Architects step up to take stair designs to the next level

Staircases are a gift to artists who use this simple device in a multitude of creative ways to manipulate and even distort space

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 5:08am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 5:08am

There are few things more frustrating in a city dweller's day than a slow lift. And yet, we can happily stand and stare at a stair.

For staircases are more than people-movers. The simplest means of getting from one place to a higher plane has been around for thousands of years - and today, it seems we are more in love with them than ever.

Staircases, says British architect Alex de Rijke, who designed the Endless Stair for the 2013 London Design Festival that debuted outside the Tate Modern, are sculpture's gift to architecture.

"Most people find lifts convenient but boring. Stairs are simply more interesting spatially, compositionally and experientially," says de Rijke, a director of dRMM Architects and dean of the Architecture Royal College of Art.

Stairs can manipulate and even distort space in ways that people can find curious or compelling, perhaps even beautiful, he says. Consider the spectacle of a debutante making her entrance; Gone with the Wind's unforgettable staircase scene; Harry Potter's moving stairs - you can see why he believes that our infatuation with stairs is nothing new.

"For the last 4,000 years there has been interesting work done with stair design," says de Rijke.

Nevertheless, recent works show how staircases are scaling new heights. The Endless Stair is an interlocking, three-dimensional architectural sculpture conceived as a research project using engineered tulipwood, a plentiful and sustainable American hardwood. The dRMM team chose a staircase because of its sculptural quality. "Stairs are one of the nicest things about architecture," says de Rijke.

Staircases can be the conduit to maximise views, enhance natural light, provide additional storage or make a centrifugal statement. "Numerous designers have been toying with these ideas," says David Erdman, a co-director of davidclovers, a Hong Kong-based architecture firm.

Two of the firm's recent projects, in Sai Kung and Repulse Bay, feature open riser, cantilevered stairs. Open riser stairs are designed without the vertical timber slats often seen between the treads; the cantilever element means that the stairs are supported only by the wall. These architectural features work to break down the bulk of the stair, making it lighter and more transparent, says Erdman. "It allowed us to dilate what are otherwise fairly small spaces, at the same time drawing light down and through the buildings in new ways."

Another project in Stanley allowed for a modern architectural technique to enhance the craftsmanship of a preserved timber staircase in a mid-1950s home. Davidclovers' treatment was to wrap the underside and ceiling of the stairwell to make the volume of the stair more robust.

"We also pushed this 'teak ribbon' into the entry of each of the four units so the stair becomes a sort of building within the building," said partner Clover Lee. "It becomes a network of elements [cabinets, doors, ceilings] that flourish within and between units, making an incoherent building cohesive again."

Architect Johnny Wong, a co-founder of FAK3, used a serpentine shape for a bespoke staircase to improve the circulation in a five-storey Repulse Bay home. The formerly narrow staircase was replaced with a wider, more dynamic design flowing smoothly throughout the different levels, forming a natural light well while interacting with the windows to frame garden and sea views.

"Asymmetrical floor-plate openings defined the form of the stairs, which evolved to be more of a ribbon shape than a pure helix," Wong says of the design he calls the "ribbon stairs".

After the design was refined through more than 100 computer-generated studies, four craftsmen spent two months on site fixing an engineered oak body to the steel frame, then plastering and lacquering the finish. The handrail is designed as a single, continuous piece, with integrated LED lights for a "light ribbon" illumination.

Wong says the curvaceous staircase adds a playful element to the home. "It orientates the view while walking down. Moving through in a very fluid way, gaining sea glimpses from other levels, you get to experience the context more strongly," he says.

Aedas used the natural landscape as inspiration for a nine-storey private residence designed by Ken Wai. The hillside site of the Hong Kong Island property reminded the designer of an early image of the city, with a waterfall pouring down a cliff.

This visual governed the planning of the building, punctuated by a sculptural staircase sheathed in double-curved glass that reflects the free form of water, and was further reinterpreted as three stacking ice cubes. The project, known as THR350, last month won an Award of Merit (Residential/Hospitality) at ENR Global Best Projects Awards 2014 in the United States and a Silver Award (Architecture, Building and Structure Design) at A' Design Award 2013-2014 in Italy.

Wai, an Aedas board member, says 3D printing has removed design constraints and allowed architects to enter a "new age of romantic staircases, like the one we designed for THR350".

If, as Wai suggests, the human perception of space is considered to be the core principle of architecture, how better to express this than through clever use of staircases as a design device?