Wandering not long ago in the delightful complex of museums in Turin’s 19th-century Anatomical Institutes Building, I made a thrilling architectural discovery: the stairs.
They were simple: a standard “parallel” arrangement of worn marble steps, with a black wrought-iron balustrade and a wood railing buffed smooth by a long procession of student hands. On a small landing, there was a chessboard-like motif inlaid in the floor, and an arched window bay spilling a shaft of moody light onto the ochre walls. I paused briefly in this simple but elegant space. How many chance meetings had taken place here? What ideas had come from these impromptu colloquia? How many flirtations had been attempted, how many gazes strategically averted?
Go to any historical architectural site of any significance – from the palace at Versailles to the Mayan temples and pyramids in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala – and witness the commanding role played by stairs. Then as now they were functional, but in the lavish attention paid to their design one could sense something greater. “The staircase is charged with symbolic force,” writes Oscar Tusquets Blanca in “The Staircase: The Architecture of Ascent”, “representing power, hierarchy, mysticism.”
In Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra building – the place where, as Walter Benjamin phrased it, “Imperial Paris could gaze at itself with satisfaction” – the grand, sweeping staircase was the primary stage. Patrons were not merely ascending to their boxes, they were climbing through society before an audience that had gathered to watch their arrival (mirrors installed at the bottom allowed a quick wardrobe check). And any viewer of “Downton Abbey” knows the crackle of illicit excitement when Lady Mary or the Earl of Grantham come sweeping in “below stairs”, or when a member of service other than the butler or valet is fleetingly spotted on the first floor.
But in the tall buildings of the 20th century stairs became an architectural afterthought, relegated to dark corners and drab corridors. What happened? The elevator, of course: the grand staircases of the past were replaced by gleaming elevator banks. Staircase design itself came under a host of new regulations intended to improve accessibility and safety. As Tusquets Blanca notes, Garnier’s Opéra staircase would be “illegal on at least seven grounds”. In Britain, regulators have set a maximum of 190mm for the riser height and a minimum of 250mm for tread width on public staircases, as well as rules about consistency.
Despite the regulatory burden, stairs are making a comeback. In Herzog & de Meuron’s recent expansion of the Tate Modern, the architects exceeded the tread-width requirement on their bold concrete spiroid – not for safety’s sake but to promote slowness and sociability. Some of the steps are so wide that they create generous platforms for sitting. On the Tate’s website the staircase is listed as a “new place to meet and relax”. Companies are rediscovering the well designed, centrally placed staircase as a place for social exchange, adding couches and even meeting rooms to oversized landings to help promote spontaneous interchange and help break down “silos”. At the St Louis-based biotech firm Sigma-Aldrich, internal research found that the installation of an open, three-storey central staircase led to a 156% increase in employee encounters (and at least one new product idea).
Stairs have also become a central element in “active design”, the health-minded effort to restore some of the physical activity we spent so long engineering out of our lives. In Seattle’s Bullitt Centre, a landmark of sustainable design, an almost unheard of three out of four occupants choose to take the stairs, thanks to their warmly inviting materials, the sweeping views of Puget Sound, and the not-so-subtle behavioural nudge of keeping the elevator hidden out of sight. A study of Harvard alumni showed that walking up eight flights of stairs improved life expectancy more than walking 1.3 miles a day.
Apple, in its cutting-edge stores, so fetishises interesting staircases that it has patented their designs. As the story goes, an idea for a staircase made largely of steel by the engineering firm Eckersley O’Callaghan evolved – “really through Apple’s determination”, James O’Callaghan has said – into one made of glass. Today, at the stores in New York’s Soho and the new flagship shop in San Francisco, customers take a set of gossamer glass risers to reach the Genius Bar, lending the experience a subtle sense of ceremony – like reaching for “higher” knowledge. Indeed, the act of physically ascending, psychologists have found, can make us more forward-looking. In one study, people who had just climbed stairs were more likely to take a larger deferred cash reward than an immediate smaller one. People coming down did the opposite.
Staircases are once again being presented as something to show off, not to hide. In Frank Gehry’s design for the University of Technology in Sydney, the sheer monumentality of the staircase – enclosed in a snaking, faceted sculptural flow of polished stainless steel – seems to suck visitors in. At the Ampersand Building in London, the Paul Cocksedge Studio designed the world’s first “living staircase”, a four-storey spiral made of steel and American white oak, whose balustrade is ringed with almost 600 plants in a “flying” garden, as well as open spaces for “reading, drawing and drinking tea”. Try doing that in an elevator.