I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be”
—Up on the Roof by the Drifters
For someone who would rather be far from the city, it surprises me how much enjoyment I get from simply looking at it, examining its contours and angles and spaces and contrasts. Most of you know about me that I’m drawn to the odd folds of the city where it seems to be keeping its history. But sometimes, just the skyline itself appears wondrous to me, even buildings I don’t particularly cherish. There’s something about the way the buildings seem to move around in relation to each other and the way light brings out the edges and faces and the way shadow gathers in corners and valleys that keeps me interested in the whole picture, all the time.
When you begin to know a city you become acquainted with particular landmarks first. Maybe the first office building you worked in, maybe a historic landmark like the Smith Tower or a cultural landmark like the Experience Music Project. The piece you know sits among pieces you know less well or not at all, so the cityscape is like a hodge-podge of known and unknown, familiar and less familiar, and yet it’s all on a huge scale, so that you can get down in it and looking at it from one place inside it gives you a different arrangement of those knowns and unknowns than you get standing somewhere else inside it, and the relationships change when you look at it from different vantage points outside it as well. It never appears the same way, even from the same spot, because then the season may be different and the light accordingly crafts each object a certain way for that day, for that weather, and even the buildings themselves are changing, new ones being added and old ones quietly being removed. More of it becomes familiar to you as you spend time in it, but you can never know it all.
For me, that shifting interplay of known and unknown is like life itself. Mara knows that the Columbia Tower is the tallest building in Seattle, but sometimes she asks me why today it’s shorter than other buildings nearby, which it isn’t, I explain, it’s just that buildings that are closer to us seem to be taller. Our eyes, then, feed us raw information that is almost useless until it can be understood through the filter of experience, sometimes through waiting, sometimes through movement and exploration and always through attention to relationships. So many things in life are like that for me, especially as I get older and I know my life better. The knowns become great or small for a time, or they become occluded, but I can trust that they are still where I know them to be; older unknowns are there in shadowy anonymous lumps like Donald Rumsfeld’s “things that we don’t know we don’t know” and new things startle me and for a while I may not have a way to harness them to the grid.
A month or so ago the building engineer for the building I work in, neither of which I will name in this post so as not to get him in trouble, gave me a key to the door that accesses the roof so that I could take some photos from up there. “Just don’t fall off”, he said. The building is a six-story red brick rectangle with a green cornice and prominent scrolled Ionic capital ornaments built from 1904 to 1905 as a warehouse for goods shipped in and out of the waterfront, which is hard by. The building looks itself like a large brick with windows in it. It was restored late in the last century, but earlier, when John Wayne made the cop movie McQ, it was an old wreck of a warehouse that the city did not mind having a police car driven into and exploding into flame against.
The building is not tall enough to enable you to look down on the surrounding buildings, but there are other places for that. It’s actually good for something else: walking around on the roof of my building puts you high enough above the streets that they disappear unless you are looking off one of the corners, while still being nestled among other buildings. And not only that, the canyons that the streets lie in compress and vanish when you look across them so that the buildings on different blocks all look as though they are coplanar, part of a single multifaceted backdrop. In this way the “hustle and bustle” part of city life — the sidewalk, that is — literally vanishes, and all you are left with is the part of the city that children draw with crayons. It’s no wonder being “up on the roof” is so often associated with safety, retreat and romance. I’m thinking of the 1962 Drifters song and Marlon Brando’s rooftop scene with Eva Marie Saint in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, and any number of other cultural classics that have to do with rooftops in the city.
Above and below are some of the photos I took up on the roof on different days. Hey, if you are — or have powers of sway over — the keyholder to a view of downtown Seattle that you think I need to see (whether a wide vista or a small nook or cranny), please let me know. I’m willing to wear a hardhat.