Magnificent seven: staircases

Hitchcock used them in his films to create a mood of subterfuge and deception. In religious discourse, they are commonly seen as illustrating a path to higher knowledge. Georgina Lavers discovers how the following designs extend the staircase’s meaning beyond a connection from A to B, whether it be by carving steps out of a Hawaiian landscape, or a reinvention of the Möbius strip

1. The Ribbon Chapel: Hiroshima, Japan

ribbon chapel hiroshima
The Ribbon Chapel, Hiroshima, JapanImage: Koji Fuji / Nakasa & Partners

Tucked away on the grounds of a luxury resort in Japan, the Ribbon Chapel was conceived as a wedding chapel. While it looks like a building in the midst of unravelling, its swooping dance of walkways is actually all about bringing things together.

The ultra-modern chapel was designed by the Japanese architect Hiroshi Nakamura, who set out to create a building that could evoke the coming together of two people in marriage. To this end he built the small chapel to consist of two winding strips of building that weave into a cone that acts as the loose structure of the space.

2. The Nishi Building: Canberra, Australia

The Nishi Building, Canberra, Australia
The Nishi Building, Canberra, AustraliaImage: John Gollings

‘It takes a village’ was the unofficial motif behind the Nishi building’s lobby, whose creation involved fifty designers, artists and creators. The building serves as an ideal metaphor for the ethos of the quarter in which it sits – New Acton, an arts and culture precinct that has been developed to counteract the sprawling suburbs of Canberra. The vision of New Acton was to develop a centre that was cosmopolitan and communal, two ideas that are reflected in the unusual staircase.

The lobby, which was designed by March Studio alongside other companies that included the Japanese studio Suppose Design Office, features an overwhelming 2,150 pieces of recycled wood, some of which serve as a functional staircase. The rest are suspended from the ceiling, with the light outside throwing intricate patterns through the hanging timber.

"Freed to scatter up the walls and across the ceiling, the suspended timber filters exterior light and views into and from internal spaces," said March Studio. "Spidery, pixellated shadows are cast on the floor and bare walls." The steps, then, become more than just stairs – dotted around the walls of the lobby, they transcend beyond usefulness to become a large-scale art installation that reflects the community in which it lies.

3. The Elastic Perspective: Carnisselande, The Netherlands

The Elastic Perspective, Carnisselande, The Netherlands
The Elastic Perspective, Carnisselande, The Netherlands Image: Sander Meisner

Cut an elastic band into a single strip, twist it, and then reattach the ends. The result is a twisted cylinder, otherwise known as the Möbius strip, and describes the mathematical concept of a surface that is not true, and one which contains a boundary.

This concept has been replicated on a far grander scale in the Elastic Perspective, a structure positioned on a small grassy peak in Carnisselande, a small town just outside Rotterdam. The winding stairway was conceived as an art project intended to express the cognitive dissonance between the spatial nearness of the Carnisselande’s residents to Rotterdam, and the emotional distance they felt due to the motorway that severs them from the city.

Located on a no-man’s land just above the motorway, the sculpture stands in stark contrast to the bleak cityscape below. It is also paradoxical in its design; the staircase is a paradox that inverts onto its underside, meaning you cannot follow it the whole way round without jumping off and back on.

NEXT architects, who designed the stair, said that its continuous shape both references the continuity of ring road below and at the same time was a paradox in that it could never be completed.

“Upside becomes underside becomes upside. The suggestion of a continuous route is therefore, in the end, an impossibility: Far away, so close.”

4. Hai’ku Stairs: O’ahu, Hawaii

Hai’ku Stairs, O’ahu, Hawa
Hai’ku Stairs, O’ahu, Hawaii Image: Shawn Clover and Marvin Chandra

There is an illustrious past behind the Hai’ku stairs, which stretch for 3992 steps from O’ahu’s lush valley floors to the tip of the island’s Ko’olau mountain range.

In 1942, during the Second World War, the US Navy wanted to transmit radio signals to Navy ships dotted around the Pacific Ocean. Their best bet that the signals would send clearly was to go as high as they could. So, contractors erected antennae across the range and constructed a ladder that ascended 2800ft to reach the radio station top of the peak.

The ladder was later replaced by stairs, which the station’s workers joked now made the climb ‘sissy.’

Hikers who later braved the stairs disagreed, with one describing it as “intimidating… the first section of the climb is a thigh burner.” But it was considered worth it due to the views ­– scaling to the top of the Puu Keahi a Kahoe mountain, there are points in the hike where walkers can look down through thick cloud that envelops the Hai’ku valley floor.

Currently, the trail known as ‘stairway to heaven’ is closed to the public due to unresolved land rights issues, although tourists and locals alike still attempt to scale the steps. 

5. Mosaic steps: San Francisco, US

Mosaic steps San Francisco, US
Mosaic steps, San Francisco, USImage: Ed Bierman and John Weiss

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in San Francisco are the embodiment of a neighbourhood community spirit. Artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher had a vision to transform the steps that led to Grand View park, where residents and visitors often went for views of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Seeing enthusiasm for their project, the two women enlisted over 300 neighbours to join them in tiling the steps with handmade animal, bird and fish mosaics, and a local tilesetting company agreed to set each mosaic panels into the risers and tile the step treads with rough, nonslip tile.

The volunteers took two and a half years to complete the staircase, which had over 2,000 handmade tiles and 75,000 fragments of tile, mirror and stained glass. The steps paint a picture of the sea flowing into the sky, starting with an ocean teeming with marine life, evolving into land replete with flowers, birds, and frogs, and ending with a starry sky.

Many of the tiles were also engraved to commemorate a loved one. “There are a lot of Chinese Americans in the neighbourhood who dedicated tiles to the first person in their family who was born in the US,” Crutcher said. “It was pretty amazing to see a community come together like that.”

6. Gaztelugatxe Stairs: Gaztelugatxe, Spain

Gaztelugatxe Stairs, Spain
Gaztelugatxe Stairs, Spain Image: Carlos Olmedillas and Jesús Pérez Pacheco

Just off the coast of Biscay, in the Spanish Basque Country, lies Gaztelugatxe, a small islet that connects to the mainland via a man-made bridge.

For its smallness, the rock has a powerful history. It is home to a monastery from the 10th Century that allegedly belonged to the Knights Templar, the medieval organisation that was disbanded by the Catholic Church some 700 years ago.

The islet also served as a strategic spot to defend the coastline; in 1334, just seven knights resisted the attacks of King Alfonso XI’s army for over a month, with troops finally having to admit defeat.

The only way onto the island is by walking across a narrow two-arch stone bridge, and then up a path of 237 steps. According to the legend, those who arrive at the church should ring the bell at its entrance three times, and make a wish.

7. Stairway to Heaven: Ras al Khaimah, UAE

Stairway to Heaven Ras al Khaimah UAE
Stairway to Heaven, Ras al Khaimah, UAE

This notoriously treacherous hike began life as a path for the Shihuh tribe, who carved steps into the rock of the Hajar mountains in order to move between their different villages.

As the tribespeople began to move into the city of Ras Al Khaimah, they abandoned this miraculous feat of ancient engineering, leaving shepherds to take up the pathway for themselves. Herders would carefully guide their flock from Wadi Litibah up 1500m to the top of the mountain and into Oman, picking their way through scree, over steep boulders and around exposed ledges in a gruelling 12-hour ascent.

Nowadays the passage is occasionally used by goat herders, who have cemented some of the steps and added rope handrails at the particularly dangerous spots. But, after several mountain rescues, guidebooks warn that the climb is only for the most experienced of hikers.