PRINT November 2016


the staircase in contemporary architecture

Weiss/Manfredi, Novartis Office Building, 2012, East Hanover, NJ. Photo: Paul Warchol.

THE PRIMORDIAL SPACES of modernism were spaces of labor. It was in the industrialized efficiency of the factory floor that many of the fundamental attributes of modern architecture—the grid, the open plan, the revealed structure—were developed. And as modern labor became more corporate over the course of the twentieth century, modern architecture did, too: The cubicles of the typical modern office adhered to the same rigorous organizational logic as factory workbenches, with desks appearing one after the other, arranged in single file for solitary work. Yet today the nature of working life has fundamentally changed, defined by a flexibility and sociability—described by many as a post-Fordist condition—that often manifests itself in spaces that are driven less by program than by possibility. Fittingly, architecture’s new mandate seems to be to create spaces where workers might cluster and gather, then disperse.

Today’s working environment is a manifestation of our networked, high-tech, and hypermediated era, yet its main architectural symptom is surprisingly archaic: the resurgence of the staircase. Indeed, stairs have played a literally outsize role in architecture in recent years (the trend’s apotheosis might be Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed StairMaster for Hudson Yards), but, contrary to their original function, they are imagined less as sites for circulation than as zones for exchange. Removed from actual utility, supersize steps no longer offer the best way to get from one place to the next so much as they suggest a technology for bumping into people—staircase as social media. Examples abound: A recent interior conversion of the advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy’s Manhattan office by the New York partnership WORKac includes a staircase evoking a coin—a circle flipped halfway between two floors—wide enough for a town hall–style meeting but also suited to a casual chat. The designers’ entire effort seems to have been compressed into this stair, which, suspended in the office’s center, is the only architectural element of an otherwise empty loft space. Its sculptural quality (think Fletcher Benton meets Carsten Höller) plays up the feature’s symbolism: An agora at home in the corporate world, it seems to give each encounter a heads-or-tails chance of working out. A similar hunger for interaction has also trickled down to more traditional business environments: Weiss/Manfredi’s recent design for Novartis’s North American headquarters in East Hanover, New Jersey, has a lounge-like staircase, suggesting that leisure is necessary for thinking profitably about pharmaceuticals as well.

The belief that spaces without scripted functions harbor great possibilities is nothing new, of course. Architectural vanguards have long countered the prevailing modernist trend toward rigidly defined and articulated spaces: The postwar British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, for example, spoke of the “space between” buildings in order to look beyond the dominance of modern architecture’s monolithic structures. But if in an avant-garde context such emphasis was typically deeply social and pointedly critical—for the Smithsons it was a means of acknowledging the knit-together nature of working-class neighborhoods, which was often undermined by modernist housing schemes—recent architecture poses such spaces not as sites of class conflict or encounters with difference but simply as settings for individual interactions. In such designs, a society structured by power, class, or ideology seems hardly to exist, replaced by an idealized possibility for innovation.

If the contemporary work space—from the clubby spaces of WeWork to the corporate fantasia of Norman Foster’s Apple ring—is tailored to an economy based on sociability and information, many have imagined the field of art itself as an ideal model for such an economy. Indeed, the free-form sensibility underpinning so many offices today owes much to the example of the artist’s loft or the studio collective. Ironically, however, this chain of influence has doubled back on itself in a feedback loop, with the art school made over in the image of today’s version of labor: “Creativity” now trumps craft, and industry has given way to information. In this sense, recent architectural design for art schools, which functions almost like a B side to museum expansion, offers a site where we may examine shifts in cultural production—and here, too, stairs are a telling symptom.

Morphosis’s controversial building for the perpetually embattled Cooper Union in New York, completed in 2009, might have been the first to internalize such demands. Behind its cracked metal facade one finds a steeply pitched crevasse of a staircase, watched over by a weblike canopy. The staircase slaloms from side to side, creating clearings to foster the kind of interaction that can only happen when participants are in a state of distraction: It is a multitasking space, with room for lounging, studying, and networking, in addition to circulation. The stair was promoted as a “vertical piazza,” and while the piazza may well be the public space par excellence, it has been turned on its head here, forced to weather the demands of a privatizing city and school. But Cooper, of course, is not alone. Take MVRDV’s addition to the School of Architecture at the Technische Universiteit in Delft, the Netherlands—a massive orange construction housed in a former courtyard that is part stadium seating, part staircase to nowhere, towering over a field of open workstations like a contemporary ziggurat. The space houses the Why Factory, an architecture and urbanism think tank run by the university in partnership with MVRDV: The collaboration seems to underscore the rather hubristic belief that an architectural feature could directly catalyze creative output. The avant-garde desire to activate the viewer—to turn “passive” looking into “active” doing—has found its endgame here. If the liberation of the spectator was once thought to make society itself more free, unlocked energies now serve innovation.

These examples employ the staircase as an interior technology. In other recent designs, the staircase has emerged from the heart of the art school to become a structural component in the building’s design and a part of its public face. The dominant features of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s recently completed McMurtry Building at Stanford University, in California, which houses the Department of Art and Art History as well as a library and studios, are diagonal axes housing two massive staircases (one on each side) that slope down into the ground and appear far too large for the building itself. While nodding to the large glass escalator tube appended to the scaffold-like exterior of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s 1977 Centre Pompidou, in Paris, DS+R’s inflated staircases appear more as images of sociability, especially when compared to the former’s commitment to circulation. The press has described the McMurtry Building as both “hub and hive”—a space, in other words, where ideas might rhizomatically cluster. Schools are no longer places where knowledge is transmitted, but rather spaces where ideas happen. One might go so far as to say that the McMurtry Building serves as an architectural doppelgänger to the internet, where hive minds purportedly generate intelligence in a free and collective fashion. Perhaps architecture’s embarrassment today is that it is still physical, that it rests too close to terra firma. Architecture might dream of its own dematerialization, but one is left to wonder: Do architectural features such as stairs make the possibilities of the web visible, or do they offer the internet in beta form, providing a space for bodies to collide in those moments when they can’t go online?

Perhaps imagining itself in terms of ecology is architecture’s compromise with technology, for what all these structures envision is less a new kind of building than a new form of environment—informed by the spirit of the beehive, or, better yet, the law of the jungle—that brings organisms together in novel ways. While Rem Koolhaas once claimed the stair as offering us the possibility of vertical living, the staircase now spreads out, offering a horizontal, even topographic, model of life in which all things are connected. The central staircase in Steven Holl’s Glassell School of Art in Houston, part of his design for the Museum of Fine Arts’ campus expansion, provides a stunning example in this regard, appearing like an amphitheater for the small-scale drama of everyday life. Here again, large swaths of the wide stairway offer a variety of diversions, obstructions, and rest stations, which facilitate informal gathering. It is striking to think of this imaginary scene—the building is set to be completed in 2017—in relation to a key document of modernism: Oskar Schlemmer’s 1932 painting Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway), which depicts a troupe of anonymous art students gracefully ascending a bifurcated staircase at the Bauhaus in Dessau. The figures in the painting glide past one another as if performing a dance—and, in fact, the lone subject facing the viewer balances en pointe. The canvas, however, features its architectural ground as prominently as its human subjects—in the painting’s upper right corner, the window’s grid permeates the hard stuff of the staircase, suggesting a latent structure beneath. Here is the work’s reveal: All the world is a grid. One has the feeling that for Schlemmer, this is not a nightmare but a dream; the students cut across the x and y axes in the most graceful way possible. Sporting perfectly coiffed hairdos and pneumatic-looking sweaters, the painting’s protagonists are part and parcel of the building’s machine, which is perhaps why all of them—save the dancer—appear in determined motion, moving upward toward the light.

If Schlemmer depicted the art school subject as an embodiment of the new man—streamlined, serious, tailored, and hanging from the grid—Holl offers a startling revision: The figures in his renderings are black-and-white blurs wandering aimlessly in a multivectored space. In this pairing we witness the shift from the art school as a kind of elegant factory to its emergence as a full-fledged creative industry; the makeup of the student body has changed markedly as well. Though they would seem to belong to an early Gerhard Richter painting, the blurred figures in Holl’s rendering are also versions of the contemporary subject, which is to say they are increasingly unbound sites of information. Indeed, the very concept of the subject seems to slip from memory here, replaced by a teeming node of pixels. Perhaps these wandering clouds are looking for a place to pause and plug in, but one gets the nagging sense that they might simply blow away.

Alex Kitnick is Brant Family Fellow in contemporary arts at Bard College.