A Whirl of Stairs

By Leah Bolling

Round and round to the top we go, spiralling up, your head is spinning. You’re left giddy once you have reached your destination, yet you may not have realised how rich of a history the stairs you just climbed truly have. We often climb staircases for the purpose of getting to the top. Some of us have been told that it is not about the destination but more about the journey, but there is so much significance within the very spiral staircase you’re standing on. Since ancient times, architects have been constructing staircases. But why, even at the beginning of history, are they spiralling? There must be a purpose.

Centuries ago, spiral staircases were considered to be revolutionary technology. They served a very specific purpose- protection. As castles were built to house royalty, spiral staircases were constructed to add additional protection. These staircases were strategically designed to curve in a clockwise direction, therefore, favouring guards coming down the stairs rather than intruders going up. Right-handed swordsmen could not swing their swords going up the stairs, however defenders coming down the stairs had much more room. Many of these staircases were built in tight quarters with uneven steps to make the climb even more difficult and slow down the intruder.

As time went on, spiral staircases began to be built in classical buildings and cathedrals which allowed architects the opportunity to master the beauty of crafting a spiral staircase. In the borough of Greenwich, you can find The Queen’s House which is home to the “Tulip Stairs.” Designed by the architect Inigo Jones in 1636, the Tulip Stairs were the first centrally unsupported staircase in Great Britain. They get their name from the striking contrast of blue railings against the white walls. At St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you can find, “The Dean’s Stairs.” A spiral staircase designed by Chrisopher Wren in 1705. The stairs have a unique design that gives the appearance of each step “floating.” 

Today, given the rich history of spiral staircases, they resemble elegance. Many spiral staircases have been built in modern homes. Danish architect Tommy Rand recently completed a home for himself that features a gorgeous spiral staircase made from plywood. The dramatic contrast between the warm golden wood colour against the grey, concrete walls of the house make for a beautiful scene. Located at the Laban Dance Centre in London, is an absolutely stunning  staircase. The translucent building designed by Herzog & de Meuron allows for light to be manipulated into casting an array of colours on the interior and exterior of the building. This appearance of ever-changing light and colour in addition to a captivating spiral staircase in the building makes for a truly remarkable building. 

When digging deeper into the history of spiral staircases, it allows us to truly appreciate the path of where they started and how they are perceived today. So, when you’re staring upwards at the long staircase in front of you, try considering that it is not about the destination, it’s not about the journey, but, perhaps it is about the staircase itself.

If you enjoyed reading about spinning spiral staircases, take a look at Scratch That!

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