Up on the roof: Ignatius Low says view from the top is good for the soul

Spending time on a rooftop can be therapy for the soul

In an episode in the second season of the HBO television series Girls, one of the show's leading characters Marnie gets into a catfight with Audrey, the headband-sporting new girlfriend of her long-time college boyfriend Charlie.

It happens during a particularly ill- advised dinner party thrown by Marnie's drama-craving friend Hannah. After a big shouting match at the dinner table, Marnie storms off and goes up to the roof of Hannah's apartment building.

Shortly after, Charlie follows her and apologises for his new girlfriend's behaviour.

"She's insecure. You were a big part of my life and no one knows me better than you do, and that's a very big spot to fill," he says.

Against the bright lights of the New York City skyline, Marnie finally explodes in a rare moment of honesty, coming clean about how she has struggled to get her messed-up life back in order after her breakup with Charlie.

"I don't know what I want; I don't know what the next week of my life will be like," she says.

"Sometimes I wish someone would tell me this is how you should live your life; this is how the rest of your days should look."

There is a pause, and Charlie leans in to kiss her.

I watch Girls for many reasons. The script is sharp and funny and the characters give me a genuine insight into what young people these days think and feel.

But it also reminds me how painful and awkward it was, at times, to grow up and mature into an adult and the rooftop scene, in particular, brought me back to my days in junior college, where I would sneak up onto the roof of the building.

Often, I would go up there with my then-girlfriend J. If it was an overcast and cool day, we would bring up our books and a stuffed toy doggy we named Patches and just study there.

On other occasions, J. or I might have been angry at someone or over something that happened. Alone on the roof, we would talk, have a good cry and even pray over it (I was a practising Christian then). Somehow when we descended the stairladder to go back to our hectic school lives, things would always seem better.

One day, late in the afternoon when classes had ended, I had my first kiss there. I remember J. and I ducking down beneath the parapet to do it, worried that people on the ground could see us.

It was ironic that the roof of the college was such a barren environment of grey concrete and zinc sheets for I spent so many magical hours there.

The best moments were when a group of us were together, gossiping about our teachers and classmates and ruminating about the future - applying for a scholarship and going to university, perhaps in a foreign land.

We looked forward to meeting someone that we could love and would love us back. We wondered what it would be like to start work, get married and bring up children who would one day become new and improved versions of us.

As we talked, the sun would slowly set, igniting the HDB blocks of Bukit Batok in magnificent orange and yellow. Then, as it got dangerously dark, we would, one by one, climb down from the roof and go for dinner together at the nearby coffee shop.

I thought about those magical moments again when the story broke earlier this month of five teenagers caught vandalising the roof of a 23-storey HDB block in Toa Payoh.

As always, these incidents are accompanied by much angst: How they could have gone up there? What happened to all the security measures we are supposed to have in place?

These security measures were in fact tightened after a dead body was found in 2011 floating in one of the water tanks atop a HDB block in Woodlands. No one was to be allowed on roofs of buildings without explicit permission and the right security clearance.

In fact, security became so tight that mobile phone connectivity became affected. Telecoms companies complained their workers were not getting quick enough access to install and maintain base stations on the roof.

Since those halcyon days in the late 1980s, I have never again set foot on a rooftop. I find this such a pity. If I had my way, I would open up the rooftops of all residential buildings in Singapore for free access, at least to the people living in them.

Okay, I might not make it as easily accessible as having a lift stop there (where's the fun in that?). But a resident who was single-minded enough should be able to climb a ladder, open a hatch or push through a heavily reinforced door and temporarily enter a different world.

Of course, all the essential infrastructure on the roof, such as water tanks and base stations, will have to be secured under lock and key.

But the vast open concrete spaces, the verandahs that line the roof edges, the little stairways that bring you even up to even higher vantage points - all these should be free for anyone to explore.

In our increasingly built up urban environment, there are fewer and fewer spaces left on the ground, and in our offices and homes, for people to enjoy moments of true privacy and tranquillity.

If you have been on a rooftop like I have, you will know that its empty, almost desolate landscape frees the mind of distractions. The aerial view of the world that you have left behind down below inspires a kind of self-awareness and puts most personal problems into healthy perspective.

You could even call it instant therapy for the soul, without the need to fly thousands of miles and trek to some mountain peak.

Of course, a magical spell on the roof of a building cannot solve everything in life.

In that episode of Girls, Marnie pulls away just as Charlie starts to kiss her. She is just one of those girls who wants something so badly, but only up to the moment that she gets it.

She tells Charlie she is going out with an artist, Booth Jonathan.

"That little Ewok in capri pants?" he shouts, incredulous.

"He's a brilliant artist," she retorts. "And he's average height!"

But it is too late. Charlie storms down the stairs back to the apartment, leaving Marnie to look blankly out at the crowded city and ponder her next move.


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