Earth Day

Earth Day 2012: New York Rooftop Photos by Alex MacLean

From a helicopter above Manhattan, Alex MacLean photographs stunning and surprising rooftops. By Rachel Small.

Alex S. MacLean

If you recently spotted a man with a camera hovering in a helicopter over your New York apartment, please do not fret. It was very likely photographer Alex MacLean, and he is sorry if he disturbed you. There is a good chance he was admiring your roof—perhaps it is covered in greenery, odd art, or pinnacled with a “classic New York” water tower, a feature of which he is particularly fond.

The upcoming book Up on the Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces compiles MacLean’s photographs of the “fifth facade” of New York City, his term for hidden rooftops floating above gridded streets. After a 30-year career shooting mostly rural areas from afar, a close aerial view of New York provided a different experience for him: sparkling pools appear to border sidewalks that bustle many stories below, yet the people of each realm remain oblivious to the others’ existence. (MacLean did not always remain inconspicuous, though—he recalls a photograph of the Standard Hotel, which he later magnified to discover a man flipping him off.)

The flights took place over a year and a half, from July 2010 to November 2011. During his earlier trips, MacLean discovered some areas served as communal spaces, while most were comprised of mechanical systems. To MacLean, the most beautiful sights were the rooftop gardens, secret Edens suspended above congested streets.

In a recent interview, the photographer is quick to mention that besides looking pretty, the plants help filter the air. He also noticed light and dark asphalt roofs become painted white over the course of the shooting, a move encouraged by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as part of PlaNYC 2030, the administration’s attempt to reduce carbon emissions in the coming decades. The white paint not only reduces air-conditioning costs, but as it reflects back sunlight it may reduce the city’s temperature by up to six degrees. As the months passed, solar panels, too, proliferated beneath his helicopter.

MacLean reveals an ulterior motive for the stunning panoramas: he hopes to expose the potential of rooftops, both to work toward greener living habits and to “put a positive spin on things that can be done to make urbanism more livable.” In the breathtaking, dreamy manner that MacLean captures New York from the sky, rife with everything from playgrounds to hydroponic farms, the future looks bright indeed.