Up to Something
Are stairs always up to something? Yes, but we may not need to go there every time.
Stairs are a wonderful component of architecture. They are most commonly connectors of spaces, but they can take on a role of their own and be grand podiums, like at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spectator stages, like inside Palais Garnier, community gathering spots, like Rome’s Spanish Stairs and India’s Chand Baori.
One of the most beautiful elements of the Supreme Court Building, in Washington, D.C. is the two elliptical interior staircases. The building’s architect, Cass Gilbert designed them not only to be special gems but structurally to defy gravity. They are suspended off the walls and are held in place by a fit and pressure method rather than with obtrusive posts, steel and mortar. Patterns, motifs and the ubiquitous symbols of the whole building, owls and eagles, adorn the railings. No longer used now, at one time justices and clerks must have walked their treads, but these stairs were meant as art not just the practical. Stairs can be sculpture – a wonderful great space.
This brings us to the controversial new structure at Hudson Yards in New York City, the “Vessel” designed by British architect, Thomas Heatherwick. Some say it is a wonderful central piece to an urban plaza. Others say it is an impractical joining of 154 staircases – almost 2,500 individual steps – and 80 landings that go nowhere. This could be the age-old argument of form following function or visa versa. If, however, the main function of stairs, that is to move us up or down to a designated space is not even addressed validate the criticism. Can stairs just be sculpture? But is it sculpture? "In a city full of eye-catching structures, our first thought was that it shouldn't just be something to look at," said Heatherwick. "Instead we wanted to make something that everybody could use, touch, relate to." And isn’t this the heart of great spaces, that they can be felt (tangibly or emotionally), but more importantly connect with us.