Stairs simplify ascent. The added advantage is that for the same cost they are equally efficient in two directions. They may induce awe, vertigo or at least comfortable indifference. Conversely steps to the hangman’s noose must surely magnify the physicality of the body for the soon-to-be released soul.
Stairs symbolize mankind’s urge for perfection and simultaneously our capacity for ruinous arrogance. If they are well crafted they can raise our spirits as they do our feet. Large flights of stairs demand rigorous geometry and if they are required to be beautiful then craftsmanship is, rightly so, expensive. Aesthetics are never a certainty, but the human desire for beauty is. Inevitably the most functional of items become adorned. Art has its origins in making practical things pretty.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition stairs are periodically mentioned. Jacob climbed stairs in a dream to get closer to God (laboring the uneven steps of the Great Wall of China I felt uncomfortably close to God) and an ancient king built a tower in Babel to reach heaven. Up is the direction of eternal bliss, down is where we go to find disgrace, hell or, if you are lucky, the wine cellar. Popular culture has its fair share of stairs, from M.C. Escher’s disorientated constructions to Led Zeppelin. Rapunzel let down her hair to be climbed; Cinderella lost her glass slipper running down stairs, both Julius Caesar and Archduke Franz Ferdinand were assassinated on steps. Stairs have no emotional attachment to either up or down but ease our path in both directions. They are good that way, utterly indifferent to the whims of man. Many of the finest are still there centuries after the best and worst of us have stepped aside.
Here are some stairs I have known:
Moss covered limestone stairs. Limestone is abundant in Western Australia and it is used everywhere. There is something in their earthy tones and roughness that comforts me. They are solid and will probably outlive me. Stairs speak to us through the people who cut and laid them. Here, the stonemason, with his great blocks transcends a potential abyss.
The stairway leading up to the Paper Mountain Studio in Northbridge, Perth. Built c.1930’s it retains the period’s devotion to geometry. As I ascend to the block of light above me I register a metaphysical ideal and the physical act of climbing reminds me that I am consciousness inside a body.
Stairs down to the beach, common along the coast of WA. One begins the descent with one’s eyes fixed on the horizon, drawn away from oneself. The steep plane of descent makes one believe afresh in the old dream of human flight. It feels possible here if one only has the faith to leap forward. The wood creaks and in a few seasons it may need some treatment or repair. These stairs are like us. They weather quickly but are stronger than they appear to be.
The humble brick reminds me of the far-reaching influence of Roman culture. It was not the army that built the Roman Empire but their architects. Even where the Romans did not go, they are there. There is an earthy warmth to brick, it is baked clay. Brick is the texture of my youth, it is working class and honest.
These stairs are like a mathematical formula; they are a universal truth trudged daily around the world in schools, hospitals, municipal structures and other high density areas. The design language of basic infrastructure is austere. They are ugly. The kind that dictators like – devoid of emotion, dehumanising. They are made to work for a long time and are indifferent to the human need for beauty. Their designers had to meet budget. When design preferences utility over people, this is the result. They are the existentialists of architecture since they induce a sense of isolation and meaninglessness. All we can do is climb them to discover our own truth.
The last few steps I maneuvered my mother up in the picturesque town of Wakkerstroom. Some steps we would love to climb again. Certain structures have such immense gravitas that they become points of return. We do not simply inhabit buildings and walk stairs, when there is significant emotional weight in the living and walking, we establish pilgrimage routes. That is how we finally feel we belong to a place. When after we are dead, we know the people we love will continue to walk there.
The best thing about stairs is that they help us without expecting anything in return. They do not try to sell me anything or convert me, they don’t want my vote, they just want to be used. People should be more like stairs. Maybe they already are; they pick me up and they show me the way out. I’m going to be like a pilgrim and move on …
Main photograph of stairs in Paris by Hannah Scallan