Text by Toby Skinner / Photography: Alex Mclean
"There’s this whole city you don’t see,” says Alex MacLean, the renowned pilot-photographer who took these shots for his book, Up on the Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces. “Yet I also want to make a point about making the most of urban space. While these images make the rooftops look busy, in reality less than 10 per cent of rooftops are used.”
MacLean spent two years compiling the photos between 2009 and 2011, abandoning his usual method of shooting from his own plane. Because of strict flying regulations, most of the photographs were taken from a helicopter.
While he wants to spread the rooftop gospel, he says that New York has improved. “Before [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg, 80 per cent of the city’s roofs were black, which suck in heat. Bloomberg changed that, so that 70 per cent are now more reflective, white roofs – that’s important, as the city is seven degrees warmer than the surrounding area.” Something to ponder as you sip a cocktail and take in the view.
The Penny Lane
215 East 24th Street
Gramercy’s Penny Lane apartment building used to be an ice cream factory before it was converted into an eight-floor apartment building with an English Tudor lobby designed to resemble a London street. The penthouse units used to have their own rooftop paddle-tennis courts, but they were converted into common decks for apartment residents. It is said to have a spectacular 360-degree view of Manhattan.
29-35 9th Avenue
Expect to see the rich and fabulous at this Meatpacking offshoot of the chain of private members’ clubs, which started in London’s Soho in 1995. The 4,180m2 space includes a 44-seat cinema and super-luxe spa. You get access to it all if you book a room, from US$325 (NOK2,000) – and the first thing they tell you are the rules: no suits, no mobile phones and no photos. The last is more difficult to enforce when the photographer’s in a helicopter.
230 5th Avenue
230 Fifth, a bar-restaurant on Chelsea’s 5th Avenue, was opened by late art collector and man-about-town Steven Greenberg, the man behind the Palladium nightclub and Roxy Roller Disco – and there’s a purple-hued ’70s glamour to the place. But the main draw is the roof, which claims to be New York’s largest rooftop garden and does a decent comfort-food brunch. It’s open all year round – this winter, they introduced igloo-like inflatable bubble tents.
Rockefeller Center gardens
45 Rockefeller Plaza
The iconic Rockefeller Center on 5th Avenue was green before its time – the four roof gardens were created in the mid-1930s, designed by a famous Welsh landscape gardener, Ralph Hancock, with symmetrical designs, clipped hedges, flowerbeds and aquamarine pools. They’re usually closed to the public these days, but you can see them from the Top of the Rock observation deck. Or, if you’ve got the cash and connections, you can hire the space: Mclean photographed the rooftop when the garden was being set up for a wedding.
848 Washington Street
Anyone who’s gone out in New York’s Meatpacking district knows about its iron-clad doors – and the rooftop at über-hip hotel The Standard is legendary. Good luck if you want to try joining the beautiful people on a weekend night. You might sneak in for a sundowner, but probably the best way to reserve one
of the city’s hottest spots is to get a room – from US$210 (NOK1,270) a night.
The High Line
Lower West Side
Also in the Meatpacking district, the High Line – a former railroad spur – has become not just a vibrant hangout but a model for thoughtful urban regeneration. In this picture you can see a new breed of rooftop graffiti, in which tags are created by fire extinguishers filled with paint. The aim is not just to be seen from neighbouring buildings, but to get your art on Google Earth.