Stairways to heaven and other places

We go up and down them all the time – but seldom do we think about their historical development as elements of architecture. Staircases: History, Repair and Conservation, co-edited by architectural historian Dr James Campbell, places a neglected topic at centre stage.

Students of architecture visiting Dr James Campbell’s rooms in Queens’ College, Cambridge, tramp up a steep winding flight of wooden stairs constructed in the 18th century and arrive on a narrow landing where they knock on the door marked with his name.  The staircase they ascend and descend is typical of many in the older colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, uncarpeted and scuffed smooth by generations of undergraduate feet. Its timber treads and risers were made over two centuries ago by skilled carpenters or joiners specialising in the art. Repaired countless times over the centuries, how much original timber remains is anyone’s guess.

Campbell is passionate about the history of architecture and teaches courses on building construction, conservation and architectural history.  He is a prolific writer and champion of increasing the understanding of the buildings around us. With historic building expert Michael Tutton, he is co-editor of Staircases: History, Repair and Conservation (Routledge 2014). Its editors describe the book as a practical companion to a curiously-neglected aspect of building design. In a single volume comprising contributions by ten  experts in a range of fields, it covers the story of staircases, ways to describe and date them, the ergonomics of their design, the construction of their component parts today and in the past, as well as methods of conserving them as a vital part of the narrative of a building.

“Ever since we started to construct buildings on more than one level, we have needed some kind of steps to take us up and down between storeys. Many early staircases were constructed on the exterior of the buildings they served. Later they were incorporated into the interiors of buildings.  In many cases they are central to the impact of architecture: stairs do much more for a building than simply take us from one floor to another. Like doorways and windows, they convey messages about the status and function of the environments that they are part of,” said Campbell.

“The development of stairs, from the steps hewn into rock surfaces and ladders used to access sleeping lofts in medieval dwellings to the elegant classical designs of Palladian architecture, reflects the emergence of new technologies, shifts in fashion, and changes in the ways in which we inhabit buildings. We spotted a gap for what we hope is a useful reference book for professionals working in architecture and architectural conservation wanting to understand both what they were looking at and how they might set about designing better new staircases or repairing old ones.”


Staircases is a celebration of man’s ingenious use of shapes and materials.  In putting stairways centre stage, the book’s 100-plus images reveal stairs in all their glory.  The grandest stairs sweep and soar; the most dramatic defy gravity in their use of cantilevered structures to create an illusion of floating in space.  Many medieval and Renaissance staircases are spiral or helical, favoured as sturdy structures economical in their use of space. Viewed from above or below, some take the shape of snail shells or ammonites; others are as playful as twists of sparkling barley sugar.

Examples of steps and stairs abound in the classical world where they contribute the sense of theatre vital to buildings constructed for ceremonial and faith purposes. Some of the world’s great pyramids are stepped structures on a giant scale. Flights of steps found set into the ground in the Nile basin had quite another purpose. Known as Nilometers, these stairs are a neat way of monitoring the depth of the water table as it rises, or falls, step by step. Built more than 3,000 years ago, they helped to predict the arrival of the annual floods so vital to the fertility of the land and the production of food.

Some of the oldest staircases in Northern Europe are found on the windswept islands of Orkney and Shetland. At the Iron Age complex known as Mine Howe at Tankerness on Orkney, the purpose of the stone stairs that descend deep below ground is unknown but it is possible that they represent a symbolic entrance to the underworld. The presence of stone stairways at dozens of other sites across the Scottish Isles and Scottish mainland points to a flourishing early tradition in stair-building using massive stone blocks.

Jumping to the 12th century and travelling thousands of miles eastwards, the Jam minaret in Western Afghanistan is a 600-foot tower with at its centre a helical stair built in brick around a central pillar – all made in large flat bricks with stunning skill.  When the intrepid traveller Freya Starke visited the Jam minaret in the 1970s she described it as ‘alone and perfect’. In 2002 it became the first site in Afghanistan to receive UNESCO World Heritage status and there are efforts to protect it from threats of flood and erosion.

Also exquisitely beautiful is the main staircase of Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen, Germany, designed by the architect Arnold of Westphalia in the late 15th century: it displays a mastery of form and material that amazes engineers today. “This structure – with its flights of alternating concave and convex steps and its skeletal handrails – demonstrates beautifully how staircases have offered architects and craftsmen the opportunity to show off their skills and imagination, often with breath-taking effect,” said Campbell.

The development of iron staircases from late 18th century onwards opened the door to ever more elaborate and fanciful designs which feature in many public buildings, adding to the grandeur of entrances to opera houses, hotels and banks. Among the most fabulous is the staircase of the main post office in Mexico City – the Palacio de Corrios – a building constructed with a steel frame robust enough to withstand earthquakes. A magnificent example of cast iron and bronze work, its staircase was designed by the building’s Italian-born architect and engineer, Adamo Boari (1863-1928).

For the non-architect, one of the appeals of this book is the rich language of staircases, deeply rooted in the technologies and craftsmanship of the past. We learn, for example, that banisters are more properly called balusters and come in a fabulous array of shapes and sizes. A balustrade is a series of balusters with a handrail. The word newel is used for the central drum/pier of a spiral stair or for the leading/end post of a balustrade. Nosings are the leading edge of a tread which overhangs the riser below. A soffit is the underside of a stair flight. Winders are the triangular steps used to change the direction of a flight of steps where there is no landing.

Asked to nominate two notable staircases among the many examples in and around Cambridge, Campbell cites the dramatic cantilevering stairs in the Law Faculty (designed by Norman Foster in the early 1990s) as “perhaps the most exhilarating in Cambridge, though possibly not in a good way” and the massive marble staircase in the main entrance hall of the Fitzwilliam Museum as “an example of a space where architecture and staircase are perfectly integrated and where the staircase is the focus of the design”.

Contributing Source : Cambridge University


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