Somerset House Miles Staircase
Courtesy Eva Jiricna Architects Eva Jiricna Architects designed a contemporary staircase within London's Somerset House.

In writing the blog about the Heatherwick Vessel sculpture last week, I was reminded how obsessed architects are with stairs, and how little the public seems to care. Maybe the stand-alone staircases criss-crossing up to heaven will draw crowds, but they will only be able to do so because there will be no elevator alternative (at least none I could see; a friend said he could discern one hidden by most of the renderings).

Alexander Calder’s 1963" Untitled" on view in the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium at the new SFMOMA.
Iwan Baan Alexander Calder’s 1963" Untitled" on view in the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium at the new SFMOMA.

I was reminded of the inordinate importance architects and they alone seem to put on this archaic, but rather charming method of moving from one level to the other when I went back to visit SFMoMA, newly expanded to a design by Snøhetta. The firm's big “move” in relation to the original, Mario Botta-designed building that opened in 1995 (other than lopping off the back and making it look like a toilet bowl from the front) was to remove the staircase Botta had placed in the middle of the atrium he called the “piazza.” A circular object that used up a fair amount of this central space, that grand stair focused attention and offered good places for people watching, but was not much used. Sometimes I would stand next to its entry on the second floor and watch able-bodied people confront the staircase, look around, and walk over to the elevators to take them one floor down.

See SFMoMA's Expansion and more of the Snøhetta portfolio in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.

Snøhetta felt that the problem was the staircase was too forbidding, so the firm replaced it with a zigzag of wood that goes up (and down) only one floor, though its placement does seem to also use up good portion of the atrium. The whole operation might have changed the character of that now pretty useless gathering space (most of the public functions are now elsewhere), but it seems to have had little effect on foot traffic. The elevators are the things to use, the staircase remains an object of contemplation.

The chartreuse elevators in the library, 

hip in 2004, seem a little dated now.
Lara Swimmer The chartreuse elevators in OMA's Seattle Public Library complement the building's ramped floorplates.

Perhaps Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, who seems to think that circulation is a dirty word, has the right idea. He tucks his workmanlike staircases away in corners and next to corridors. The same is true for architects such as Kazuyo Sejima (of SANAA) and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), while OMA likes to turn its whole buildings into spirals that rise up in such a way that you don’t notice that they are really giant staircases.

Yet architects continue to obsess about staircases. Almost every building that has any kind of ceremonial function or part features an inventive staircase. Perhaps that is because it is one of the few elements that are expressive, and that architects can yet justify with a functional argument, even in an age in which ADA-related regulations imply that foregrounding such circulation devices for the able-bodied is itself is a form of discrimination—a micro-aggression, if you will.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mark Peterman Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz.

I live at Taliesin and Taliesin West, where staircases are everywhere. I even have to remind myself when I get up in the middle of the night that there is a step in the middle of my bedroom. I love the way that the sequence of steps unreels around and through the buildings, unfolding vistas and making me aware with my whole body of where I am and where I am going. But then again, I am trained and indoctrinated as an architect.

View from the northwest.
Chris McVoy View of Steven Holl Architects' Campbell Sports Center from the northwest.

We all know staircases are good for those of us who can use them. We also know that they are better vantage points from which to see where we are, and terrific ways for people to encounter each other (which is how architects such as Steven Holl, FAIA, and Frank Gehry, FAIA, have justifed them in research and educational buildings they have designed). We don’t always do what is good for us, of course, but what amazes me is that people (including myself) will often wait for elevators and crowd into them while there is a staircase right next door.

I hope the Heatherwick project will make walking staircases cool again. If it achieves nothing more than that, just by taking them out of the buildings that are supposed to validate their existence, it will be worth the $150 million cost. Staircases are beautiful. I hope architects will keep designing them, and I hope we can all use them just a little bit more.