A blog about universal and accessible design

Monday, January 31, 2011

Worlds with and without stairs II

Above is a video that has been circulating in my facebook feed and various blogs, showing an experiment to see if altering the experience of walking up stairs would change people's likelihood of taking the stairs rather than the escalator. It's pretty cute and simple, and it's nice to see people having a fun time in the mundane setting of a subway station. This is not a strictly "accessible" form of design, though it does play off of choice between ways of moving through a place, which does have to do with physical access. And it makes me wonder - how much do designers think about stairs? Are they inviting, discouraging, or just plain functional? In a world when we often have the choice of elevator, escalator, stairs or ramps, could designers make these experiences more distinct?

When I first started this blog, I posted about the idea of a "world without stairs" - wondering whether an accessible world could actually mean the disappearance of such a standard architectural feature as the stairs.

I've learned a few things since then... one is, of course, that stairs are just one kind of physical barrier, for one kind of access issue. In fact, many people with disabilities prefer stairs to ramps - for example, if they use a prosthetic leg or a cane, that straight platform can be easier to use. The first ever Architectural Standard in the U.S. included not only measurements for ramps, but design guidelines for stair heights and angles that would not interfere with those who needed to drag their feet up the front of stairs:

(image: figure showing unacceptable and acceptable stair designs, from the 1961 American National Standards Institute's Specifications for Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible to, and Usable by, the Physically Handicapped, which became the guidelines for state and federal accessibility laws in the 1960s and 70s).

In my earlier post on stairs, I noted some architectural examples (such as the Guggenheim) that used alternatives to stepped surfaces as a design feature. These were not spaces explicitly designed for wheelchair use (in fact some of them might belong in the Facebook "Wheelchair Ramps and Access from Hell" photo collection), but might suggest ways of making access an explicit part of design, rather than an afterthought.

I was also thinking about ways that stairs themselves can be accessible or inaccessible. For those who walk up and down stairs, they can have a pronounced effect on how we experience a place. Think of the difference between ascending a grand staircase, feeling that you are rising up to an important and elegant place - perhaps like the Metropolitan Opera's lush red stairways - and scrambling up the narrow spiral stairs of a cathedral bell tower or a lighthouse.

In some cases architects consciously use stairways to dramatize walking through the space - in other cases, I wonder what thought went into a stair design.

At the Frank Furness-designed Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, the central stair to the galleries has no handrail. The effect is subtle, but nonetheless jarring - your hand might reach out for something to hold, but instead you feel a bit out of sorts, pitched downward with no assurance. In the context of this historic building, we get a sense of a different time and a different set of expectations about bodily composure walking down the stairs. (Image shows a woman from the back, descending a set of stone stairs without a handrail in sight). In 2011, the museum has been designed to provide an alternate route to the stairs, but in its original design, Furness certainly made a distinct statement for those coming and going into this temple for art.

On a recent trip I discovered another set of museum steps that literally stopped me in my tracks. The newish Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati is the only American building by Zaha Hadid, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect best known for prototype or drawn work, so I was excited to visit while I was in town for a wedding. The sleek lines and geometry of the museum building are appealing, but the stairs immediately stood out to me - and not in a particularly good way. Criss-crossing the void in the main entry lobby, these stairs have a much shorter rise, and longer step, than we expect in standard staircases. They are so awkward to walk up that I almost wondered if this was an installation of the museum collection itself. As a long-ish strider I was constantly tripping up these stairs, and almost fell on the way up. I asked the guards if they had gotten used to them over time, and they chuckled, no, and confirmed that I was far from the only visitor to ask about the stair heights.

It's interesting to me to wonder how Hadid came to these stairs. Did she deliberately design something that would halt your walk, maybe prepare you to pay attention as you see the artworks? Is this an explicit message that we should not relax too much or feel too comfortable in a museum? Or are the stairs, like many functional elements of contemporary architecture, just the product of some low-level drafts-person who designs based on general instructions of the architect? In any case, I wondered if Hadid had ever walked up these stairs. They are certainly dramatic, but the ultimate result for me was to feel frustrated and a bit indignant - how dare this architect tell me how to walk! And of course, I thought of how these steps would feel for someone with a physical impairment - for whom that break in routine might be more than an annoyance.

Leaving the CCA, I decided to take the elevator down. In a world with stairs, we might choose to avoid them too.