Wharton Esherick Studio (begun 1926), Pennsylvania, red-oak spiral stair, with intersecting stair to the kitchen and dining room
The enriched gravity at Sperlonga thickens our movements like some sort of germinating ingredient in space. Where currents pick us up we can wade into them, propelling ourselves through surges and waves, occasionally a torrent or trickle. By swimming through the shifting resistance and tensions of gravity, we are able to inscribe our own glorious powers in space. Not only do we feel a play of forces on our body, sharpening senses and wakening faculties, but we are also invited to become living forces ourselves as we drive through the viscous currents. A related point is made by Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society: ‘Take gravity: to juggle, to jump or to climb adds unused dimensions to the awareness of our body. Play here gives a sense of divine leeway, of excess space.’28
The unique yet ever-changing calculus in each flight of steps exerts infinitely varied forces upon us, calling forth an evolving, almost balletic response to engage its shifting currents and still move about as we please. Each bounding launch sets into motion a throng of velocities that transforms rapidly through space and time, and which can only be resolved by an equally complicated spatiotemporal counterforce of limbs and torso traced into air and at each landing, a spry motion performed off-balance on footholds that are unpredictably wide or narrow, rough or slippery. Our motions are at once more primitive, as well as more nimble, the fruits of exercise and evolution. Our moves at times feel weightless, gesturing lightly in the air, but are also more fleshy, with a sagging mass to discover and carry. We take on a more voluptuous existence, returning us to our bodies in two ways: causing us to dwell more deeply within the skin, while transcending the skin’s limits as if liberated from its frame. We become, for a time, moving centres of expressive force, rather than puppets of forces controlled by others. With every self-delighting gesture in these gravitational fields, each of us sketches into the air ‘I am’: I am a ‘person’, rather than ‘it’.
It would, of course, be impractical, not to mention hazardous, to form extensive fields of gravity in our buildings and cities, especially for cultures obsessed with economies of effort and time, but also rightly concerned with architectural access for all – including those of us with physical challenges.29 At times we need to move quickly, without distraction, and there are obvious merits of security and comfort in flat floors, and of movements that free us from having to constantly pay attention to our feet. The few architects who seem to have wanted to accommodate these polar demands have shown great ingenuity in combining flat floors with small concentrations of daring movement, so that people may move about with ease yet occasionally return to their bodies in manoeuvres that can reach high-wire intensity.
A small but astonishing instance is the rough-hewn staircase of red oak built by sculptor and furniture-maker Wharton Esherick to link three levels of his home in Malvern, Pennsylvania. No two treads repeat precisely in this spiral structure, whose cantilevered blocks of wood twist about an equally twisting vertical post, echoing the torsion experienced in the climber’s own torso. Mid-flight, the stair splits into two different routes, one angling left to the kitchen and dining area, the other coiling up to a sleeping loft over the studio. Halfway along the rise to the kitchen is a ledge for the telephone and space to write, an event that complicates climbing with a revolving and balancing act of the torso amid careful footwork. Smoothly undulant wooden railings, and in one case a mastodon bone, follow the ascent without any uniform line or thickness, prompting while freeing the climber to improvise handholds along the way. A person must be fully alert and agile to climb this stair, but is rewarded with a tremendous elation and degree of involvement. When asked if anyone had ever been hurt on his stair, Esherick replied: ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’30
Carlo Scarpa, Fondazione Querini Stampalia (1963), Venice, canalside stair A similar interest in compact yet invigorating climbs capable of disrupting habits can be followed in the decorating of Carlo Scarpa, whose floors of horizontal planes often shift level with unexpected increments. The new floors of the renovated Fondazione Querini Stampalia, in Venice, are set slightly above and not fully covering the old floors, leaving them often surrounded by continuous channels and shallow rims that control flooding during the acqua alta, but also provoke an up-and-down motion as if stepping into a boat, a resonant experience in this water city. The canalside arrival by gondola entails an especially elaborate sequence, whether ambling down to or up from the water. For those departing, the thick treads of Istrian stone begin at a curb above the floor and then twist and turn in a loose concatenation of squares, with each slab given a bevelled corner to vary the assembly and complicate the flow, descending along a continuous but unforeseeable sequence, before splitting into divergent routes that lead to two metal gates onto the canal – an adventure that heightens when the water rises to surround the steps. Much of this discursive language continues into the small garden behind the gallery, its upper terrace of water and grass reached by steps that veer sideways with treads that are not always where one expects them. Even the brief but daring climbs between a lower pavement and upper grass terraces at the Brion Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, Italy, involve topographic peril and delight. Stutter steps offer each leg a different tread, and at times slide obliquely to challenge feet with unfamiliar diagonal components in the vertical motion. The high point in this dual kinesthesia, described by Scarpa as ‘climbing in space’, is the marble staircase at the heart of the Olivetti Showroom in the Piazza San Marco, Venice. The line of ascent strays subtly off to the right in an angular drift, while guiding the climber to a corner office on the mezzanine. One’s legs are induced to shift to the right while lifting clear of each tread, a dual motion that brings lateral forces and muscles to bear, making the act more threedimensional. The broad hovering sheet of marble at the stair’s base, essentially a bottom tread widened to form a threshold and landing, gestures in two directions – aiming down the room’s axis to the doorway onto the piazza, and leading off to a secondary entrance – so that the stair incorporates four different, if barely noticeable, inflections that vitalize motion in space.