Steps and stairs . . .

The idea of cutting steps into the ground to make it easier to walk up steep slopes must have been as big a technical and human breakthrough as the wheel in its time.  The oldest set of steps I've seen is a worn first millennium Etruscan flight that were cut into the earth in northern Italy; it looked like the sort of short cut up to the milking shed that you'd see on any farm.

It must have happened everywhere in very early times. In some mountainous places like Nepal you wouldn't even have been able to walk between villages without steps. I walked around the Annapurna Range in Nepal in the year of the Parliament House competition, and the valley we walked up had no animal or wheeled traffic. Everything has always been carried in and out by porters with a strap around their foreheads, and still is.  You simply wouldn't have been able to walk up those slopes carrying such heavy loads without steps. The path was a good two metres wide so people could pass, and the steps were usually stone.  At the tops of long flights there was often a shelf at the right height so porters could rest their load for a few minutes without unharnessing. It made you appreciate the absolute necessity for steps and the enormous unsung labour that has gone into the building and maintaining of both path and steps over thousands of years.

The first stairs inside buildings were probably simple ladders but they evolved into flights of stairs over the years, eventually becoming the centrepiece of grand architectural designs. Everyone will have their own favourites.  What first springs to my mind is the grand staircase of the Paris Opera, and the voluptuous baroque sweep of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Stairs are a place where architects can show off; even in budget buildings the staircase is the place for some architectural indulgence and greater design care.

When I was a young architect the rule of thumb for internal stairs was a 10 inch tread (or going) with a one inch nosing, and a seven inch rise; and this could be varied slightly as necessary to suit the circumstances of the space the staircase had to be fitted into.  In metric terms that translates into a 250 mm tread with a 25 mm nosing, and a riser of 175 mm.

The Building Code of Australia has a set of requirements for stairs that specifies maximum and minimum ranges for the going G of between 355-240 mm, for risers (R)  of between 700 and 550 mm, and a slope relationship (2R+G) of between700 and 550.  Applying my old Imperial guidelines to this formula, 2R @ 175 plus G @ 250 equals a median 600!   A few minutes on the back of an envelope will show that the formula doesn't permit the designer to make the stair either too steep or too shallow.  There are also other BCA restrictions; a flight of stairs for example must have no more than 18 risers nor less than 2 risers.

In her book 'Design and Detail of the Space between Buildings'  (Architectural Press 1960) Elizabeth Beazly celebrates the drama and importance of stairs in the urban landscape;

'Few things have such potentialities for creating character as a ramp or a flight of stairs.  For drama they are unbeatable.   Think how Rome has exploited the levels of the seven hills.  From the humblest flight connecting the alleys of Trastevere to that fantastic Baroque staircase that flows down to the Piazza di Spagna, or the monumental ramped steps that lead up to the Capitol, each captures or creates (one cannot really tell which) the essence of the mood of the place.

She goes on to make the important point that there is a difference between steps outside in public places and those inside buildings that isn't well appreciated.  This difference is often not understood and as a consequence it is increasingly common for external steps to have the same proportions as stairs inside buildings.

This is a mistake!  External steps need to be deeper and flatter than internal steps, it's something to do with the different, less constrained way we walk outside with open space around us, compared with the more deliberate way we walk up enclosed internal stairs.

 Beazley points out that public steps that have internal proportions are the least successful outside, particularly those with wide flights; the proportions appear mundane and stingy. 

Toprove the point she measured famous public steps in Athens, Rome and London and found that they all increased the going and decreased the rise in response to this important inside-outside difference. The Spanish Steps for example, have a going of 394 mm and a rise of 147 mm, and a range of seven other famous steps in the above cities averaged goings of 332 mm and risers of 147 mm, that is they all had shallower rises and deeper treads than typical internal stairs.

To determine how external public steps in Melbourne compared, I measured some old and new steps in central Melbourne.  What this showed was that external steps associated with older Victorian era buildings had much deeper treads and shallower risers than those to most contemporary buildings.

The largest and arguably the most important steps in the CBD are those leading up to the Parliament, which has generous 400 mm treads and risers of 160 mm.  The old Treasury Building's steps are the same as are the steps in front of the State Library of Victoria: it seems to have been the standard for public steps in the 1850 decade. 

The main entrance steps to the Customs House now the Immigration Museum are even deeper and shallower; 490 mm x 120 mm.  The steps up to St Pauls Cathedral are also a generous 380 mm x 150 mm and the City Square has new steps 400 mm in depth with 140mm risers.

I also found that it's quite common for new stairs up to existing buildings to be meaner than the original ones.  The main entrance steps up to the columned portico of the St Kilda City Hall for example, are 37o mm x 160 mm (incl. 40 mm nosing), whereas the steps to the new office extension around the corner in Carlisle Street measure a less generous 29o x 150 with no nosings.

Federation Square has good ramped steps, and higher steps designed for sitting on, but their longer straight flights of steps only average 340 mm deep treads with 160 mm risers, and the new ARM designed steps linking St Kilda Road down to Southbank have an unfortunate 310 mm x 170 mm domestic scale for that important urban location.

Stairs up to modern offices and shops on the whole had much more restricted dimensions; one of the entrances into Melbourne Central for example had domestic scale 300 mm treads and 150 mm risers, and typical office buildings mostly had tread and risers with similar proportions.

The classical tradition of well proportioned external steps was clearly alive in Melbourne in the 19th century.  How did it happen that it's been lost over the last hundred years? 

When the steps up to the Acropolis and the Parthenon were built around 450 BC the Athenians designed them with generous 490 mm treads and 175 mm risers and they are still being used with pleasure by thousands of tourists today. 

Over two thousand years later with a much richer material culture, our priorities are apparently so governed by the bottom line that we ignore the well trodden examples I've quoted.  We can afford to do them better, so why is it that most of our public spaces have such mean domestic scale steps?

There is no straight line correlation between affluence and happiness; more consumption doesn't appear to make us any happier according to the polls, and it's indicative of our unthinking over-consumption ethic that our fastest growing building type is self storage places for all the stuff we've bought but never use! 

The Athenians had subtle minds. We don't do anything in our buildings half as clever as entasis, the slight swelling they applied to columns so that they appeared to be straight.  They also found time to sit around and discuss the best way to live the examined life.  Perhaps we could with advantage turn off the i-phones, forget Linked In and emulate the Athenians in their attitude to life as well as in the design of steps?

Don Gazzard LFAIA
mid April 2013.

PS: To delight in beautiful staircases, both internal and external, readers may be interested to consult Staircases by Eva Jiricna (Laurence King Publishing 2001)