The stair also illuminates the critical role played by decorating as a catalyst to spark our choices, precipitating human events. We cannot truly act in a vacuum, but only in tandem with environmental features that inspire and merit our decisions. Fromm describes this kind of incentive as ‘one that stimulates the person to be active’. He notes that ‘such an activating stimuli could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your “object” (which ceases to be a mere “object”), by becoming more awake and more aware. You do not remain the passive object upon which the stimulus acts, to whose melody your body has to dance, as it were; instead you express your own faculties by being related to the world; you become active and productive.’ In conclusion, Fromm states, ‘because of the productive response to them, [activating stimuli] are always new, always changing; the stimulated person (the “stimulee”) brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.
Between the stimulus and the “stimulee” exists a mutual relationship, not the mechanical, one-way relations S>R.’81
Whether stemming from gifts of terrain, accidental accretion or subconscious wisdom, common to the inclined footpaths of vernacular settlements is a relaxed and generous freedom of movement. Spatial channels widen and narrow along their length, folding the boundaries into nearly infinite corners and alcoves in which to spontaneously pause or rest. Beyond its overall slope, the hilltown path is often endowed with alternate textures from which to choose, juxtaposing stepped increments with a smooth ramp, for instance, or dividing the floor into ribbons of optional gradient.
A magnificent example is the Via Appia in Perugia, which flows down from the city centre in three winding streams of differing footholds (p. 130). ‘[Its] austerity … is offset by its fine pavement, no one who walks this street can fail to note the texture of the stairs,’ wrote Rudofsky in Streets for People. ‘There is nothing monotonous in their execution; the height, length and width of the steps vary sufficiently to give each of three people walking abreast a different choice of surface – one of them may walk on conventional, rather shallow steps, the other may prefer the bordering narrow ramp, while a third . may select one of the two inclines that flank the centre stairs. The latter is neither ramp nor steps but a blend of both, a pavement characteristic of Perugia’s steep streets. Here, the steps are reduced to one-inch footholds that walk uphill – a joy for the goat-footed, a stumbling block or worse for the clumsy.’82 Increasing the stair’s deliberative range is an alternate route to the university on a far hillside. A derelict medieval aqueduct, intersecting the staircase along its descent, has been transformed into a footbridge that soars over the valley below, providing a more direct but exhilarating path to the same destination.
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The hallmark of a number of celebrated staircases is an offering of divergent routes. In the tripartite stair devised by Michelangelo for the Laurentian Library in Florence, the climber is offered three differently tempting ways to the same journey’s end.83 The wide central flight is characterized by voluptuous steps that swell downwards, bordered at either side by indirect rectilinear routes that ascend without rails, before all three fuse to enter the reading room. In other monumental inclines, the options are reduced to mirror images that differ solely in direction and scenery, as in the magnificent if virtually identical doublestaircases of Renaissance villas and Baroque palaces, culminating in the twin flights of Filippo Juvarra’s Palazzo Madama in Turin, Italy, and Balthasar Neumann’s Wurzburg Residence in Germany.
View down Via Appia to Via Acquedotto, Perugia; overview of the intersection of Via Appia and Via Acquedotto; alternate stairs at either side of Via Acquedotto; Via Appia flowing beneath overpass (clockwise from top left)