Last night at halftime between bitter men's basketball rivals, North Carolina (No. 5) and Duke (No. 17), a prestigious Tar Heels alumni—perhaps the most famous sports alumni of all time—decided to give a speech to inspire the players and the crowd. That man was Michael Jordan, who took the opportunity to bestow sagely advise upon his fellow Tar Heels. Everyone was poised, hanging on his every word. But instead of bearing witness to some great legendary phrase, people started head-scratching as the GOAT told them with utmost sincerity, "I wish you guys nothing but the best. The ceiling is the roof. Let's make it happen."
Now, in the world of sports-sounding metaphors—where on any given Sunday defense wins championships and it's always gut-check time—"the ceiling is the roof" makes perfect sense. (It was enough, at least, to maybe have helped North Carolina eke out their 90-83 win.) Because certain things have been said so many times that no one really knows what they actually mean anymore. But in the world of actual logic, it's a little trickier to parse out what MJ is saying. It is a perplexing, MC-Escher sounding puzzle of architectural confoundery. So we decided to interview an architect to help us figure out what the heck is going on in this metaphor.
I called the only architect who I knew would pick up on a Sunday: my brother, appropriately named Jordan. Jordan Pierce. He works for a major international architecture firm in New York, and gave me the time (because he owes me brother favors) to talk about an athlete whose jersey he used to wear as a kid. Because how cool is it to wear your first name all the time? Anyway, here's our conversation:
Liam: So, let's get to the most important question first. Is the ceiling actually the roof?
Jordan: Generally the ceiling is not the roof. The roof is the structure and enclosure. The roof is essential to the building. It prevents the rain and stops the walls from caving in on themselves. The ceiling is usually cosmetic. It's plaster or drywall that goes on under the roof to hide that structure—the electrical, mechanical, the ugly stuff that people usually don't want to see. Usually the roof and the ceiling are two very different things.
L: What about a thatched hut? Isn't that a ceiling and a roof?
J: That is possible. The roof and the ceiling can be one and the same thing.
L: So what could that possibly mean for Michael Jordan's metaphor? Is he talking about thatched huts?
J: It's possible that what Michael Jordan's really talking about is the dissolution of artifice. Don't believe the hype. The ceiling isn't real. It's not essential. The ceiling's just put there to make you think that's the limit, but there's more up there. And that stuff is the roof—that's where it really stops. It's the real, hard essential stuff that we're really talking about.
He's almost saying, "UNC basketball team, those people were telling you about the ceiling being the ceiling, but that's not true. The ceiling is the roof! It's higher than the ceiling. There's more up there!"
L: But what gives Michael Jordan the bona fides to talk about ceiling-roofs?
J: His Airness has been up there, Liam. If anyone has been close to the ceiling or the roof, it's gotta be him. He has had plenty of time for ceiling and roof inspection. He's probably spent lots of time contemplating the differences between the roofs and ceilings.
_L: Oh, good point. But stepping back for a second, I've never really got this whole ceiling metaphor. Why are people always trying to inhabit a disproportionately bigger space? Everyone wants a tall ceiling, but that seems inefficient. _Doesn't it take more energy to heat and cool?_ You've gotta cover all your walls in more artwork. Painting becomes illogical… You see what I mean?_
J: Height is architecturally desirable as an expression of wealth. It communicates that you have the means to build. Double-height spaces—like in mansions—are always fetishized because it shows that there's no one above you. It's not like an apartment, where there's someone living on top of you, and your space is strictly limited by their presence.
And in the 'light, air, joy of having a body, voluptuousness of looking' sense, having a high ceiling gives you a greater sense of openness, which is desirable. Ceilings suggest ascendancy. You're moving into rarified territory of birds and butterflies.
But you're right. Gratuitous double-height spaces make for inefficiencies in your mechanical systems. You're heating air that's unoccupied—this is frequently a concern in the atria of buildings. The volume of air makes for the wasting of energy and inefficient buildings. Definitely a detractor.
L: Do you have a favorite ceiling?
J: I think that maybe my favorite ceiling is interesting in part because it is a ceiling and structure all at once, which is Lou Kahn's Yale Art Gallery. It has this really beautiful, three-dimensional structure almost, which provides the structure for the floor above, but also disguises all the mechanical and electrical at the same time in a way that's very elegant and very beautiful.
L: Do you have a favorite roof?
J: Well, famous roofs are like the Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House, which is a really low, flat roof. But saying that's your favorite roof is like saying Michael Jordan is your favorite basketball player—whatever, bruh. Everyone loves that roof. Oh, and the Sistine Chapel is definitely the Michael Jordan of ceilings.
L: I know, but it's kind of wack. I found it to be mossy with BS.
J: It's not that nice. I mean, it's fine. But what's going on here? What's the idea? What am I looking at?
J: But we've gotten off track.
J: What's actually important here is that Michael Jordan is actually saying something. It's possible that he's parsing out an important architectural distinction for us.
L: So the metaphor's legit?
J: Seems so.