The low-flying ramps of Ando’s Himeji City Museum of Literature have the unusual virtue of defining outdoor and indoor circulation. Museumgoers approach up a gentle incline that travels over sheets of water flowing in the opposite direction, magnifying the impression of speed and complicating the climbing action with invitations to pause, twist and bend at the waist to better admire the sounds and sights of the cascade below. The ramp reappears inside, but now in the form of a downward spiral skirting a cylindrical wall faced with exhibits, so that the balancing act of descent is mixed with frequent pauses and turns to take in displays on either side, recalling Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York.
CATWALKS: FROM THE EIFFEL TOWER TO ARNE JACOBSEN’S STAIRWAYS The act of climbing while mastering vertigo reaches a peak in very high structures open to air and scaled by foot. Anyone who has climbed a tree as a child understands the source of this triumph. Even in towers protected by railings the core of this deed survives, and where the restraints are perceptually dissolved and easy to slip over, there remains a real sense of danger while freely moving about in the heights. Epitomizing these endeavours is Gustave Eiffel’s iconic tower (p. 62) for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, where different kinds of soaring acts take place throughout its giant iron web, eliciting a tremendous tension of euphoria and fear, vitality and mortality. At the same time the structure lifts off the ground, it dissolves into air, with restraints reduced to exceptionally thin members and often carried down to the platform or staircase so that one is continually gazing down through the lattice to a series of lower and lower floors. While the lift undermines most of this exploit, the stairways offer a thrilling climb as they zig-zag through openwork girders and piers and pause at a succession of outlooks, weaving a labyrinthine flight through a multitude of levels and turns, all dangled over entrancing scenes with a bird’s-eye view of the city below. Related in spirit, and a masterpiece of vertiginous flight, is the episodic climb shaped by John Wellborn Root for the Rookery Building (p. 63) in Chicago. Springing off the mezzanine to cantilever over the atrium is an iron staircase that continues to change as it rises upward, its sense of vertigo and climbing on air made palpable by perforated risers and filigreed banisters. The oriel stair tightens above to a vertical spiral, which eventually breaks through the atrium’s glass roof and continues on through its own glass tube to connect all eleven storeys above, its corkscrew deeds reinforced by overlooks and glimpses of atrium below. This spinning motion, where a climber’s body churns up while continually recalibrating its forces, twisting the torso at the same time that legs and feet negotiate ever-changing angles of steps, has its adventurous roots in Bramante’s spiral staircase at the Vatican and the double-helix of the Chateau de Chambord in France, but is unsurpassed at the Rookery. exemplified in the wiry flight to the doctor’s study at the Maison de Verre (p. 64), designed by Pierre Chareau, along with Bernard Bijvoet and metalworker Louis Dalbet. Every surface is porous and wispy, and every member thinned to an unsubstantial black line, an effect heightened by porous treads and the give and creak of tenuous steel. A related, if more vertical and caged, experience occurs in the spiral stair climbing the chimney of Wright’s Wingspread at Wind Point, Wisconsin. The cage offers handholds while twirling upwards through falling light, to eventually corkscrew through the roof and culminate the twisting motion in a panoramic sweep over the trees to Lake Michigan.
The conquest of gravity by floating on air was a hallmark of Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. The exquisitely slender staircase of R0dovre Town Hall is reduced to almost nothing as it leaps into and rises through a well of space. The attenuated steel frame holds thin stainless-steel treads, separated by open space, rather than risers, and edged with transparent sheets of glass and railings narrowed to ultra-thin lines, making the structure a feathery thing that appears to hover without any effort and granting a climber the same experience, enhanced by minimizing every obstruction to views below. The weight of the stair is taken by steel rods suspended from the ceiling and painted red to detach them visually from the magically floating staircase. A final touch to this lightheaded experience is a tall glass wall facing the stair, into whose unbounded space the stair seems to vault and whose illumination filters through every part of the structure, making it further melt away.
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The kinetic elements of buildings (doors, windows, shutters and gates) that we are able to directly control and finely adjust with our fingers and hands, and sometimes our entire body, can give us the power to immediately alter the space around us in meaningful and desirable ways. But just as important as these results is our participation in making them happen. When we are drawn into a muscular and dexterous interplay with architectural mechanisms, and when their motions are playful and the effects magical, rather than predictable and dull, the operation reveals something beyond its practical merits – evidence that we are human beings able to exert real influence on the world, who are capable of the unexpected and have the power to cause effects, rather than merely be affected.
The universal attraction of pleasing objects that can be set into motion or reshaped in wondrous ways appears in the first small actions of infants. These elemental toys take different forms and appeal to varying aspects of each child’s emerging body and imagination, but invariably at their heart is a desire to produce effects in the world by transforming the state of an object in a direct and personal way. Each manipulation, no matter how modest, confirms to the child that he or she can act, can have a creative impact and is the source of these self-guided powers. In a broader sense, this ‘small world of manageable toys’, Erikson tells us, offers ‘a harbour which the child establishes, to return to when he needs to overhaul his ego’.43
The doll’s house, to take a familiar example, is not a spectacle on which to passively gaze, but an arena of action in which a child can exert a great deal of personal influence and feel emotionally involved and part of his or her world, as well as inclined to lavish care and affection on something so responsive. The components can be endlessly adjusted to suit undefined and make-believe events, testing the arrangements of miniature figures and furniture. A similar blend of malleability and enchantment underlies the appeal of toys as diverse as pull-along or push-along buses and cars, soft toys such as teddy bears, the small yet realistic figures of toy soldiers, arks abundant with paired animals, model trains directed by hand, puppet theatres and perhaps the most mutable of all, building kits with wood blocks, interlocking bricks or erector sets. There is no limit to the imaginary scenarios that can be formed with these protean things, nor to the range of ways a child is empowered to shape and reshape their appearance. This power derives from pliability, but stems no less from the tactile and visual appeal of the things themselves, giving them a capacity to evoke, in the inventive mind, many possible acts of marvellous change.
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