Stairs are often the most familiar element of a building – a home, an office, a school – negotiated carefully at first, with increasing confidence as the rise and going become predictable. They are a communication device of sorts, connecting people between levels. Defining a pattern of departure and arrival, they can be used as an organisational device, as at Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer, or an iconic focal point, as at Libera’s Casa Malaparte.
Often hermetically sealed within a building’s core, encased within a thick concrete shaft, when the stair has broken free, new types of spaces can be created at their periphery. These ‘leftover’ spaces can be translated as something between the formality of a meeting room or office and the dynamic activity of pure circulation, activating these otherwise purely functional areas. Taken further, these spaces can become integral to the character and identity of a building, as at our Theatre Royal project, where the bold and sensuous staircase, clearly discernible from outside the building, becomes a focal point within, interpreting the visual link between café, bar and lobby into choreographed movement.
It is difficult to understate the subliminal reward of ascending a beautiful staircase. Thoughtfully designed, with care and attention given to the way in which one flight interacts with another, the flow of a handrail as it turns a corner, the rhythm of the balusters; a brief journey can be remembered as significant. The simple act of moving from one level to another, promoted from the mundane to the poetic – a staircase can be objectively necessary, whilst being subjectively beautiful.
The choice to invest such effort in an otherwise purely functional device is a direct translation of the building’s willingness to embrace the user, to value their presence and leave them with a mnemonic artefact beyond their need to visit in the first place. If we are interested only in the destination – the boardroom, the office, the theatre – then how we get there is of little consequence, but if we understand that how we arrive at this destination affects our perception of it, then the journey itself is crucial. Threshold, entrance, ascension, arrival: all part of a single composition, each reliant on the other.