Magazine article Artforum International

Giant Steps: Alex Kitnick on the Staircase in Contemporary Architecture

Magazine article Artforum International

Giant Steps: Alex Kitnick on the Staircase in Contemporary Architecture

Article excerpt

THE PRIMORDIAL SPACES of modernism were spaces of labor. It was in the industrialized efficiency of the factory floor that many of the fundamental attributes of modern architecture--the grid, the open plan, the revealed structure--were developed. And as modern labor became more corporate over the course of the twentieth century, modern architecture did, too: The cubicles of the typical modern office adhered to the same rigorous organizational logic as factory workbenches, with desks appearing one after the other, arranged in single file for solitary work. Yet today the nature of working life has fundamentally changed, defined by a flexibility and sociability-- described by many as a post-Fordist condition--that often manifests itself in spaces that are driven less by program than by possibility. Fittingly, architecture's new mandate seems to be to create spaces where workers might cluster and gather, then disperse.

Today's working environment is a manifestation of our networked, high-tech, and hypermediated era, yet its main architectural symptom is surprisingly archaic: the resurgence of the staircase. Indeed, stairs have played a literally outsize role in architecture in recent years (the trend's apotheosis might be Thomas Heatherwick's proposed StairMaster for Hudson Yards), but, contrary to their original function, they are imagined less as sites for circulation than as zones for exchange. Removed from actual utility, supersize steps no longer offer the best way to get from one place to the next so much as they suggest a technology for bumping into people--staircase as social media. Examples abound: A recent interior conversion of the advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy's Manhattan office by the New York partnership WORKac includes a staircase evoking a coin--a circle flipped halfway between two floors--wide enough for a town hall-style meeting but also suited to a casual chat. The designers' entire effort seems to have been compressed into this stair, which, suspended in the office's center, is the only architectural element of an otherwise empty loft space. Its sculptural quality (think Fletcher Benton meets Carsten Holler) plays up the feature's symbolism: An agora at home in the corporate world, it seems to give each encounter a heads-or-tails chance of working out. A similar hunger for interaction has also trickled down to more traditional business environments: Weiss/ Manfredi's recent design for Novartis's North American headquarters in East Hanover, New Jersey, has a loungelike staircase, suggesting that leisure is necessary for thinking profitably about pharmaceuticals as well.

The belief that spaces without scripted functions harbor great possibilities is nothing new, of course. Architectural vanguards have long countered the prevailing modernist trend toward rigidly defined and articulated spaces: The postwar British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, for example, spoke of the "space between" buildings in order to look beyond the dominance of modern architecture's monolithic structures. But if in an avant-garde context such emphasis was typically deeply social and pointedly critical--for the Smithsons it was a means of acknowledging the knit-together nature of working-class neighborhoods, which was often undermined by modernist housing schemes-- recent architecture poses such spaces not as sites of class conflict or encounters with difference but simply as settings for individual interactions. In such designs, a society structured by power, class, or ideology seems hardly to exist, replaced by an idealized possibility for innovation.

If the contemporary work space--from the clubby spaces of We Work to the corporate fantasia of Norman Foster's Apple ring--is tailored to an economy based on sociability and information, many have imagined the field of art itself as an ideal model for such an economy. Indeed, the free-form sensibility underpinning so many offices today owes much to the example of the artist's loft or the studio collective. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.