Stairway to heaven
The staircase is one of the fundamental elements of architecture. In the next paragraphs, it will be analysed from different aspects – the representation of the staircase
in movies, its monumental quality in architecture and from the mental sensibility which this structure represents. In all of these cases, the staircase is valued for its emotional and visual components.
Alfred Hitchcock was an English film director and producer, known as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. He started working as a set designer in movie production and built his way up to become a director. When it comes to creating suspense in film, he could be named its the godfather. In several interviews he explains
that the staircase played an important role in his movies:
“I think that staircases are made to go up and down. And therefore, they become very photogenic. That they rise, they take a figure up and down, instead of keeping a figure
on the flat.”
Thus the staircase became an arena for psychological tension. He believed that different types of staircases represented different emotions. For example, in his eyes, spiral staircases were threatening due to their circular movement, they implied a loss of control mixed with sexual overtones and, in his movies, often even leading to death.
Built as a vertical construction the staircase becomes an excellent platform to play with when it comes to actor representation. Alfred Hitchcock said that the size of an object in the frame should be equal to its importance in the story. The placement of an actor creates a power-play which is an important emotional aspect for the movie’s plot. This is represented in scenes with no camera movement within the frame:
An actor on top of the staircase looking down, filmed from the bottom, shows the power his character holds. The staircase becomes as important or even more than the person standing on top of it.
An actor at the bottom of the staircase looking up, filmed from above, shows the vulnerability and the lack of power. It represents the victim within a particular story. Movement on the staircase can be used to switch power or represent the loss of it.
Hitchcock often used movement down the stairs to show murder or an attempt of doing so. Since in his opinion the movement of falling down represents the length, or the process, of murder, which when done on the staircase highlights the intensity of horror.
In the movie Psycho (1960) Hitchcock used this specific approach. Psycho is an American psychological horror film and considered one of his best works. This movie set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behaviour and sexuality in American films. The staircase, for Hitchcock, visually led to something unknown. He played with this perception “to torture” the viewer emotionally throughout the movie.
In Psycho (1960) the main events happen in the Bates motel. The house of the main character is located on top of the hill next to the motel. In two-thirds of the movie, not so many scenes show the staircase which leads to the house, without showing any close-ups
of the house itself. Only at the end of the movie, there is a relatively long scene of entering the house. Within this scene, 4 types of staircases are used to build up tension. The whole scene only ends after 15 minutes, but without this method, the fear and the unknown would not have sunk in as well as it did. Hitchcock’s fetish for using stairs in his films goes way back before Psycho (1960).
Considered as one of his first movies, we must look at The Lodger (1927). Due to the limited technical possibilities, the early work of Hitchcock was constructed as a theatre stage. In this movie particularly, we can see the advantages of using stairs as a platform
for leading the audience through
the story. The constant movement of actors going up and down, as well as their placement on the stairs, elevates the flat theatre set and gives another dimension to the movie. Therefore, in this movie the staircase received different attention. Being used as a storytelling element and almost always taking the two-thirds of the frame, it became monumental. In his early movies, the staircase showed the value of being a part of the architecture.
The staircase is initially built to move through space, it leads the viewer through a museum similar as the director leads his audience through the film. For some museums it is one of the reasons while being under construction, architects take drastic decisions to change space. For instance, SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) built by the Swiss architect Mario Botta in 1995, was recently redesigned by the Norwegian architect firm Snøhetta). The most controversial move in the reconstruction process was the removal of the original staircase from the lobby. One of the reasons for this was the lack of light from the oculus which the original one blocked. The new structure was made wider and gave the opportunity to display artwork alongside it. By doing so, visitors use the staircase as a platform to view art. Sometimes the staircase becomes a form of art in itself. For this, I must mention architecture firm CEBRA which redesigned Denmark’s experimentarium (science centre) and as the main element constructed a giant copper stairway in the middle of the museum. Referring to the DNA strand’s structure, an abstract version of it was translated into a staircase. In this case, playing with the visual performance of the stairway,
it creates another experience within the museum.
Aside from being a physical construction, the staircase is often used as a metaphor. In mythology and the Bible, it gets a different appreciation. For example, Jacob’s ladder is the name given to the stairway that appears in the dream of the Biblical Patriarch Jacob. The ladder symbolises a connection between Earth and Heaven (or the cosmos), as well as the history of mankind, in which the steps of the ladder represent the succession of kingdoms that have ruled the world. This biblical story gives a glimpse of what the staircase symbolises. Next to this, another meaning proposes that the staircase may be read as a means to achieve spiritual elevation, a path towards the sky.
In real life the metaphor of climbing stairs is often used to describe the journey through life, reaching goals, concurring dreams and climbing out of misery. As an allegory, the staircase can be found in many aspects of poetry. The good playground for this type of staircase usage is music lyrics. Amongst many, one of the classics from Led Zeppelin stands out.
“There’s a lady who’s sure.
All that glitters are gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there, she knows.
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”
As the author of the song says, the lyrics are about a woman who wants to break out of her misery and get to “heaven.” Referring to the myth from the Bible and other allegories of the staircase, this song represents the wish many of us have. Looking at all the aspects of the staircase, from the visual to emotional, it attracts attention. It is something to which we give no appreciation whatsoever. The close analysis reveals the hidden impact we get from this architectural element. For instance, by using stairs Hitchcock displayed horror, power and vulnerability in his movies. The staircase holds a lot of power, and I would call it the silent actor, this referring to all sorts of contexts and positions it is placed in. Staircases have something magnetising that you simply cannot describe.