Oia, Santorini, Greece, cliffside stairs; winding stair and earthen ledges; sensuous rooftop stair, ever-changing increments and footing of steps (clockwise from top left)
The twelfth-century village of Sky City at Acoma Pueblo (p. 25), for instance, set atop a sandstone mesa west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, can still be reached by its original means of access, a meandering climb through cracks and folds of vertiginous cliff. The invigorating yet treacherous route winds through slender crevices and over boulders, its journey eased slightly by roughly carved treads that merge into the natural slopes and ledges of bedrock. Phases of easy but changing terrain intermingle with an adventure close to rock climbing, where handgrips are as important as footholds and every muscle is brought into play. This experience doesn’t entirely vanish atop the mesa, for even here paths rise and fall over outcrops of rock, turning every walk into a moment-to-moment challenge.
Analogous if less strenuous footpaths are etched into thousands of Mediterranean hilltowns, from the Iberian Peninsula to Greece, Morocco to Tunisia. In these largely neglected building cultures we still find surviving traces of a fundamental human heritage. Dramatic landforms press into and mould the shape of the floor, leaving the earth only slightly tamed and partially paved to enhance its access to human movement. Among the
most dexterous but exciting footways are those carved into the volcanic cliffs of villages dotting the Greek island of Santorini. Precarious inclines wind unpredictably along and up and down the steep terrain, clinging above one another as they connect and cross over the roofs of the cubic houses. The stairways of the small town of Oia, carved into the island’s northwest promontory, are among the most daring. Each flight perpetually widens and narrows, curves and bends in unexpected tacks, developing rhythmic passages that transform their beats with every footfall. Some phases clamber over massive boulders left in place, and others scale walls free of rails. Uneven repetitions of tread and riser invite the climber to closely interact with an incline that is simultaneously alarming and compelling, magnifying the deeds of ascent.
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Oia’s stairs are certainly hazardous, but they are also among the most vivifying climbs ever shaped by human hands, reminding us that we have to risk staying alive in order to actually feel alive. The value of such risks should not be confused with gambling, however, for climbing entails free choice, not compulsion. The climber actively shapes his own chances, rather than submits docilely to fate, and is always able to slow down or pause, manoeuvre more carefully or veer onto an alternate route. He takes his life in his own hands, accepting the peril of injury as the admission price for action in space. Only in places such as these, where we are vulnerable and life is uncertain, do we fully encounter the freedom of action needed to truly venture in space, discovering hidden frailties and fears that we have the chance to overcome.
In The Prodigious Builders, Rudofsky contrasts the unruly flights of Santorini’s stairs with the monotonous and disabling stairs of modern life. ‘The dancing rhythms of the steps, with their startling pauses’, he writes, ‘are rarely registered by the plantar nerves of those who all their life have been conditioned to walk like mechanical toys and thus lost the sprightliness that nature bestows on man and beast alike … The varying height, width and depths of the steps are the despair of the city dweller. To scale but a short flight, he needs the crutches of railings and banisters. In fact, they are written into our building regulations.’25