One Stray Bed on the Rooftop

On a full-moon night, the night of August 3rd, 2020, I slept en plein air for the first time. There was so much that I didn’t know or expect.

The air was cooled after it stopped raining on August 2nd, so I thought it was perfect timing for my long-waited first night on the roof. My unit is in a three-story condo, or a triple decker, typical for the city where I live. The back staircase leads to a ladder where the rooftop has always been accessible. One commonality about all triple deckers is that they are decades old. The roof is just as old as the condo. It doesn’t have any fence or parapet, so I chose to place the air mattress near the center of the roof. Always a meticulously cautious risk taker, I thought I was all prepared, but I still found so many things I didn’t expect over the night.

  1. The Set-up

I brought an air mattress, a bicycle pump (since there is no power plug on the roof), a sleeping bag, a pillow, a towel, a roll of 3M tape, a bottle of mosquito repellent and my phone up to the rooftop. The rooftop is of a funnel surface, with a drain at the center and rising towards the rims.

Since the door to the rooftop is automatically locked once it is closed, I taped a towel around the door frame to prevent it from being blown to closure.

The towel to prop the door open. Photographed in the morning.

I set up the bed near the lowest point of the roof, with my feet toward the front of the building and the street side, my head toward the back side, the trees. It caught my attention that this orientation was my instinct, and it was so strong that it didn’t allow any hesitation or internal dissent. It was relatable to our habit of orienting the foot of the bed toward doors, and resting our head against the wall opposite to the door, in our bedroom. By such an orientation, people make sure they easily see the direction with more possible environmental stimuli, rather than the direction with less. That evening, as I followed my instinct, I felt an intuitive power that doesn’t belong to me but belongs to all humans, an instinct that is universal and old.

2. The Moon

The moon was a full moon on the night I slept outdoors, like a streetlight hanging on the sky. At first, I enjoyed it. Its calm luminescence gave me a sense of security. But deep into the night, it seemed to grow brighter and brighter. I had extreme troubles falling asleep since I am sensitive to light and sound. Curious enough, it was not the moon’s fault for being too bright; it was the fact that the moon was a lot brighter than the surroundings. It was the high, disproportionate ratio of luminosity of the moon over the environment that really bothered me; if the ratio of luminosity of everything over everything else is kept close to 1, I could have a better time falling asleep. I put on an eye cover and was ready to spent the night with it, but I was wrong again.

I didn’t expect that without a shelter, a person can be so susceptible to insecure feelings. I was relaxed on the roof, but to fall asleep one needed to be at absolute relaxation, which was not easy to reach for a person who was used to sleeping in a shelter. I kept putting on and removing my eye cover. I just couldn’t stand being blinded physically en plein air when I sleep. In the end, I compromised by covering only the upper half of my eyes with the eye cover, and let myself suffer partially from the bright moon.

3. Pareidolia and the Sense of Insecurity

As fun as it sounds to sleep on the roof, I had an extremely hard time falling asleep. I am quite a sensitive person in all channels of senses, but I relied on my grits to pull through this difficult night. For instance, I heard an owl’s calls. It called every half an hour or so, for 10 minutes duration each time. Just every time as I felt a little familiarized and desensitized, the owl flew to another location to renew the stimulus, alarming my ears once again. I love owls and enjoyed hearing them, but still preferred that they could do me the favor of being quiet. Deep into the night, at a half conscious state, everything seemed alive to my sharpened senses.

The shape of the chimney fans started to look like a person. Everything started to seem animated. Even my skin felt that wind was some kind of hand caressing me. I was experiencing pareidolia, a tendency to falsely pick up animated images from the environment. Visual images were the least creepy. I was once on the border of falling asleep when the pillow towel suddenly wrapped over my whole face! It was just wind that blew it up and rolled it over my face, but I was rudely awakened to the fullest.

On a scale of 1 to 10, no matter which level of threat the stimulus actually represented, my alertness to respond to that was always a 10. But none of the above-mentioned was my most memorable takeaway from sleeping on the roof.

4. Dew

The most real experience that I gained from that night was the tactile experience of dew as the night transitioned into early morning. The Chinese word for sleeping en plein air is 露宿, which translates character by character into sleeping in dew. The character for dew also has another meaning — exposed, and I used to associate this Chinese word with sleeping exposed. But now I understand, to the next level, why it is sleeping in dew, rather than sleeping in stars, sleeping in wind, or sleeping in moonlight. As dew crawled into every crevice and onto every surface of the air mattress, the sleeping bag, the roof surface, and my possessions, I had the unprecedented, real experience with sleeping in a moisturized environment.

For a brief while, I experimented with sleeping directly on the roof surface, but had to climb back to the mattress with my skin and clothes all wet on the underside. I totally didn’t anticipate that.

Now I understand, to the fullest, why ancient Chinese people coined the word 露宿. Among the moon, the stars, the wind, the birds, pareidolia, and everything, only the dew was the most real experience of a night en plein air.

5. Morning

My sleep got terminated by sunrise. Unlike the previous night with a few clouds, the sky was clear, but the sun was below the trees. I was awakened, but I don’t remember which stimulus awakened me. It might be a few faint calls from birds, or the environmental brightness, or a combination of both. It was 5:18 am. It was my first sunrise in more than a year, and it was mesmerizing. My sleep was impaired, but the experience deepened my understanding of nature, of the environment that I feel so familiar during the day, and of myself, as an ordinary human.

My hand was dirty from touching the rooftop, and I only realized it in the morning.
My hand was dirty from touching the rooftop, and I only realized it in the morning.
The sky when I woke up was light blue from the sunrise.
The sky when I woke up was light blue from the sunrise.

I study architecture, but last night was the first time I comprehended the importance of shelter. The primitive hut, as the origin of architecture, provided human ancestors with a shelter to sleep in, protection from weather and sound, and psychological sense of security, the most important premise of a good night’s sleep.

Detection X Reflection | Blog of an architect who would have been a comparative anthropologist in a parallel world