When we talk about a great rooftop space, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A green roof with a comfortable dining area? A crowded bar? Or, a swimming pool with great city views? Think outside the sandbox: Two rooftop playgrounds show that there are many creative ways to utilize the roof spaces, and with nearly unlimited imagination.
Housed in the 10-story, 600,000-square foot former International Shoe Company, the sprawling City Museum, in St. Louis, contains quite possibly the ultimate urban playground. The first time I visited was on a hot summer day, in July. But even the heat couldn’t stop people coming to this unique place. The building itself is fulfilled with wonderful adventures such as slides and tunnels that go from floor to floor. The most popular part of the museum, however, is the rooftop area, which was filled with children of different ages climbing, laughing, and screaming. The rooftop playground was developed vertically, with a sky-high jungle gym making use of two repurposed airplanes, multi-floor slides, a 30-foot-high Ferris wheel, and a cantilevered school bus that juts out beyond the roof’s edge. Making full use of the space above at different heights, and also considering spaces around the rooftop area, offers a totally new way to play, and to see the city.
Although the City Museum in St. Louis is a great example of an urban rooftop playground, a 30-foot-high Ferris wheel is not always possible on other rooftop spaces, and not always necessary either. Another example of playground, in Tiantai County, China, presents an option for how a rooftop playground can help improve students’ lives when schools in cities have been surrounded by high-rise buildings, with the activity space for children becoming smaller and smaller.
In September of 2014, this elementary school’s rooftop oval athletic track officially opened, with students running and playing on the elevated space for the first time. This running track fulfills the educational activity needs of 1,600 to 1,800 students. The design represented China in the 14th Architectural Biennale in Venice. Critics insist that design like this cannot offer the students a real functional playground site because a rooftop playground does not provide a safe place during an emergency situation. Nonetheless, compared to a concrete rooftop with no amenities, this rooftop playground brings many health benefits and joy to students studying there.
These two cases are very different: one is artistic and whimsical, while the other is a simple, highly functional design. And both create new possibilities for the utilization of rooftop spaces in urban environments. With imagination leading the design process, more rooftop playgrounds may show up in the future, contributing to the vitality of urban neighborhoods.
Miao Yu is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio. Photo of MonstroCity by Patrick Giblan.