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stairs

The Steps of San Francisco

San Francisco steps, concrete, multiple flights

San Francisco steps, concrete, multiple flights

San Francisco is built on hills - very steep hills.  And, its street layout is basically a traditional grid overlaid on this topography.  This makes for a lot of very crazy inclines for both streets and buildings.  For residential properties, this most often means steps up to the front door.  Many, many steps.

So many steps in fact that the "front door" of the house is really this multiple flight of stairs.

We recently started working on a project in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and I managed to get a day free to walk around the city.  And what struck me most was these vertiginous steps.  Some, like those pictured above, are composed of shifted flights that, one would suppose, take you up to a door unseen from the street.  They are attached to an otherwise fairly conventional structure and are a functional solution to the sharp grade change.  Others, like those shown below, are a presence unto themselves:

San Francisco steps, stone, multiple flights, with gate and funicular

San Francisco steps, stone, multiple flights, with gate and funicular

These cascading stone steps curve up to a house almost invisible behind the retaining walls and private funicular (far right side) - a house that surely is a worthy culmination of all the effort required to get there.

San Francisco steps, brick, multiple flights

San Francisco steps, brick, multiple flights

San Francisco steps, concrete, multiple flights

San Francisco steps, concrete, multiple flights

The stairs provide a very special function for a residence in the city - they create a layered sense of privacy that increases from the sidewalk to the house.  While some are rather fortress-like, most are subtle and have multiple smaller sets of stairs at the sidewalk's edge to begin to define the edge between public and private.  While the homeowners can claim legal property rights to all the steps, the lowest portions are as much in the public realm as the sidewalk.  The best of these stairs present the lowest step or two as a little gift to the sidewalk strollers of the city, a place to step out of the line of pedestrians, set down a package or reconsider the path home.

San Francisco steps, brick, under cover

San Francisco steps, brick, under cover

I also especially like the little, quiet, private stairs that hide behind walls and other entrances.  These hold the promise of a kind of intimacy and civic grace - maybe only possible in a city with moderate crime rates and little icy mornings.

Stair as theatre- part three

In the previous posts I have remarked on the drama of stairs.  That drama is certainly reinforced by the actual design of the stair - its details and materials, certainly its shape and how sharp or relaxed the descent or ascent.  Unfortunately, as architects love stairs, we can get a bit carried away with this sense of drama and go a bit overboard.

The drama here may have a lot more to do with the probability of  falling and ending up as a bloody heap at the bottom of the beautiful stairs.  Architects complain all the time about building codes.  However, some might make a bit of sense.  Like providing a handrail.  Or maybe guardrails.  Or treads that you won't slip on.  Or all of the above.

This stuff is known in the industry as "stair porn".  It looks a bit shocking and bit amazing and not very good for you.  This kind of visual drama misses the point entirely as far as I'm concerned.  The drama of a stair is the potential and very real moment of moving up or down it.  The stair literally transcends, breaks you free from the surface of the earth or at the very least it is Scarlett sweeping down to Rhett.  If the stair itself requires so much attention to the careful placement of every foot and hand, then maybe that heightens the tension of the transition but only in the most negative and frankly childish sort of way.  These glossy stairs that work so hard in their minimalism and lightness to defy gravity all seem to flee from the real potential of a stair - engaging gravity itself, pulling yourself up or plunging down.

Stair as theatre - part one

Stairs are inherently dramatic.  As the transition from one level to the next, they break the plane of the ceiling or floor and immediately engage the psychological territory that Gaston Bachelard so elegantly describes in The Poetics of Space.  Going up is to climb toward the sky, going down is to delve into the earth.  Hierarchy is more than simply implied, it is thrust upon us.  This post is going to be the first of a series in examining stairs and their architectural expressions and meanings as well as their technological parameters and code-driven outcomes.  As they are also about the most-expensive-per-square-foot item in a single-family house, a thoughtful approach to their design in each project, beyond purely visual aesthetics, should be warranted if not cherished. In a residence, stairs also often mark the transition from public to private space.  In a traditionally organized, multi-level house, private bedrooms are most often found on the upper levels and the more public rooms of the house - living room, dining room, etc. - are most often on the main or ground level.  (This  is only very general and the exceptions, like piano noble plans, can be all the more dramatic by comparison).  Moving up or down the stairs is often the most profound transition between realms.  The stair itself can ignore this transition but doing so clearly wastes an opportunity to bring richness and depth to a project.

The most dramatic example I can think of in the use of the stair as a piece of private-public theatre is the large, sweeping formal stairs of large houses like the southern mansions mentioned in the last post.  The best visual evidence of this is actually from the theatre, the two stairs in Gone With The Wind - the Twelve Oaks sweeping double stair and the massive Tara stair.  Actually there are a tremendous number of shots in the movie that use the stair as a device, both deserve best-supporting awards.

Rhett waiting for Scarlett at the bottom of the stair is a great piece of sexual tension as she descends from the innocence of her childhood bedroom down to the world and all its desires and dangers. (Maybe more like a spider descending upon its prey however.)  I especially like the following still:

Here the stair is clearly not only the separation between private and public, but also defines the roles of men and women.  Scarlett carefully choosing which tread is close enough but not too far is maybe the best descriptor of how a stair can work to both join and separate both the physical and psychological areas of the house.