A more urbanistic aerial world developed in the work of Paul Rudolph, turning most precarious in his own ateliers and homes. The rail-less stair of his house in New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, scales a wall on openly cantilevered treads, seeming to float free in the air and offering climbers little resource beyond their own balance and footwork. This experience was carried further in his 58th Street office in New York, where a number of mezzanines spun around and overlooked, with little restraint, the three-level void of the rooftop space. Rail-less stairs combined with catwalks and improvised paths over flat file cabinets upon which several desks were mounted, along with Rudolph’s own desk overlooking the atrium, gave the entire design a dangerous yet electrifying character described by one writer following its demolition as ‘Rudolph’s dare-devil office’.41
The intoxicating blend of agile play amid risk became the central motif of Rudolph’s own experimental penthouse at 23 Beekman Place, also in New York, a masterpiece of vertigo that capitalized on bird’s-eye views of the city. Scores of unbounded floors, stairs and bridges, as well as Rudolph’s cantilevered drafting table high above, overlook the living room, using openly tiered mezzanines as the basic components of the house. Transparent plastic in surprising places further erases the already diminished sense of stability, while enhancing the sense of lightheaded feats, from Plexiglas floors and staircase treads to a sink and bathtub, also in Plexiglas, which serve as skylights to rooms below. Especially ingenious is the narrow steel staircase in a guest apartment, which winds around itself while climbing through space, its rail-free danger compounded by surface reflections that visually erode the structure’s security, as well as its restriction and certainty.
As the floor begins to tilt, all of our kinesthetic faculties are brought into play to remain balanced while counteracting gravitational forces with powers applied through our angled feet and swinging torso and limbs. This kind of creative navigation is a central experience of the ramps in Renaissance villas, or equestrian coils such as the Rundetarn (‘round tower’; p. 60) in Copenhagen, whose inclines take off from the earth in a low trajectory, to then bend or curve around on themselves and keep altering the course mid-flight, complicating kinesthesia with centrifugal forces. The entire body comes alive as it strains to generate lift and propulsion, drawing arms and legs into action with a miraculous blend of energy and equilibrium, coordination and endurance. The climber is made intensely aware of the relation between his centre of gravity and the lifting and pushing pressure of legs, as well as the need to carefully keep shifting weight to balance and rebalance the body in motion.
This graceful kinesthesia became a primary source of aerial dynamics in the decorating of Le Corbusier. His inclines range from steep angles calling forth conscious effort to gently sloped floors that induce a subtle gliding sensation, and in the case of the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, inflect movement into a counterforce of incoming light.42 Beyond disrupting habits and stimulating the body in flight, the inclines keep activating the muscular role in a promenade architectural. This dual fascination with simple means to conquer gravity and soar into the air rivals Leonardo da Vinci’s preoccupation with the complex forces at play on ramps and the construction of human flying machines, as compiled in his famous noteblog Sul volo degli uccelli (‘On the flight of birds’). But Le Corbusier had the advantage of reinforced concrete, allowing him to build ramps that lift off the ground and hover in space, empowering their climbers to share in that weightless suspension.
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An early example of this unconfined joy is the slender incline that cuts and weaves through the Villa Savoye (p. 60), in Poissy, only to continue outside and keep slanting up to the sky. The human significance of this trajectory derives not from formal properties, but from the way it stimulates creative feats, combining gentle ascents with twists and turns, and changing speed or pausing to rest while assessing emergent opportunities. But the intoxicating freedom also stems from a muscular exercise no longer bound to the external pressures of work, efficiency or time, allowing people to leisurely glide between the two poles of human existence. A similar liberation develops along the outdoor ramp resting on piers at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose S-shaped route angles off the sidewalk and into the air, a sensation not unlike the initial uplift of an aeroplane. As the take-off curves towards the building entrance, new counterforces are brought into play as the body responds to centrifugal pressures, similar to banking around a curve, a complex of forces that reverses along the descent on the far side.
The avian powers instilled in concrete by Le Corbusier have been revived, and at times transcended, by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in his threading of inclines to, through and around buildings. This emancipation from gravity is fully exploited at the Otemae Art Center, in Nishinomiya, where the ramp, after veering and lifting off the sidewalk, angles up and through the building as in the Carpenter Center, but here continues an upward climb on the other side. The airborne flight lofts over a hillside, seemingly free of earthly cares, only to tightly turn and angle back up to the topmost floor, allowing the climber to feel momentarily free of work and academia, as well as the building’s physical security and geometry.