Seneca may have disapproved of them, but roof gardens are part of the poetry of urban lifeby Lesley Chamberlain / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article here
Roof terraces do redeem the city. All gardens are refuges, but a garden in the sky offers a special dispensation—the chance to still live in the frantic world without, momentarily, participating. Think of it as like living in a lighthouse: a maritime address that doesn’t entail living in the sea. Of course, we aren’t up here all the time, but at least once every day of the year it’s imperative to see the plants are not parched or swept away or frozen, which sometimes means leaving footprints in virgin frost. We inspect the state of neighbouring roofs and, in all seasons, watch the sun burn a red hole in Canary Wharf.
Discounting those with no head for heights, or who find the steep, narrow steps too much, our friends divide into those who feel sorry for us not having a “real garden” and those who would also not mind breakfasting on a battered white bench with a hassle-free 180-degree panorama of London. It’s not schadenfreude one feels for the car-bound masses occasionally speeding, mostly crawling, below, more a renewed sense of wonder that everything works so well. People get up in the morning and go home at night and the cars don’t bump into each other. Fancy that! When they do, from above their heads we can plot their angry gestures and the odd position of their vehicles like blips on a graph. The sight could be painted as an urban still life.
How high is it? A hundred feet, perhaps. Traffic fumes have dispersed by the time they get up here, where I sometimes sit with my laptop in a cardboard box to escape the glare, in conditions always a fraction colder or hotter or windier than down below. The surface isn’t tin, but when the sun shines it burns the cat’s feet. On a shadier day she’ll stay around to jabber at the occasional crow stopping over on the tv mast, or peer through the drain hole at Lilliputian passers-by. It’s not a narrow road, and there’s a generous amount of ambient space before you meet the next brick wall, but we can hear pavement conversations as if we were part of them. Chats on mobiles reach the rooftop as surely as Spiderman. But it doesn’t matter up here, because we’re free.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca disapproved of roof gardens. (How astonishing that even the Romans had roof gardens. They had a talent for urbanism, but surely they weren’t short of space.) Seneca asked: “Is it not living unnaturally to plant orchards on the top of towers, or to have a forest of trees waving in the wind on the roofs and ridges of one’s mansions, their roots spring at a height which it would have been presumptuous for their crests to reach?”
Prosaic lack of space is why so many architects and homeowners have been drawn to roof terraces in the last few decades. But once you’ve been living with such a space for twenty years you don’t think like that, because of all the other reasons you’ve discovered along the way. The view, probably what the Romans wanted, remains the obvious attraction.
Still, it’s poor philosophy, Seneca, to think that gardens have to be “natural” or even, as exemplified by Japanese minimalism, that something has to grow in them. But, as David E Cooper takes a while to say in his A Philosophy of Gardens, you have to like being in them, communing with them, giving something back to them, and it’s that worked joy which distinguishes them from any old patch of mud, or a gorgeous tree stumbled upon, or even flying low over the English countryside.
To feed our joy, however, compost has to be lugged up five flights of stairs and all rubbish down again. The broadsheet columnists annually offer recommendations for the poor roof gardener. Parching wind is the main problem, but so far we’ve resisted turning it into a sand dune. Did you know snails can climb so high and don’t mind wind at all?
Actually, gardening is like having children. They are as they are and you work with them to make the best of it for the rest of your life.
As with children, we have a gorgeous start, for old London roofs hide some of the city’s least self-conscious architectural flourishes in the way of hefty chimney pots, around which the toughest honeysuckle and clematis montana drape themselves with feminine frippery. The six terracotta pots (when many fires burned in this house, one of them allegedly warmed Orwell for three months) stand there like sentries, signalling to passengers on the London Eye and marking our boundary to the south.
It’s said that gardens should create an atmosphere, and this can be achieved by dividing the space into “rooms.” I’ve visited “show” roof gardens like that. In the end you hardly know you’re outside for all the green stuff carefully disposed horizontally and vertically.
For me, the roof terrace is not an extension of the flat. It belongs to the poetry of the city. It’s not that you can see the stars so much better from a hundred feet up, but in moments of celebration no one has a better view of a ten-mile square of fireworks and, occasionally, of real fires. And given a life with fewer and fewer hiding places and chances for privacy, who would not prefer to live with the birds?
A garden like this, full of hardy rosemary and lavender, decked out with bulbs in spring and mallows and geraniums in summer, is the literal flowering of the city; its green crown our answer to Canary Wharf’s winking pencil top. The more the relationship between the city and the good life is strained, the more we cling to redemption in a grow-bag. I’ll drink to that in the clear upper air tonight. Only one drink, though, because the steps are steep and it’s a long way to fall.
Discuss this article here