If you are developing a “bucket list” of architectural wonders here are ten timber stairways to see before you die.
The staircase has been called ‘the soul of the house’ but stairs can also take us from the familiar to exciting new places, both physically and in our imaginations.
It’s believed the first stairs in history were made of tree trunks fitted together, and thousands of years later some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring stairways are still made of wood.
As a tribute to the centuries of history, culture, romance and artistic achievement embodied in the timber staircase, here’s our list of the some of the best ones you that you can actually set foot on today:
1 – The Endless Stair
This intriguing installation was made up of 436 metres of interlocking paths which visitors could explore. Constructed as a showpiece for the 2013 London Design Festival, the Endless Stair contained more than 11 tonnes of sustainable American tulipwood – a material which its designer, Alex de Rijke, said would be the ‘new concrete of the 21st century’. Previously on display outside the Tate Modern, the Endless Stair is now in storage in an undisclosed location.
(Photo copyright: Garry Knight)
2 – The Lello Bookshop staircase, Porto, Portugal
This eye-catching blood-red swirl is the heart of the Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore), probably the most ornate bookshop in the world. Built in 1906, the Lello is a fantastical marriage of neo-gothic and Art Nouveau styles. The unique staircase is both a joy to behold, and an ingenious solution to the problem of how to have a single stair serve both sides of a room.
(Photo copyright: Ismail Kupeli via Wikimedia Commons)
3 – The Miraculous Stair, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
With two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support, this staircase in Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel is a miracle of engineering. But what really sets it apart is the mystery surrounding its construction in the nineteenth century. It’s said that, lacking a stairway to reach the choir loft of their newly constructed chapel, the nuns of Loretto prayed for nine days to St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Immediately their prayers finished a nameless stranger turned up, built the staircase using primitive tools he had brought with him, and left without payment. He has never been identified.
(Photo copyright: Elisa Rolle via Wikimedia Commons)
4 – Defensive staircase, Matsumoto castle, Japan.
They’re functional and plain, but the ladder-like stairs leading to the top of Japan’s oldest surviving castle vividly conjure up the country’s feudal past. Rising steeply at a 60-degree angle, and located in varying spots from floor to floor, the stairs are a cunning last-ditch defence for the castle’s daimyo (feudal lord) and his retainers. Invading samurai warriors would have to fight their way up encumbered by armour. Modern visitors still face a bit of a slog, but the views at the top are worth it.
(Photo copyright: “Neepster” via Flickr)
5 – Grand Staircase in House of Scientists, Lviv, Ukraine
The misleadingly named House of Scientists in the historic old town of Lviv was once a casino and is now a popular venue for tourist visits, wedding photos and balls. The centrepiece of this architectural gem, whose lavish neo-baroque interior and decoration have survived for more than 100 years, is its elaborately carved staircase. This is a Grand Staircase par excellence, redolent of a lost era of opulence and display.
(Photo copyright: By Сергій Криниця via Wikimedia Commons)
6 – The Mathematical Bridge, Cambridge, UK
This might not look like a stair case but the technology is very similar. It’s hard to believe this engineering marvel is constructed entirely of straight timbers. The graceful curved shape is achieved through clever use of a technique known as tangent and radial trussing, ideal for creating a strong structure in wood. Despite the popular myth that links it to Isaac Newton, the bridge was actually designed by a master carpenter, William Etheridge, in 1748. If you can’t get to Cambridge, a scaled-down copy of the Mathematical Bridge can be seen at Iffley Lock in Oxford.
(Photo copyright: Tanya Hart via Wikimedia Commons)
7 – Flørli Stairs, Lysefjord, Ryfylke, Norway
The longest wooden staircase in the world, reputedly, forms a scenic mountain hike up from the visually stunning Lysefjord. The stairs were built as an access way to the hydroelectric power plant high above Flørli, a little hamlet on the fjord’s shore which is accessible only by ferry. With 4,444 wooden steps rising steeply to 2,428 feet above sea level, they’re rated among the ‘world’s scariest stairs’ by CNN News. Flørli’s hydroelectric plant, now decommissioned, was once an important source of power for Stavanger. The old generating station at the foot of the stairs houses an exhibition and a café.
(Photo copyright: Kalev Kevad via Wikimedia Commons)
8 – Grand Staircase on the Titanic, Alnwick, Northumberland
Well, OK, the nearest thing to it. The Titanic’s staircase now lies deep under the Atlantic, but you can get up close and personal to its twin sister. Sections from the Aft Grand Staircase of the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, are incorporated into the main staircase and dining room at the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, Northumberland. Believed to be identical to those on the Titanic, they are a fine example of carved English oak. Allegedly, the Olympic fittings in the White Swan helped the oceanographer Robert Ballard to identify whereabouts the identical Titanic fittings had come from, when he discovered them around the wreck of the ill-fated liner. The hotel’s Olympic suite dining room is also furnished with carved oak panelling and other fittings from the Olympic’s First-Class Lounge.
(Photo copyright: Wikimedia Commons)
9 – Morlaix Staircase, Brittany, France, (In the V&A)
Taken from the main street in the wealthy town of Morlaix, Brittany, the Morlaix Staircase came to the UK in 1900 after it was purchased by collector J.H. Fitzhenry. The oak balustrades spring from a tall column, which is elaborately carved with figures, shields, leaf-work, and intricate ornament. Fitzhenry gave the staircase to the V&A Museum in London in 1909 where it has remained ever since. The staircase was built between 1522-1530 but no one knows who by.
You can find the oak spiral staircase in the Medieval and Renaissance gallery in the V&A.
(Photo copyright: “Quite Adept” via Flickr)
10 – Esherick’s Staircase, Wharton Esherick Museum, Pennsylvania, USA
Built in 1930, the hand hewn, red oak staircase created by Wharton Esherick twists up through three of the four levels of his home and studio. After carving the staircase in 1930, it was removed from his home twice in order to be shown in New York. The first was in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair and the second was for the One-Man Retrospective at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1958. After his death in 1970, the studio was converted into the Wharton Esherick Museum, which as of 1993 is a National Historic Landmark.
(Photo copyright: Jack Boucher via Wikimedia Commons)
All of these stairs demonstrate ingenuity and creative flair. However, even beautiful and clever stairs can have an ugly side. Did you know they account for 450,000 injuries and 650 deaths in the UK every year. Consequently, UK stair manufacturers are working together to create safer, high quality stairs through standards set by the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) Stair Scheme.