Is it time to go back to sleeping on the rooftops?

There is a picture of what looks like a small dark greenhouse, or perhaps a garden shed, above the famous arched portico of the White House. The photo dates from the 1920s and actually represents an open-air sleeping structure erected ten years earlier by President William Howard Taft. The structure was perched on the roof, providing an escape from the capital’s famous summer heat, until a sunroom was built in its place in 1927.
There is something strange about this particular structure in the perfection of the Palladian architecture of the presidential house, but it was simply the embodiment of early 20th century outdoor sleeping forms. The sleeping porch, or portico, and outdoor bedroom became an almost ubiquitous feature of early modernity, in response to the tuberculosis outbreak in overcrowded cities, which, presumably, would mitigate fresh air. This structure was revived during the “Spanish” flu epidemic after the First World War.
Even back then, it wasn’t a new trend. My mother told me about the summers in Baghdad when her whole family would go up on their flat roof to sleep in the open, following a centuries-old tradition.
The flat roofs of cities in the Middle East and Asia formed another layer of local urban life. From Cairo to Kolkata in India, it is still common to see people sleeping on roofs day and night.
The balconies of 19th century American homes in the southern states were often furnished as bedrooms, complete with rows of beds for the whole family. Even in mid-20th century New York, it was common to look down from skyscrapers onto the flat roofs of sleepers.
It seems that with the earth warming faster than we thought, it may be time for this historic sleep pattern to return. But the widespread adoption of air conditioning in the 20th century led wealthier homeowners in hot climates to rely on technology to make their interiors livable, rather than adapting their lifestyle or architecture to the climate.
At its core, modern architecture was a desire to overcome the bleak and disturbing conditions of a city ravaged by tuberculosis in the 19th century. In the 20th century, villas and apartments were caricatured as sanatoriums, with white tiled walls, tubular steel furniture and sunny balconies.
Take for example the Villa A-1027 designed by Eileen Gray in France (1926 to 1929) or the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles designed by Richard Neutra (in 1927 to 1929). Both feature extensive networks of balconies and sunrooms, and Lovell Health’s home has outdoor sleeping balconies.
Rudolf Schindler, a Viennese architect and a contemporary of architect Neutra, designed a house named after him in West Hollywood in 1922 for himself, his wife, and another couple, the Chase family, with “sleeping baskets ” on the roof in place of bedrooms. Taking advantage of the California climate, this was modern sleep at its peak.
Modernists were not the only ones to embrace outdoor sleeping in the global north. Nature-loving, anti-industrial engineers in Britain and the United States were also steeped in dreams of the outdoors. In the unexpected setting of Letchworth Garden City, garden city pioneers Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker designed Crappy Corner and Linside House in 1904. When Parker moved into the house, he added a “sleeping tower,” an upper porch that he used as a house. open plan bedroom.
In the warmer climes of Pasadena around the same time, the Green & Green Company was building the beautiful Gumble House (perhaps famously in Back to Future where Emmett Brown’s character was).
This low-rise residence has two balconies for each of the three bedrooms. Architect Irving Gill’s simpler homes—primitive modernist white cubes saturated with vernacular and classical Greek architecture and brick houses—also included outdoor sleeping areas. His Meltmore House, built in 1911 and not far from the Gumble House, had sleeping arcades, like many of Gill’s designs.
Other proponents of American Arts and Crafts, notably Purcell & Elmsley and engineer Bernard Maybeck, added sleeping balconies to their homes, mostly on the upper floors to better blow the cool breeze.
The exterior bedroom, which can be opened, continued the high modernist and then mid-century modernist movement. At Albert Fry’s residence, Fry House 2 in Palm Springs, bedroom walls have been replaced with sliding glass doors and bright yellow curtains that flutter in the desert breeze.
In the flexible indoor/outdoor sleeping space of Fry’s house, the flow of curtains deliberately contrasted with the imaginary mass of rocks that rushed into the room from the other side, and rather than exclude it, the architect made it a benefited.
Curtains made a comeback in 1995 in the home of architect Shigeru Ban, Curtin Wall House, in Tokyo, exploiting the inflexibility of the glass curtain wall, the most unique and characteristic feature of the modernist movement.
The deep balconies have white curtains draped around them to create an indoor/outdoor sleeping space, while offering privacy not far from the seclusion of the Frey Desert Residence in a very urban setting.
On the edge of another desert, Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy designed residences in a mix of modern and folk forms, using concrete to replace the mud in the white court-style houses of the historic Arab city. The houses were for the middle class and the poor, with verandas as outdoor rooms, complemented by fireplaces, sofas and canopies.
These are some of the coolest homes and housing designs of the modern era. But just over a century ago, sleeping outdoors was the norm. American house type catalogs feature sleeping porches around colonial style homes. From Sydney to Singapore, sleeping balconies, rooftops and outdoor sleeping areas were almost essential, only negatively affected by the arrival of air conditioners.
At the beginning of the 20th century, before air conditioning, outdoor beds were commercialized in a series of technological innovations. California Fresh Air Bed ads appeared. Founded by William Young Kinleyside in San Francisco, the company built a space-saving bed that was half bay window and half nook. With a top that can be folded (like a roll lid in a bread box), users can be in an indoor/outdoor space, where the bed juts out from the exterior wall with a mesh curtain that allows fresh air to flow in while insects are kept. out. But Kenliside was a fraud, and the company was not as successful as it could have been.
Baby cages, on the other hand, are becoming a hit. In the wire cages hung from the city windows was a baby in a cot, who seemed to be sleeping in the fresh air. When photographed against a background of skyscrapers, traffic and soot-stained walls, cages look very noisy. Then it was replaced by the first generation of air conditioning units.
While baby cages are no longer a common sight in New York, railings still exist. Most were built by Orthodox Jewish families, and are temporary sleeping structures either on existing balconies or nailed to buildings. Its roofs, made of sumac, reeds or palm fronds, evoke desert life – a reminder in Brooklyn that sleeping outside is common in the Middle East.
Sleeping outdoors was a historical response to both illness and hot weather. And here we are again, living in fear of an airborne respiratory disease and having to adapt to extreme changes in climate. Air conditioners have encouraged us to live in less sustainable places, but responses to global warming can no longer be technological and just energy. We must of course use whatever breeze is blowing in the most efficient way.
But despite efforts to revive the concept, few architects are designing homes with outdoor sleeping areas. Fernau + Hartmann of Berkeley is one of these architects, building somewhat agricultural/industrial homes in vernacular styles and traditions while remaining contemporary in design.
Australian architect Glenn Murcutt has been doing something similar for decades, using semi-agricultural architectural materials (zinc sheet, longboard, galvanized steel) to create indoor/outdoor spaces amidst the landscape.
Sleeping outside is not always easy. Mosquitoes, noise, security, comfort, privacy, inclement weather: every space raises a host of issues. However, many of them hardly differ from the effect of opening a window. Each of them can be addressed, mostly with low-tech means: safety nets, stands on upper floors, curtains, etc.
It will not be to everyone’s taste, but the option of summer rooms (outdoors often with glass doors and windows to let in daylight) or an elevated place in the house for warm nights is an element of early ecological architecture that certainly worth reconsidering.

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