Staircases are one of the richest architectural elements in terms of formal possibilities, one of the most complex to solve geometrically, and one of the most demanding at the functional level. Staircases usually acquire an important role, as they are an opportunity to define a special transit between floors. The staircase is thought as a space beyond the mere function even in domestic spaces. Stressed between its formal resolution and the need for functionality, the staircase has had different roles throughout history. Here are some historical examples that also reflect what they meant for their designers and their users.
Staircases – The history
The function of the spiral Gothic staircase
Medieval architects had a preference for spiral staircases. These stairs occupied very little space, allowed to place exits or doors at any point of their route, they were easily illuminated, and were easy to execute.
The oldest medieval spiral staircases were formed by a carved stone core, which gave form to the structure, surrounded by a circular wall also made of stone, like a tower. Inside the castles, the spiral staircases multiplied, apart from those that reached all the floors, some began to be built in the thickness of the walls, communicating only two floors, as overlapping apartments.
For a medieval architect, the staircase was functional, in no case was thought of as a theatrical element inside a palace. The great rooms of the castles were always located on the ground floor, so the stairs were usually only used to serve private areas.
Andrea Palladio and the introduction of the idea of comfort
The four books of architecture, published by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio in 1570, is an extensive treatise on elements, standards and architectural examples, profusely illustrated with drawings by Palladio himself.
Among other architectural elements, the book includes several examples of stairs that, for the architect of the Veneto province, are no longer just a means of ascending or descending the building. Comfort becomes a fundamental aspect, and for this reason, the human being is taken as a scalar reference to design the stairway, which becomes less steep and deep. The architect continues to keep the stairs enclosed between walls, they do not establish visual connections with the living spaces: they are just one more compartment among the other compartments or rooms of the building.
The staircase as a sculpture
Michelangelo’s proposal for the commission given to him by Pope Medici Clement VII, the Laurentian Library which would preserve the valuable codices of the Medici family, can be considered the beginning of a second stage of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo used the classical elements of architecture, but instead of arranging them according to the canon, he used columns, pediments and corbels in an expressive way. The wall disappeared, clogged with disproportionate architectural elements, out of scale, and in a truly anti-constructive organization. The central steps were designed convex and changing in width, while the outer sections were built straight. The whole became an expressive element like the statues of the Italian artist.
Stairs and imperial power
Imperial stairway is the name given to a staircase with divided flights. The first section, the lower one, is central and is divided at half height into two symmetrical sections, which join again on the upper floor. The imperial staircase is one that receives the public ostentatiously, showing a huge scale. It is said that it was in El Escorial in Madrid where it was used for the first time.
The Jordan Staircase at the Winter Palace was a main point to receive the guests, and to make explicit the immense power of the Tsars.
Status, gaze, fashion and social class in stairs
After an architectural competition, the proposal of the young Charles Garnier, 35 years years old, who had barely built, was chosen unanimously to design the Palais Garnier in Paris, completed in 1875. The Opera can be considered as the synthesis of the Second Empire style, and the place par excellence for the pomp of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Charles Garnier had designed a spectacular space eclectically decorated, with great chromatic diversity. Unlike the disdain with which the access areas in theaters of the time were treated, Garnier attached great importance to them. These stairs were the true heart of his theater. A place to see and be seen.
Modern art, abstraction and Stairs
The Palácio do Itamaraty, in Brasilia, inaugurated in 1970, is the name of the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil. The building was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of the city, and was thought as a presentation of Brazil to the visitor. The Palace has one of the largest public art collections in Brazil.
Inside the 220 square meter main hall on the ground floor, free of columns, a spiral staircase 2.3 meters wide ascends helically. The staircase is stripped of elements. Stripped of the structure, it appears to fly magically. With no guardrail, as it had no purpose. It becomes pure geometry, solely form.