Take The Stairs

  I’m interested in stairs.  Their purpose is obvious, but appearance and experience vary considerably.  More than any other aspect of the built environment, they make you aware of your own presence within or upon it..  Successful negotiation of even a single step transition requires a greater portion of one’s attention than the whole rest of a structure’s circulation pattern. 

  That’s not my photo, but I’ve seen and climbed such steps (moki or moqui steps) in a place called The Maze in Canyonlands National Park.  I’m not afraid of heights and find pleasure in challenging vertical progress, but was impressed, scared, and thrilled during several such ascents.  I learned something about the nature of the consciousness of their engineers.

  They were hardy and adventurous souls not yet numbed by the comforts of life nor inured to the possibility of an exuberant experience of it.  They didn’t have to go up there.  Not that way anyhow.  Consequences of a fall are obvious.  That stairway to heaven is more than just a short cut in something “nasty, brutish, and short.

  A grander, more complex, and dramatic moment will be had upon the steps in the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.  Even from the photo one can get a sense of the power of that small space.  Look at the foreboding cascade of those stairs.  They make you either shrink back or scurry quickly upward to the safe solemnity of the reading room.

  Other aspects add to the pressure by manipulation of classical ideas.  Michelangelo’s friend and biographer Vasari wrote that it: “broke the bonds and chains of … common usage”.  For example, the columns seem to be swallowed up by the walls rather than exhibiting discrete strength in the foreground.  They are indeed load bearing elements, but with convoluted psychological effect.

  This project, designed for the Medicis in 1558, displayed the range and depth of Michelangelo’s architectural power for the first time and marked the transition to its practice that dominated the rest of his life.  Even so, one might find him/herself here alone while having had to wait in lines to David across town or hours to gaze up at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

  Finally, I’m just about ready to go to a meeting in our art museum.  All front of house traffic either ascends the staircase pictured above or via the elevator.  Which mode one selects significantly impacts the entire visit.  The interior of the large elevator is stainless.  You feel like you’re in a ‘Sub-Zero’ kitchen for a few moments and they you’re there.

  The Grand Stair, by contrast, makes for a powerful exercise in the clearing of one’s mind.  Thoughts fall away as you move slowly upward.  Wow.  Wonder what’s up here.  At the top you catch your breath eager for interaction with beauty – the world left far behind.  Take the stairs. 

One Response to “Take The Stairs”

  1. Abigail Gierke Says:

    Dad- I really like this post! It started to get me thinking about different spaces in houses such as the ‘mudroom’ or the area by a door before you enter the rest of the house. I wonder what the point of this area/space was when it was invented?

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