It is cause for wonderment that the seemingly mundane device defined as 'a means of passing from one level to another by increments, more or less com-forable — the vertical measures known as risers and the horizontal goings as treads' has, through history, generated such richly charged cultural and technical invention. The poetic extremes of human ingenuity are equally celebrated in the astonishing plastic virtuosity of Michelangelo's entry stair to the Laurentian library in Florence and the humbling simplicity of the early steps carved from a single log in Norway. Each symbolize deeply ingrained attitudes towards the world in a particular time and place, the means miraculously matching the ends.

At one moment the aspiration of stairs leading to heaven is frustrated in the tower of Babel, at the next they lead to sacrificial death in El Castillo, Chichen-Itze in Mexico. Then again, Aalto demonstrated how a modest stair may generate the form of a small, secular masterpiece — grass steps lead to a raised court from which access to the entrance continues a progression, squeezing space, turning corners under filtered light first to deliver town councillors to their chamber and then, following the sequence, the public ascend three more steps to the gallery where their representatives may be observed in debate — this the Saynatsalo Town Hall in Finland which demonstrates democracy at work by means of a few judiciously disposed treads and risers!

Stairs serve as servant and master, as instrument and icon. The full range of symbolic and practical ends are obliged, however, to recognize the physical characteristics of the human body, each individual progression a miracle of balance and co-ordination requiring conscious effort and tactile contact as with no other element in our buildings.

The originator of this rewarding book, in his youth, sought safe refuge in the claustrophobic confines of the cupboard under domestic stairs during bombing raids on London, not, perhaps, the ideal conditions to generate inspiration. But it came. No doubt later, as contrast, he revelled in the vertiginous thrills of climbing to a virtual heaven through the structure of the Eiffel tower. The latter experience with its seductive imagery, celebrated in painting and photography, served as the epitome of what the twentieth century held in store — transparency, technology, the world viewed from above, humankind caught in a giant web. The stair through history as been solid, reassuring our passage. As traced in this book it has been transformed from its secure, compression-bound forebears to become a transparent, sometimes alarming, tensile instrument defying gravity, the excuse provided to display design virtuosity and liven private and public spaces and sculptural bravura.

Piranesi dreamt and drew stairs, but necessity bids us to transform such dreams into reality and a fine balance has been achieved, in this restructured, compressed and enhanced edition of Stairs, between the historical overview and everyday practicalities. The subsequent lifetime union of the small boy who emerged from under the stairs has been admirably consummated by his partner.

Allen Cunningham London, 200!

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