COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The stairs at Hardwick Hall. (S)
The stairs at Hardwick Hall. (S)

David takes a look at how stairs can take architecture to a whole different level.

Nosing, tread, stringing. What are we talking about? How about dog-leg, volute, riser? Got it now? No? Last try – newel, baluster, handrail. Yes; this week’s column is about staircases.

Ever since mankind started living in anything above a single storey there has had to be some way of reaching the upper floors. And even before that, there must have been a genius who realised that cutting steps into a hillside or a cliff face was the easiest way to get up a height. Perhaps the first stairs were simply ladders, which then developed to be permanent fixtures with wider, and therefore easier, steps.

In the great earlier civilisations there were great ceremonial staircases – examples have been found in the palaces at Knossos in Crete and at Persepolis in Iran. Assyrian ziggurats and, later, Mayan and Aztec temples also had massive and impressive staircases. At some point it was realised that it was possible to put stairs in a smaller space by making them wind – the first spiral staircase we know of was put in a temple in the Greek colony at Selinunte in Sicily around 480 BC. The defensive Scottish brochs probably date from a few centuries later – the best-preserved, Mousa Broch in Shetland, was probably constructed around 100 BC. Brochs had stairs hidden within their double-wall construction, winding from floor to floor to the look-out position on the roof. From much the same time, the Romans built both spiral and straight staircases – the latter usually had curved vaults over them; good examples can be seen in the Coliseum.

More familiar in this country, perhaps, are the spiral staircases in medieval castles and churches. It is said that in castles the wind should go to the right, allowing defenders above to wield their swords against intruders coming up, who would find their sword arms hampered by the central post – the newel. In great churches the stairs give access to walkways and roofs. In all these cases the staircases, (except examples of monastic night stairs, as at Hexham Abbey, which are straight – and safer) worm their way through apparently-solid walls, and are hidden – they were useful, not ceremonial.

In the Renaissance there was a renewal of the Roman idea of vaulted stairs – many of the Roman and Venetian palaces, for example, have them. In 15th and 16th-century Britain, though, stairs were still more a useful than a grand feature. Even in the greatest houses they were usually tucked away, off the great hall. Only occasionally do we find something intended to be more impressive – at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Bess of Hardwick had a grand staircase built to traverse the house and take her to the grand chamber on the top floor. Even then, the staircase does not rise from the hall, but from the space behind it.

A change came gradually; Michelangelo led the way with his staircase at the Laurentian Library in Florence, designed in 1524. For almost the first time the staircase occupies its own splendid space, deliberately designed to impress the visitor. It took a while, of course, for such splendour to reach Britain, but there was a gradual move to more ornate, usually wooden, staircases in late Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. Some of the grandest houses were given elaborately-carved staircases with rich balustrades and allegorical figures on the newel posts – a simpler example can be seen at Red House Chapel near Moor Monkton.

When Inigo Jones introduced Palladian architecture into this country in the early 17th century, he did away with all this elaboration. In Palladio’s own buildings the staircases were hidden away, so Jones followed the same pattern – though some of his staircases, like the spiral Tulip Stairs in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, are of great beauty.

After the Civil War, architects like Wren brought in a continental Renaissance style, but Wren built few impressive staircases. It was his successors, like Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, who began to develop the stairs. At Eston Neston in Northamptonshire, designed in the 1690s, Hawksmoor provided a dramatic main staircase in two flights. At Castle Howard, Vanbrugh’s stairs wind around the central hall, offering exciting vistas through arches and past massive columns.

It’s really only in the mid-18th century, though, that we find the imposing staircases that we usually expect in our great country houses. They take many forms: they may be cantilever, where the steps are apparently unsupported; a single flight breaking into a double flight – or vice versa; a ‘flying’ staircase, where the stairs don’t touch the walls of the hall. These were the stairs for the gentry to be seen on, down which they could sweep to receive their guests – they are grand spaces for grand people. The servants, of course, used the insignificant back stairs. In smaller 18th century houses the staircase occupied what we now think of as the hall; stairs have elegant wooden handrails ending in curled volutes and often have elaborately-turned balusters as they rise through several floors.

In the 19th century grand staircases appeared in public buildings, too; you have only to think of the town halls and public libraries of our greater cities. They are symbols of municipal pride and the values placed on corporate affairs. Ripon Town Hall has an early, if leaning, example. On the other hand the staircases in our houses have in the last few decades generally come to occupy less space – viewers of Grand Designs may get the impression that modern houses have to have open wooden stairs with glass sides, to give an impression of space where little exists.

Staircases deserve our attention – whether in our public buildings or our homes. They can be much more than a means of raising us from floor to floor; they can indicate social status or municipal authority, grandeur or confinement, and, as you ascend or descend, an interesting and changing spatial experience – things that even the most modern glass-sided, glass-floored lift can offer.