hidden roof top activities of North America’s densest city. Patios, pools, green roofs, painted asphalt, cheap plastic lawn furniture, graffiti, and martini bars all have their place in Manhattan’s busy skyline.

MacLean describes the roof of a building as the “fifth façade” a part of the building that can be as “purposeful and beautiful as any other surface.” His photographic journey is intriguing and voyeuristic, it is a blur between public and private and it offers a playful glimpse into a world that of us few get to see.

Within the book, MacLean organizes his images into seven sections: multi-use, places of rest, collective use, iconic/observational, energy, green food and oddities. Each category has a brief description and a series of full-page images taken from a helicopter flying overhead. The address and names of the buildings accompany each image and, although most of the rooftops are closed to the public, MacLean’s decision to include a map of with the site’s information seems to expose the secrecy of the roofs.

Since 2007, rooftop conversions have been happening more frequently in New York City, as a part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative. At the most basic level, black asphalt roofs are being painted white to lessen the amount of heat absorbed from the sun and to cut down on energy costs. As MacLean puts it, painting a roof white is “a small change at the individual level that can collectively change the comfort level of the entire city.”

On residential buildings, renters and homeowners are creating small rooftop vegetable gardens, and in more affluent neighbourhoods, hotels and condo buildings are building private rooftop restaurants with smooth hardwood decking and lush landscaping.

MacLean also photographs hundreds of solar panels that are spreading throughout the city. Row upon row of photovoltaic systems create a beautiful grid of thin white lines and deep blueish-black rectangles. Although the amount of energy being produced relative to the amount being used in the tower skyscrapers is questionable, MacLean points out the importance of the solar panels as a first step: “while solar collectors on skyscrapers could be construed as tokenism or greenwashing, I like to think they represent incremental change.”

MacLean’s playful eye captures all spectrums of activities: topless sunbathers, diners, tourists waving at the camera, children, nine-to-fivers – most of whom are seemingly unsuspecting, and all of whom are captured on film. The rooftop conversions vary from old to new, organized decks to messy splatters of artwork and graffiti.

The images woven together on over these 200 pages have an Italo Calvino quality to them. Like a magical story in Invisible Cities, the rooftop world seems to exist as a separate entity from the rest of New York, where occupants can move at a different pace, perched in a bubble, protected from the chaos below.


Ellen Ziegler is currently completing a Masters in Advanced Studies in Architecture at the University of British Columbia.