Staircase, or a series of steps or flight, or a pathway that covers verticality. From Cinderella leaving her slipper on the steps to the infamous demon-possessed spider walking from The Exorcist, stairs have played the most symbolic role that can infect both aesthetic delight and hypnotic horror and hence is a major element in terms of formal possibilities which is critical in its functional level. It is one of the richest architectural elements. 

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Still of the stairs from the movie Joker, which is now known as Joker stairs and is a major spot for meme tourism. ©Warner Bros

Although in philosophy, it can also simply suggest a journey or a passage of two states of being or ideas. Led Zeppelin’s ‘A stairway to heaven’ is a song that remains. It uses the same metaphor of ascending to enlightenment. The simple act of climbing is seen as a metaphor for the steps towards a much broader view of the world.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death ©

The Staircase is a term for steps that are accompanied by walls but in today’s contemporary time’s usage of the term can be for stairs alone. There is no certain origin yet known of the staircase but it has been built from way before. From the roads of Mount Tai in China to ancient granite steps; it would seem that in the earliest time, staircases were built along walls on both sides in most Egyptian Architecture in date around the 2nd millennium BC. The Palace terrace at Persepolis (ancient city of Iran) had a double flight of steps in the early 6th century BC that came on to become the beauty of the same. Later Romans came on to create barrel-vaulted flights and spiral stairs. But for medieval architects, staircases were mainly functional and were usually built to serve private areas since all major rooms were always located on the ground floor. 

Spiral staircases went on to become a specific feature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and can often be pictured as a spiral staircase in a palace, or an old castle. In literature, T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday IIImentions one archetypal example of spiral staircases as a path towards spiritual enlightenment. Grand curves were prominent and were termed as ‘Staircase of Honour’ or to simply inspire a sense of power. Leonardo Da Vinci used The Golden Ratio to study spiral staircases, realizing when looked from a certain angle spiral staircases gives an illusion of a never-ending staircase.

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Rembrandt’s painting “Philosopher in Meditation” (1632) ©

After the Renaissance era, staircases became parts of the art rather than just a medium of communicating between the floors. Andrea Palladio in 1570 published books where he introduced the idea of comfort through Architecture. He mentioned the fundamental aspects of stairs, the human being taken as a scalar reference to design comfortable staircases with appropriate steepness and depth. He also continued to explain stairs as just another compartment and to be kept enclosed between walls. 

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The four books of Architecture by Andrea Palladio ©

On the contrary, Michelangelo built a triple stairway in the lobby of The Laurentian Library which became an important example of Mannerist architecture. Though dramatic and spacious staircases later became a defining feature of Baroque Architecture where staircases spilled like lava and occupied most of the lobby spaces. 

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The Laurentian Library ©

In modern architecture, staircases had become an essential element both functionally and aesthetically. Walter Gropius’s design of the exposed staircase in a glazed tower is one such influential example. From the traditional times of building staircases with wood, stone, or marble, to the use of steel, iron, and reinforced concrete, Architects now have the opportunity to use curves and sweeps that wouldn’t have been possible before but now is an important feature of contemporary designs. One of the most recent examples of the staircase being the major element can be seen in Tadao Ando’s design for the He Art Museum or HEM, in China. The design is in a series of stacked disks with a central helix spiral staircase running as an oculus turning the core into a well of light. Tadao Ando with his style of capturing even the minimalist emotions through his works yet again has achieved the purity of stairs as an element.

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HEM by Tadao Ando ©

But the history of stairs sure features a fascinating tale, but with major studies of accessible Architecture, it has shined a light on the duality of the story which is the epidemic of stair related accidents and the lack of accessibility for aging and universal society. After the invention of lifts, stairs have come to be known as neglect of inclusivity which poses the challenge of designing accessible stairs. Ramps being the obvious solution, there have also been innovative stairlifts and technology to help in accessing conventional stairs. Even now, there has been a hybrid of ramps and stairs designs to offer accessibility to all. So, it is safe to say that stairs would still be an eminent element of a building but with empathy to inclusivity. The stories of staircases have been wild and ever subtly changing, one can even call it a climb towards enlightenment.


  • Stories of the staircase: a journey through stairways’ role in architecture
  • The History of Stairs: From Fascinating Architecture to access barriers
  • Tadao Ando reveals design for He Art Museum in China

Ashmita Gupta is an Architecture student who believes art is the medicine of life. A book sniffer and an indie music addict, she is often driven with curiosity and hence finds her thrill in art and literature.