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Top Flights

Interest in statement staircases is on the rise. A look at eight masterpieces of the genre.

Even the humblest stairway is an archetype of transcendence. Consider the terminology (so familiar we overlook its poetry) of flights and landings. From ancient ziggurats and pre-Columbian temples to pulpit steps, stairs represent humanity's yearning to get closer to heaven—to reach a higher plane.

Or, simply to make a splash. The multifaceted, mirrored stairway in Coco Chanel's Rue Cambon salon turned models into chic echoes of Duchamp's descending nude. Chanel knew that, as New York architect Lee Mindel says, "stairs are a major design opportunity, a chance to choreograph movement and the experience of space, light, and views." Sensual and sequential, they are architecture at its most participatory, fully engaging the fourth dimension: time.

Aficionados are familiar with countless opulent examples, from the King's Staircase at Hampton Court to the Baccarat-balustraded crystal staircase of Istanbul's Dolmabahçe Palace. Leave it to minimalist architect John Pawson to demonstrate the archetypal appeal of stairs that have more in common with the notched-log steps of prehistory. His London home, a Victorian-era working man's cottage, had characteristic dark-stained stairs, turned balusters, and handrails. Pawson replaced one of them with a longer run of unstained Douglas fir, illuminated by light that falls from an upstairs window through a slot in the ceiling. Instead of a baseboard, there's a quarter-inch reveal on each side that allows for expansion—and has the effect of making the stair appear to float. A shadowy turning at the top adds a hint of mystery. "I wanted to strip the stair to its essence," he says. "It's quite narrow, so psychologically you don't feel the need for a handrail. Some people say it resembles a piece of origami."

Pawson, who sometimes uses the steps to sort papers, adds, "I love stairs and like them as individual rooms: A staircase to me is a marvelous place to be."

Passages with the potential to thaw architecture's frozen music, in Schelling's (and later Goethe's) classic phrase, stairs run a gamut from thunderous arpeggio to airy glissando. The serpentine stairs designed by Mindel for his own award-winning New York penthouse are a rhapsody in steel. Winding from the entrance hall through a two-and-a-half-story, window-lined atrium to a roof deck is a ribbon of steel flanked by sinuous railings, each differing in trajectory and design. One has metal-mesh panels, the other is open, and as they swirl to the top the railings execute a graceful pas de deux. The cantilevered stairs themselves float through space on the back of a twisting welded-steel beam anchored to a structural member above. "We were trying to take a very hard material and give it a softer, more fluid sensibility," the architect explains. The stairway's seamless flow belies its complexity (every tread has different dimensions), as well as the herculean efforts of master metal fabricator Larry Wood, who assembled the whole from elevator-size components, welding and finishing them on site.

The result displays the visual drama that has made stairs a favorite of filmmakers. Think of Rhett sweeping Scarlett off her feet on that wide staircase in Gone With the Wind, the runaway baby carriage on the Odessa steps in Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin, or virtually any swordfight. In An American in Paris, French singer Georges Guetary belts out Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" as he dances heavenward on luminous steps lined with leggy beauties. (Freud, who wrote that going upstairs reproduces "the rhythmical pattern of copulation," would have dropped his popcorn.)

Unlike Mindel's streamlined stair, the staircase of Wilderstein, a late-1800s Queen Anne—style house-cum-museum outside Rhinebeck, New York, is a quiet riot of carved- and turned-wood detailing, as good an emblem as any of an era that honored John Ruskin's tenet: "Ornamentation is the principal part of architecture." In comparison, the dramatic staircase at Barton Hall, an 1849 Greek Revival house in Alabama, is surprisingly modern in the openness and sheer muscularity of its structure. It exemplifies the power of stairs to shape space and bridge chasms, like the English country house staircase described by John Julius Norwich as "leaping from wall to wall like a flying fox, taking space and span in its stride, breaking out and recoiling again and all the while creating perspectives that would cause Piranesi to blink his eyes."

In their pursuit of an ideal of orthogonal spaces in perfect balance, early Renaissance architects contained the diagonal energy of stairs by enclosing them. Open, airy stairwells like Barton Hall's reflect the late-Renaissance and Baroque ideal of dynamic space. Prominent among those who broke out of this box was Michelangelo, who treated the staircase in Florence's Laurentian Library (1557) as a waterfall rendered in marble: broad, curved treads curl at their ends into eddylike volutes and are punctuated by rounded landings—pools in a cascade. Mediating between the fluid main stair and the rectilinear stair hall are secondary flights where footmen holding lanterns could have stood during formal occasions. The stair is a sculptural object, taking pride of place in an expansive, grandly detailed stair hall.

Michelangelo's bravura anticipated the great stairs and stair halls that would animate palaces and public buildings across Europe in the Baroque age, the apotheosis of stair design. Particularly in Italy, Germany, and Austria, architects decorated staircases extravagantly using every device at their command—vaulted ceilings and colonnades, recesses, windows, mirrors, trompe l'oeil painting, fantastic statuary. Breathtaking journeys through illusionistic space, the grandest Baroque stairs are transports of delight that tilt perception.

Modernists have worked a different sort of magic on stairs, trading decoration and pomp for the abstract punch of pared-down structure. For a church-turned-residence in Brooklyn's landmark Cobble Hill district, architects John Newman and Tom van den Bout combined a custom-fabricated steel structure with treads of triple-laminated glass, acid-etched for traction. The main stair rises from the high-ceilinged living room—part of the original sanctuary—to a clear glass landing at the level of the master bedroom. Like the simple drop lights, the cables that tether the landing to a roof beam preserve a sense of openness. The floor at the foot of the stairs is a broad expanse of laminated glass that transmits light to a children's playroom in the basement. "The process of stair design should be client-driven," notes Newman. "The idea is to discover who they are and what makes them happy, which suggests a strategy and form for the stair."

That process led Boston architect Timothy Techler to design a spiral stair for a barn in the Berkshires he converted into a guesthouse/home office. The form of the stair maximized floor space and natural light, which falls through an oval cutout from a cupola and skylights. With its chartreuse and aubergine outer wall, the six-foot-diameter stair heralds the owners' collection of pop art, displayed on the second floor. "Spiral stairs require a healthy diameter: If you go below five feet, the size of the steps is uncomfortably small," Techler says. "No matter what kind of house you have, a stair is an emotional thing," he adds. "It often connects more public areas with private ones and can serve as an invitation, as this one does: It says 'come on up.' "

Spiral stairs are inherently sculptural, so it's not surprising that one of the early innovators in this area of stair design was Leonardo da Vinci. With the French king Francis I as his patron, Leonardo lived in the Loire Valley from 1516 until his death in 1519, and is thought to have designed two celebrated spiral staircases there, those at Blois and Chambord. At the Château de Blois he pared away the wall of the courtyard stair tower, engaging exterior views in much the same way the external escalator tubes do at the Pompidou Center. (The stair's traditional clockwise rise is a matter of defense: It gives an advantage to defending swordsmen, as the inner wall or newel post hampers the attacker's sword arm, assuming he's right-handed.) At the Château de Chambord two spiral stairs intertwine in a double helix, a design Leonardo conceived in the late 15th century.

Few stairs are such works of genius, of course. But good designers are clever enough to know that a well-conceived stair can rescue a room from aesthetic oblivion. For a home in Caracas, New York designer Juan Montoya transformed a roomy but gloomy lower-level space with a cast-concrete stairway faced in a combination of honed and smooth granite. Descending angularly in a series of turnings and landings, the massive stair has a sculptural presence, which he complemented with artworks and perimeter floor uplighting.

Montoya's stair is singular in that it ties together the entire design. But too many designers and developers treat stairs as an afterthought—"like an option in a luxury car," complains Lee Mindel. Indeed, upmarket builders now offer stair upgrades, allowing buyers to make a splashy statement that's often more incongruous than impressive. The irony is that stairs of real distinction can be created within almost any budget. One key, says Boston architect Thomas Catalano, is to learn from the past. At the center of his design for a new house in the classic Shingle Style is a staircase in a traditional, double-height living/reception hall.

"The stair is a reinterpretation of Shingle Style," he says. "The style was influenced by Japanese geometry, which is reflected in the gridwork beneath the mahogany banister." At the head of the stairs is a bowed balcony connected to a bridge that bisects the hall. "The balcony is a graceful transition between the stair and the bridge," says Catalano. "It's a processional element and also an overlook that allows you to greet visitors."

Architects are gratified that stairs are receiving more attention and bigger slices of building budgets. "People are willing to pay for craftsmanship, which can be beautifully applied in a stair," says Catalano. But he and others warn against stairs that don't strengthen the overall design. "No stair is good unless it's integrated into the environment," Mindel states. "You can't extrude them like salami." Adds Catalano, "Stairs are one of the places in the house where you can have a sculptural expression." So thought Michelangelo and Leonardo. With such inspiration, stair designers continue to make the ascent of man a transcendent experience, at once everyday and extraordinary.


Taking the First Step

Architects/Designers

Thomas Catalano
Catalano Architects Inc., 374 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210; 617-338-7447; fax 617-338-6639.

Lee Mindel
Shelton, Mindel & Associates, 216 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011; 212-243-3939; fax 212-727-7310.

Juan Montoya
Juan Montoya Design Corporation, 330 East 59th Street, Second Floor, New York, NY 10022; 212-421-2400; fax 212-421-6240.

John Newman
J.S. Newman Architects, 35 Pineapple Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 718-797-3680; fax 718-797-3867.

John Pawson
Unit B, 70-78 York Way, London N1 9AG, England; 44-171-837-2929; fax 44-171-837-4949.

Timothy Techler
Techler Design Group, Inc., 46 Waltham Street, Suite 301, Boston, MA 02118; 617-422-0707; fax 617-422-0706.

Staircase Specialists

Ace Architects
The Leviathan Building, 330 Second Street, Suite 1, Oakland, CA 94607; 510-452-0775; fax 510-452-1175; Web site:
www.aceland.com/ace. Recently patented a circular stair design formed from a continuous, spiraling steel sheet, topped with a pipe handrail.

Boston Design Corporation
100 Magazine Street, Boston, MA 02119; 800-225-5584; 617-442-6118 (in MA); fax 617-442-9633. Web site:
http://members.aol.com/bdcorp/bdc.htm. Specializes in the Helixstair, a corkscrew design made of metal.

Stairs, New York
Union Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215; 718-638-5304; fax 718-789-8113. Specializes in custom wood stairbuilding utilizing a variety of woods, including epi (Brazilian walnut) and injico (Brazilian orangewood). In addition to hand-carving handrails, volutes, and other decorative motifs, owner Garrick Dolberg is a virtuoso at one of stairbuilidng's most difficult challenges—the elliptical staircase.