IN a city as dense as New York, escape from the confines of street and concrete may be as simple as climbing to a nearby rooftop.
In Harlem, for example, after some 15 years in the making, the Riverbank State Park opened in May as a unique example of the creative use of rooftop space.
The $129-million park sprawls over the roof of the North River Treatment Plant off Riverside Drive. Considered the only recreational facility of its kind in the world, for New York City and the Harlem community in particular it is a milestone.
"Twenty-eight acres; can you find something bigger?" asks Gaspar Santiago, the park director. At elevations from five to 69 feet above the Hudson River, the state-of-the-art recreational, athletic, and cultural center offers indoor and outdoor pools; a 400-meter running track; an indoor ice-skating rink; facilities for soccer, football, tennis, and basketball; as well as picnic tables, fountains, a greenhouse, community gardens, an amphitheater, and a waterfront restaurant. Coming soon is a carousel. The
park, open year-round, is free, though there are nominal charges for some facilities.
The concept of building a recreational area atop a sewage-treatment plant is not new. "In researching, we found that in Japan there are something like 10 parks on roofs of sewage plants, though none as elaborate as this one," says Richard Dattner of Richard Dattner & Associates, the architects who designed the park.
Kinks are still being worked out. The track, for example, is closed at the moment due to some bubbling up caused by the roof expansion joints. Complaints of offensive odors have prompted the city to invest $55 million to correct the problem. Some scoff that the park is just a pay back for putting the treatment plant here in the first place.
But public reaction has been positive. Visitation has been twice what officials expected: Average attendance has been 10,000 people a day. The first Sunday drew more than 50,000 people.
The state park is a monumental example of transforming a rooftop into an urban breathing space, but many smaller examples are treasures noticed only by those who venture upward. Gardens, landscaped terraces, and occasional swimming pools often grace New York's rooftops. Stories up, they provide unique views, create an aesthetic backdrop, or simply serve as places to get away.
New Yorkers have long loved rooftops. Just say "Tar Beach."
"Any New Yorker knows what that is - sunning yourself on the roof of your brownstone," architect Richard Hayden says. "Rooftops have been used for a long time, much more on the residential side than the commercial side."
Mr. Hayden is managing principal of Swanke Hayden Connell, the architects responsible for Trump Tower and the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, among other major architectural projects around the world. The Swanke Hayden Connell building at 4 Columbus Circle, designed by the firm, has its own modest rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of Central Park West. Although not open to the public, it is often loaned to nonprofit and other groups for private receptions. For firm members and their families,
it is the place to be for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
"It makes another added element of pleasure to city living," Hayden says, speaking generally about terraces and landscaped rooftops.
There are also practical aspects to using rooftops for the sake of aesthetics. If you have a series of low buildings surrounded by high-rise buildings, Hayden says, it's nice to look down on a lovely landscaped roof rather than on asphalt, stone, and air-conditioning units.
Rockefeller Center is a good example. Its four rooftop gardens are seven stories up - purely for people to look down on. (They are not open to the public.) According to Rockefeller Center spokesman James Reed, one of the original architects - Raymond Hood - persuaded the construction company to install rooftop landscaping. In the 1930s, the gardens served to distinguish Rockefeller Center from the competition, Mr. Reed says. Plus, they're lovely to look at.
For the ultimate aesthetic rooftop experience, visit the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Built in 1987, this is the seventh year the garden has been open to the public (May 1 to Oct. 31). Covering 10,000 square feet, the open-air garden features large sculptures set against a lovely view of Central Park's treetops and the city skyline.
The site provides not only a wonderful vista of the city, but also allows the large sculptures to "breathe" without the constraints of four walls. The current installation includes Anthony Caro's "Odalisque," Gaston Lachaise's "Standing Woman (Elevation)," Jacques Lipchitz's "Seated Bather," Donald Lipski's "The West," David Smith's "Becca," and Tony Smith's "Amaryllis." A wisteria-covered pergola offers shade to visitors and features planters with honeysuckle, pansies, and clematis. According to William
Lieberman, chairman of 20th-century art for the museum: "It's the best-keep secret in New York."