The History of Penthouses: From the Undesirable to the Visionary Privilege
How penthouses went from being unhealthy and ugly to luxurious homes for artists and visionaries.
Spacious, ventilated and suspended above the noise of city streets, penthouse apartments are now the most desirable residences of cities. Inhabiting one of these means being elevated in the region of roofs––that privileged territory that allows one to observe the horizon and breathe in pure air; aspects we often forget we miss until we feel them again. But before existing as such, building tops were considered uninhabitable and dirty. Nobody, except for a handful of workers, would set foot in one.
The paradigm shift occurred in the 1920s in New York, after WWI, when the “emancipation of the heights” arrived as a necessary symptom for a rattled society. Until 1922, spaces directly below a building roof were contaminated with soot, debris and construction materials, and were therefore considered unrentable. They were usually used as utility or laundry rooms. Elevators, also, were still a novelty and untrustworthy to take tenants to those heights. It is no coincidence that in that same post-war decade of industrial modernism Manhattan needed jazz, the improvement of parks and a more transparent region located in those heights it had already conquered with the skyscrapers. The need for cleanliness and to experience the world in a different form led to a complete reversal in the vertical hierarchy.
Along with the rapid improvement of elevator systems, architects used the opportunity to improve the top-floor spaces of buildings: they built beautiful apartments with huge windows facing cardinal directions, with terraces interspersed with gardens that seemed to isolate all the noise and hustle and bustle of the streets down below. The summit was no longer relegated to workers and utility rooms: it was a place coveted by artists and the rich and famous alike, who before then preferred the first floor as they had access to the street and saved a flight or several up the stairs. In 1922-23, the great architect Emery Roth built the 15-story twin towers Myron Arms and Jerome Palace on Broadway and 82nd Street, and it was for these that Steven Ruttenbaum coined the term penthouse for the first time in his biography of Roth. Later, in 1925, Roth built the Ritz Tower with its numerous terraces emerging among the clouds, and this was the culminating point when New Yorkers turned their gaze toward the sky: the bele étage of the 20th century was born to, literally, expand the horizons.
For better or worse, the history of spaces is always the history of thoughts. The inspiration of heights, as the Romantics knew all too well, pervaded the imagination of city dwellers eager for air and light, and the world realized that these two elements, which were so underappreciated by architecture, had major health benefits. Likewise, the penthouse point of view meant a physical and mental detachment from the mundane noise, and therefore a beautiful change of perspective. The 1920s brought about the panoramic view as an important source of speculation: observing treetops, silent trains in the distance and the skyline of a city is enough to incite reflection. It is not for nothing that we call visionaries those far-sighted ones who have certain domain over things, who can see the future. Broadening horizons is much more than a familiar metaphor: it is a necessary act to stuff one’s eyes with light, to understand the world and to obtain cleanliness.
Pictorial spiritism (a woman's drawings guided by a spirit)
There are numerous examples in the history of self-taught artists which suggest an interrogation of that which we take for granted within the universe of art. Such was the case with figures like
Astounding fairytale illustrations from Japan
Fairy tales tribal stories— are more than childish tales. Such fictions, the characters of which inhabit our earliest memories, aren’t just literary works with an aesthetic and pleasant purpose. They
A cinematic poem and an ode to water: its rhythms, shapes and textures
Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. - John Keats Without water the equation of life, at least life as we know it, would be impossible. A growing hypothesis holds that water, including the
Watch beauty unfold through science in this "ode to a flower" (video)
The study of the microscopic is one of the richest, most aesthetic methods of understanding the world. Lucky is the scientist who, upon seeing something beautiful, is able to see all of the tiny
To invent those we love or to see them as they are? Love in two of the movies' favorite scenes
So much has been said already, of “love” that it’s difficult to add anything, much less something new. It’s possible, though, perhaps because even if you try to pass through the sieve of all our
This app allows you to find and preserve ancient typographies
Most people, even those who are far removed from the world of design, are familiar with some type of typography and its ability to transform any text, help out dyslexics or stretch an eight page paper
The secrets of the mind-body connection
For decades medical research has recognized the existence of the placebo effect — in which the assumption that a medication will help produces actual physical improvements. In addition to this, a
The sea as infinite laboratory
Much of our thinking on the shape of the world and the universe derives from the way scientists and artists have approached these topics over time. Our fascination with the mysteries of the
Sharing and collaborating - natural movements of the creative being
We might sometimes think that artistic or creative activity is, in essence, individualistic. The Genesis of Judeo-Christian tradition portrays a God whose decision to create the world is as vehement
John Malkovich becomes David Lynch (and other characters)
John Malkovich and David Lynch are, respectively, the actor and film director who’ve implicitly or explicitly addressed the issues of identity and its porous barriers through numerous projects. Now