What The Floor Does

The floor has three main functions in relation to our actions (Fig. 25). It directs us from one place to another, it delimits a space from its surroundings, and it supports us by providing a firm footing.


The floor as experience (photo by P.-N. Nilsson, Sandburg, The Family of Man).

Therefore, these tasks, i.e. what the floor ‘does’, are prerequisities that make it possible for us to consider the floor as a phenomenon. This means, furthermore, that the floor defines an interior space affected by an exterior space which is both around and beneath the floor. Directing and delimiting may be done by both walls and roof. Thus, what is most important for the expression of the floor is its vertical relation to the space beneath — the natural ground. The question therefore, is: what are our shared experiences with nature’s floor and how do these experiences determine our impression of the floor in architectural terms?

In the following we shall describe these experiences with the natural floor through its qualities of motion, weight, and substance. Then, on the basis of these qualities, we shall explore the expressive potentialities of the built floor. These potentialities will then be related to the archetypes in floor architecture.

Nature’s Floor

Nature’s own floor, the ground, is experienced as a combination of two parts, a surface and beneath it a mass. These two parts have essentially different functions in existential space (Fig. 26).


The parts of nature’s floor: the surface and the mass.

The surface is the actual plane on which we walk. It is what meets our feet and makes it possible for us to walk back and forth. This surface, which may be of grass, sand, snow or stone, varies from place to place. In the desert it is sand that dominates, in the north it is snow, along the coast rolling stones prevail, and in the forest, moss and grass (Fig. 27). Seen in this way it is the surface which illustrates that part of the ground which guides our movements and expresses regional variations.


The surface of nature’s floor: the forest floor (photo by R. Jucker).

In contrast, the mass below the surface has a far more permanent meaning. As a phenomenon it is a tangible reality consisting of stone, earth, fire and water (Fig. 28). But, as an existential reality it has meaning because it is firm and solid. This firmness is a precondition for our existence on earth, imbedded within us as a fundamental background for our entire feeling of security.1


The mass of nature’s floor: stone, earth and cave (photo Aftenposten).

Although the mass is permanent due to its firmness, it is not necessarily uniform. It affects our movements by being flat or by rising or sinking (Fig. 29). Considered in this light, the mass can sink and ‘we fall’, it can rise and thereby ‘hinder’ us, or it can be level, giving us ‘freedom’ of action.


The three motions of mass: rising, planar and falling.

Indeed, the expressive qualities of the mass are determined by a combination of three factors: its expression of weight, which is firmness, its expression of motion, which varies between rising and sinking, and its expression of substance, which is the earth’s own material phenomenon.

Interplay In Nature’s Floor

The expressive potentialities in nature’s floor are derived through the interplay of surface and mass.

Seen in this way, the same surface may have an essentially different impact depending upon whether the underlying mass rises, sinks or is level. To wade through a deep layer of snow can be two quite different experiences depending upon whether the ground beneath is level or uneven.

If it rises, movement is more difficult, the ascent becomes an added hindrance to our progress, and we must exert ourselves to continue. If it descends, we become in a way captives of the decline itself.

Similarly, various surfaces may affect our movements even if the ground otherwise has the same form. Thus, a stony surface will seem heavy and more a part of the ground itself, whereas grass is lighter and is perceived as a light covering carpet’.

In this way we see that the expression of nature’s floor is determined by whether the surface appears to be independent of, dependent upon, or part of the underlying mass (Fig. 30 a-f). These qualities may be characterized by prepositions which are used in describing how the surface affects us in relation to the ground beneath.

30 a-f

The expression of nature’s floor: the relationship between the surface and the mass: a) the surface upon the mass, b,c) below the mass, d,e) up out of the mass and f) above the mass.

If our actions are upon the ground, we have a basic feeling of having a safe and firm foothold, the ground and we are as one (Fig. 30a). The very essence of the ground as something which supports, something which is permanent and unchanging, determines the impression.

If our actions take place below the ground, we become dependent on its characteristics, we are in the clutch of the ground. We are faced with primordial forces, the ground’s own phenomena. To be beneath the ground means that we have left the near and familiar which is above ground to enter into a lower region unknown and confining. The way in which the surface leads us down into the ground is, however, decisive for our impressions (Fig. 30 b-c). If the surface cracks and breaks open, we ‘fall’. The sensation of falling, of plunging through empty space is fraught with fear and danger. If, on the other hand, the earth sinks as in a trough, the ground follows along and we feel we are being ‘guided’ down.

We are also dependent upon the ground if it rises up in front of us because then our progress is made more difficult. The determining factor in this case is the way in which the ground rises (Fig. 30 d-e). If the surface breaks away from the ground and rises sharply, the top level will be isolated and limited. But, if the surface is undulating, it gives the impression of being pushed upwards as if by some underlying pressure just as when a wave swells and rises. In both cases we are confronted by a counter-force in the ground itself, one which causes us to pause before continuing to move on.

If the level of our actions is above the mass, our spontaneous reaction is one of independence (Fig. 30 f). We are in control of the ground and liberated from the depths beneath. In this case a feeling of superiority may be the result. The scale of variations within this shared experience depends upon equally specific situations. Of course, floating in an aeroplane over Mont Blanc, and standing on a single step plateau, are experiential extremes, but they derive from the same situation: in both cases we are above and independent of what is below.

At this point we must consider the built floor in relation to these various expressions in nature’s floor.

Considering what the floor ‘does’ we find three themes in floor architecture: the directing, the delimiting, and the supporting floor themes. As will be shown, the supporting theme, which is the manifestation of the natural floor’s own characteristics, affects the expression of both the directing and the delimiting theme.

31 a-c

The directional floor theme: a)within the space and outside of the space, respectively b) as a path, and c) as a surface.

The Directional Theme


The directional floor theme and the conflict between the form of the space, the form of the floor and the floor pattern.


The directional floor theme and the surface (photo by J. Haug).


The directional floor theme and a floor pattern that emphasizes the form of the room (St. Peter’s, reconstruction from L’Orange/Thiis-Evensen, Old- tidens bygningsverden).


The directional floor theme and a floor pattern that provides a contrast to the form of the space (Sunar Showroom by M. Graves, from A.D. 5/6, 1980).

The directional theme concerns the way in which the form of the floor emphasizes certain motions, connecting one place to another.

This occurs mainly in three ways (Fig. 31 a-c). In the first, the floor acts within surrounding wall’s; it leads from one side of the space to another. In the other two, the floor leads out 6f the space, either as a ‘path’ through a series of spaces or as only a delimited part of a larger area which continues outside.

These motions may be generated either by the floor’s surface, by its form, or by paths which cross the space. Each of them may act alone or in combination. A space, therefore, may simultaneously have a floor in which the form slopes in one direction, the surface pattern runs in another while the form of the space itself indicates a third direction (Fig. 32).

The Surface

A typical surface pattern is the one created by the boards in a wooden floor. These indicate directions which either cross or parallel the main direction of the space. The setting of stones in a stone floor may do the same (Fig. 33). In old St. Peter’s (333) the reconstruction shows that the pattern of the paving stones accentuates the spatial form of the basilica (Fig. 34). In the narrow, directional aisles the paving stones are rectangular and ‘active’ while in the broad and calmer nave they are quadratic and static. In Michael Grave’s Sunar showroom (1979) the reverse is the case. Here, the floor tiles run diagonally to the space (Fig. 35).

The Form

Examples of floor motion are found when an entire surface slopes, undulates or shifts levels through the use of steps and landings.

The first may be illustrated in the architecture of Sigurd Lewerentz, in which important places and zones are emphasized by lowered or raised parts which shift into a billowing mass otherwise unrelated to the spatial form (Fig. 36).


The directional floor theme and the form (section through ‘Klippan’ by A. Lewerentz, from Uhlig, ‘Klippan’, Lewerentz kirke.

In Lund & Slaatto’s St. Hallvard Church, Oslo (1966), the entire floor rises evenly towards the altar at one end of the space. The space itself, however, is cylindrical, with the result that the directional rising and the centralized delimitation are in sharp contrast and thus accentuate each other.


The directional floor theme and the path (19th century living room, Nordic Museum, Stockholm, Sweden).


The directional floor theme and the ramp which penetrates the floor (the Propylaea on the Acropolis of Athens, from Coulton, Creek Architects at Work).


The directional floor theme and the ramp which runs over the floor (Carpenter Center, after Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture).

The Path

A path is created in a floor when an independent pattern emerges as a figure against the background of the rest of the floor.

In Scandinavian farmhouses such paths are indicated by strips of woven rag rugs laid freely on the floor, connecting entrances and exits (Fig. 37). In medieval mosaicfloors, similar runners were formed in stone. In St. Minia- to in Florence (thirteenth century) such a stone path leads straight from the entrance to the altar baldachin at the other end of the nave (Fig. 84). But, it does not merely act as a connection between the entrance and the goal. It also emphasizes the small baldachin in relation to the rest of the large overfilled and restless space.

The path, however, may also be sunk into the floor as seen in front of the Propylaea on Athen’s Acropolis (431 B.C.). Now the path takes the form of a ramp cutting through the rising levels of the steep cliff (Fig. 38).

The path may also run above the floor like a free-standing ‘bridge’ as found in Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center (1963), where the entrance ramp continues right on through the building connecting several spaces simultaneously (Fig. 39). The path may also emerge in the form of stairs either rising up from the floor or leading down to it as found in typical entrance motifs throughout architectural history.

The Delimiting Theme

Thus, we see that the directional floor concerns the quality of our forward movements. With varying motifs it may invite us to go up or down, straight ahead or in curves, to walk quickly or slowly.

The delimiting floor, on the other hand, indicates the way in which the floor may create a stationary situation by keeping us either in a centralized position or containing us within a boundary. This separation from the surroundings is brought about in two ways.

In one, the floor is connected to the surrounding walls in such a way that the volume is totally enclosed and cut off from its surroundings (Fig. 40 a). One example of this is found in the plain floor of Functionalism which without any apparent transition merges with the white walls around the space. The ideal was the stereometric volume, clearly defined as a self-contained world of its own. Other examples of the same are found when the floor is linked with a corresponding wall pattern. In Andrea Palladio’s circular Tempietto’ in Maser (1580) the columns around the space are carried on into the floor mosaic as double lines coverging at the central point of the floor (Fig. 41).


The delimiting floor theme: a) continuous floor/wall, b) sinking, c) raising, d) framed, e) centralized, f) equal directional, g, h) undulating floor, (Transitional directional theme/delimiting theme).


The delimiting floor theme (‘Tempietto’ by A. Palladio, from Cevese, Palladio).

The other way to mark a specific floor zone is to separate a smaller area from a larger (Fig. 40 b-f). In this way, the separeted part of the floor emerges as a clearly defined figure against a larger neutral background. Most important is the separation itself. This may be achieved either by sinking the floor into the ground so that the surrounding edges form a three-dimensional border or by raising it to a higher level as a separating platform (Fig. 40 b-c). Alternatively, the separated part may be on the same level as the rest of the floor but have its borders marked by an accented edge or by the use of colours and materials which differ from the surrounding surface (Fig. 40 d-f). These delimited floor areas may show equal directional tendencies to all sides or be centralized so that one is drawn into the area and not out of it.

If the borders are not clearly marked, transitional forms are generated which fall somewhere between typical directional and typical delimiting floors. The undulating surface provides just such an example. It differs from the norm by the fact that it both rises and sinks while the continuity of its curves ties it together (Fig. 40 g-h). The same applies to a centralized surface pattern which may be read not only inwards towards the centre but also outwards towards the surroundings. An example of this is Charles Moore’s Piazza d’ltalia, New Orleans (1979), in which the ring patterns seem to spread out from the centre to ‘touch’ the neighbouring buildings (Fig. 42)


Transition directional theme/delimiting theme (Piazza D’ltalia by Ch. Moore, from A.D. 5/6, 1980).

The Supporting Theme

We have seen from the above that both the directional and delimiting themes deal primarily with the floor’s horizontal characteristics, that is, its relation to the surrounding exterior.

The supporting theme, on the other hand, deals first and foremost with the vertical nature of the floor, that is, its relationship to the ground below. First of all this relationship describes the floor’s position, whether it lies above the ground, on the ground or below the ground. It concerns, as well, the questions as to whether the floor is soft or hard, loose or solid, lightweight or heavy.

The supporting theme concerns primarily the floor’s expression of weight and substance, whereas the directional and delimiting themes concern first and foremost motion expression. From this we see that support expression applies equally to the delimiting and to the directional floor. Every floor, no matter what type, may seem heavy or light, be sunk into the ground or hover above ir, be soft or hard. There is, therefore, a great difference in the way we perceive its borders if the same floor is at one moment sunk into the ground and at the next raised above it. Similarly, the ‘speed’ of the motion in a wooden bridge arching above the ground is completely different from that of the same bridge built of stone and lodged heavily on the ground (Fig. 43).


The supportive floor theme: wooden bridge and stone bridge.

This means that the expression found in every floor, and this includes the interior space which it defines, depends upon the relationship of the floor with the exterior space’ below. Seen in this light, the floor is a constructed ground surface, one in which various means are used to interpret our motion relationship to the earth on which we walk.

In the following, therefore, we shall examine the supporting theme in particular and point out what importance weight and substance have for the expressive nature of a floor. This means that in relation to the main task of the floor, which is to ‘carry us’, we shall find the universal expressions of strength found in the archetypes. With references to specific examples we shall point out the importance this has for the way we experience the inside-outside relation, including both that which surrounds the floor and that which is beneath it.

Architectural history reveals that the supporting theme may be divided into six basic motifs. The first is the floor that rests firmly on the ground, which we shall call (1) the attached floor. Floors that are sunk into the ground and are physically beneath the ground’s surface we shall call (2) the sunken floor but will use the term (3) the open floor if the decline is merely optical. Floors that rise from below we shall call (4) the rising floor, whereas floors that are independent of the ground may be called respectively (5) the detached floor if they lie above the ground and (6) the directional floor if they guide us along the ground.

The Attached Floor

The attached floor emphasizes our conception of the ground as something firm and immovable and conveys the feeling of a solid footing. In this it is similar in character to the ground; the two are of the same massivity (Fig. 44). This necessitates two main requirements in the form of the floor. First of all the floor surface must seem heavy, in other words, it must rest solidly either on or below the ground surface.


The attached floor: one with the ground.

Secondly, the floor should resemble the ground. In principle this means that the more geometric and prepared the floor surface is, the more it stands out as a constructed level separated from the ground beneath (Fig. 45).


The geometricized and rusticated surfaces.

Attachment And Material

We can already see that the material used in the floor’s construction affects its degree of attachment to the ground. It follows that there is a great difference between a wooden floor and a stone floor. A wooden floor will always maintain the character of a detached layer above the ground (Fig. 46.) There are many reasons for such an effect.


Wooden floor as detached layer (photo by R. Jucker).

One is that the wooden floor is alive when we walk on it. It gives slightly if the span is great, it creaks and groans if the joints are tight, and it stretches and is ‘warm’ beneath our feet. It is independent and light, it ‘yields’ and thus, in essence, differs greatly from the compact ground. Stone, on the other hand, is a part of the ground itself. The stone floor is related to the mass on which we walk (Fig. 47). Stone is the substance of mountains, and the mountain ‘rises’ from beneath to break through the earth’s crust. Moss, grass and earth give a cloak-like covering to the stone, while the stone itself is always something beneath and ‘inside’2. Our interference with stone amounts to no more than surface scratches. Whereas the soil allows what is beneath to escape and grow, the very substance of stone is locked in and ‘dead’.3


Stone floor as attached layer (photo by R. Jucker).

The stone floor corresponds to the main aspects that we found typical of the expression of the attached floor.

Stone is solid and dependable; it does not give way but bears us up, we are safe. At the same time it reflects the permanency in nature itself. As a result we understand that the more clearly a stone floor reproduces the rustic and original character of natural stone, the stronger becomes the emphasis on its connection with nature’s own floor.

Traditional Japanese gardens illustrate these two aspects. A characteristic feature of this architectural landscaping is seen in rounded stones which are deeply imbedded in the very crust of the earth. These are meant to express the ground’s elements of security. Set closely together they ‘stiffen’ the ground, and in rows they pilot us safely through the changing landscape of lakes, swamps and hilly terrain. The houses, too, rest on them. In Japan, to set a house on the ground means to balance the foundation posts on small ‘mountains’ (Fig. 48).4


Attached stone (Katasura garden, from Alex, Japanese Architecture).

This impression of firm attachment is further sublimated in sacred temple gardens (Fig. 49). ‘Haphazard’ groups of dark stones crop up from the meticulously raked sand surface. The stripes of the raking pattern follow the contours of the stone as expanding rings. The stones appear as ‘islands’ of safety in a changing landscape, in which the sand, representing life’s mutability, encloses the mountain’s primeval forces.


Attached stone (Daitokuji) Temple garden, from Alex, Japanese Architecture.

Attachment and The Relationship Between Inside and Outside

What importance, then, does the firmly anchored floor have in the inside-outside relationship?

In architecture we can distinguish between the use of two types which individually correspond to the two aspects of the expression. In some cases the element of security is emphasized, and here the floor marks a centre, a firmly anchored interior. At other times the emphasis is on the similarity between inside and outside, thus eliminating the difference between the interior floor and nature’s floor.

We shall examine one example within each group. The firmly anchored centre will be illustrated by a description of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, Penn., USA (1936). The connecting, integrated plan will be shown in the floor of the Gothic cathedral.

Falling Water and The Secure Interior

In Wright’s Falling Water the central point in the interior is dictated by the top of the cliff on which the house lies. The cliff juts up from the floor as the foundation for the fireplace which is the focus of the composition (Fig. 50). The visible bedrock is important psychologically in an otherwise bold and ‘perilous’ architecture. This peril lies in the wild and steep, craggy surroundings above which the house ‘hovers’ (Fig. 51). The cantilevered balconies projecting in all directions demonstrate a supreme will to survive in the face of the depths beneath. This corresponds completely with Wright’s architectural ideas in which the act of building is ‘life itself taking form’, and where it is precisely the horizontal plane that expresses the principle of life itself: ‘the human line of tenure on this earth’.5 But, to be on this earth involves not only ‘tenure’. In addition to spreading out ‘by native character to environment’, a house should also be ‘married to the ground’.6 In other words, the bedrock, fireplace and chimney are the inside that makes expansion to the outside psychologically possible.


Stone floor and fireplace (plan of Falling Water after Kauf-mann/Raeburn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Writings and Buildings).


Stone floor, chimney and house (Falling Water by F.LI. Wright, from Norwich (ed.), Verdensarkitekturen).

The Gothic Cathedral And Integration Of Inside And Outside

In most early Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the stairs leading into the church are shallow and have few steps (cf. entrance steps to the cathedrals in Strasbourg, Rouen and Wells). This was clearly intentional since the church was considered a body growing directly from the earth without a separating foundation level.

Exceptions are to be found, especially in Italy. In both Orvieto and Siena the cathedrals are raised on staircase bases with rich marble incrustation. This conception of the building as an independent entity in relation to its surroundings was due to classical traditions which never quite lost their hold in Italy.7 The Gothic tradition, however, emerged north of the Alps as an independent phenomenon and was only indirectly influenced by classical forerunners. This tradition was based on the principle of dynamic growth in contrast to the restful balance found in Antiquity.

With this principle in mind the firmly anchored character of the Gothic church floor should be understood. The floors were often composed or closely laid paving stones, both large and small (Fig. 52). The floor unfolded in a continuous ‘patchwork’, usually without regard to individual spaces such as the nave, aisles and chapels.8 The impression was one of a heavy undifferentiated surface without accented directionalities, which could, in principle, be freely extended.


Gothic architecture and the enchored floor (Rouen, from Frankl, Gothic Architecture).

Compared to the rest of the architecture it is remarkable how little’ has been done with the floor. In both French and German as well as English cathedrals, it is as though the weight of Romanesque tradition has been retained in the floor surface, whereas walls, columns, and roofs have dissolved into a network of richly worked and highly detailed forms. The dissolving layer effects, the clustered columns, and enormous glass wall areas of the entire space bear witness to an open architecture built ‘in spite of stone’.

Two circumstances may explain these characteristics. One is a matter of form. The light, transparent walls seem to ‘need’ the heavy floor, which, with its composite surface, acts as a firm base for the entire ascending play of lines.

The other explanation must be sought in the symbolism of the church. The Gothic expression is frequently related to nature and interpreted as a stylized forest in which the columns are tree trunks with the ribs representing branches and foliage (Figs. 53, 54).9 In this light, the floor’s firmly fixed character takes on a deeper meaning. The floor is the ground, the natural forest floor from which the trees spring forth. Such an interpretation is also valid when the overall character of the space is considered. With its light, translucent qualities the space of a Gothic cathedral opens outwards. Inside and outside are united. The floor strenghtens this concept by uniting the nave and aisles while continuing yet further out to nature’s floor itself (Fig. 55).10


Gothicism and nature’s floor.


Gothicism and trees (the origin of Gothic architecture by J. Hall, after Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise).


Gothicism’s open space.

In this way, the stone floor plays its part in joining town and landscape to the interior of the church, a spatial manifestation of the symbolic unity between ‘God and the world’.

The Detached Floor

We have seen how an attached floor rests heavily upon the ground. Its surface is as one with the ground beneath.

In walking on a detached floor one finds oneself on a level divorced from the ground. The floor level may either be raised physically above the ground or lie lightly on the ground (Fig. 56).


The detached floor: dependent of the ground.

As examples of the first we shall examine two houses on stilts, one by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the other by Le Corbusier. For the second type we shall consider the carpeted floor.

Farnsworth House And Villa Savoye

Mies’ Farnsworth House (1946) is detached from the ground both literally and formally (Fig. 57). The precise and narrow rectangularform of the floor frees the building and gives it an air of dynamic motion. ‘Mies’ home was a very American sort of statement, dynamic cantilevered almost in motion’.11 The house is ‘on its way’, about to be torn loose from its location, an aspect that is underlined by both the flat roof and the construction itself, which presses the floor between the columns and gives it a unique extensiveness. This dynamic expansion is further emphasized by the panoramic view of the landscape through the glass walls. Nature becomes an abstract phenomenon in the distance, not concrete and near but in a way a thing ‘in the future’. The Farnsworth House, therefore, is cited as an exponent of ‘the modern way of life’, in which the detached floor perhaps most clearly symbolizes the modern dynamic and optimistic hope for the future.


The Farnsworth House and expansion (by Mies van der Rohe, photo by S. Campbell).

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1931) is an elevated place. In this house, Mies’ place-less independence is replaced by a clearly contained interior borne high above the ground on metre-high columns (piloti) (Fig. 58). Le Corbusier did not intend the interior to expand outwards over the ground as did Mies, on the contrary, it was the ground which was to run freely beneath and in spite of the building.12 He strove, therefore, to find a contrast between the open landscape and a cubic and precise exterior in which the floor plane was contained within the walls. The interior was conceived as a composite and rich world strictly disciplined by the planes of the square. ‘Its severe, almost square exterior surrounds an intricate interior configuration glimpsed through openings and from protrusions above’.13


Villa Savoye and isolation (by Le Corbusier, from Ch. Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture).

Villa Savoye demonstrates the span between freedom and order which is so typical of Le Corbusier’s architecture. The desire for freedom lies in the open plan of the interior and the uninterrupted stretches of the landscape, while the desire for order is expressed in the exterior’s geometric form, which with its precisely defined surface constitutes an excluding boundary. The columns cause the volume to float without indicating any particular direction. This is also shown by the entrance, a ramp placed in the centre of the house. This diagonal element extends right through the house and up to the roof terrace and thereby accents the interior’s independence of the horizontality of the landscape (Fig. 59). It is first upon reaching the roof terrace that curved walls indicate the unlimited freedom of which one is a part when surveying the surrounding landscape.


The physical protection of the grass carpet (photo by E. Haas).

The Carpeted Floor

The examples above illustrated the detached floor as a raised horizontal plane. The carpet, on the other hand, is a plane in contact with the floor. The immediate reaction to a carpet, nevertheless, is to a separate detached layer which covers another floor underneath. There are, primarily, two things which account for this impression. One is the quality of the carpet as something movable and the other, as something tactile.

A carpet is something we can remove. It has a non-permanent association as something which covers, something intended to protect either those who walk on it or the floor beneath it. In addition, the carpet is soft, it may be rolled up and put away, whereas the floor ‘remains’. Also, the carpet yields beneath our feet and is compliant when we walk on it. It is friendly and sheltering because it both gives and receives.

Nature’s Carpet

In nature it is especially grass, moss and sand which share the carpet’s characteristics (Fig. 60).


The ‘concealment’ of the sand carpet (Sahara Desert, photo by Th. Hopker, from Mack, Expedition).

Grass and moss protect. When we feel like sitting on the ground, we know that soft grass will cushion and protect us from what is underneath. The ground, which is of earth and stone, can be hard and damp, and grass, which covers it, makes it more ‘friendly’.

This is found in certain religious ceremonies. In the annual wreath-laying at the Maria Column in Rome, roses and other flowers are spread to protect the feet of the Pope. Likewise, the entire main street is softened by strewn flowers when the Host and the Wine are borne through Italian villages (Fig. 61).


The symbolic protection of the flower carpet (Corpus Christi festival in Genzano, painting by J.B. Thomas from Rudofsky, Streets for People).

The architectural carpet repeats and interprets the characteristics of nature’s carpet.

The Soft Carpet

An example of both the carpet’s importance as something warming and its use in defining a particular place is found in the western use of carpeting to emphasize the difference between inside and outside.

The reason for this is the different life style in the ‘cold’ part of the world, where winter’s cold lends meaning primarily to the carpet’s ‘warming’ character. A typically Nordic situation will illustrate this. We are filled with an immediate feeling of security when faced by a crackling fireplace with a thick wool rug in front of it — we are really inside. It is the fire that warms us physically, but it is the rug that invites us to settle down and conveys a psychological feeling of welcome and warm well-being. In northern countries, therefore, the carpeted floor is synonymous with a cosy, intimate interior.

The entire floor may be carpeted from wall to wall as frequently found in modern office landscaping. In this way, these large spaces are given a more contained atmosphere. The very texture of the carpet plays a role in gathering people together. Intimacy and cosiness are always connected with nearness. In addition, noise within the space is reduced. Resonance opens a space, whereas muffled sounds close it and draw it inwards.

An example of this gathering aspect is Mies van der Rohe’s use of carpets in both the Barcelona Pavilion (1929) and the Exhibition Building in Berlin (1931). In both places one finds large shining floor surfaces interspersed with carpeted areas. The carpets are not placed haphazardly but always where one sits, eats or converses. In this way the carpets create small enclosures, ‘spaces within a space’, exactly suited to more intimate groups.

The Stone Carpet

Many floor areas which do not have the carpet’s soft qualities may, nevertheless, have the carpet’s zone-defining effect. The prerequisite for this is a textural treatment of the floor which conveys the character of a homogeneous and continuous surface.

The richly patterned surfaces of the mosaic floor have often been called built carpets. The mosaic floors of St. Mark’s are, indeed, nothing more than costly carpets of coloured stone’, writes Sven Rasmussen (Fig. 62).14 The Crusaders’ contact with the Near East and its rich carpet tradition, was one factor in the revival of the polychrome floor in the Middle Ages. The Cosmati brothers’ long architectural traditions in medieval Italy were important in the revival of the floor’s role as a place defining element. To enter a church with a mosaic floor was to experience a complete change of character between inside and outside space — a distinct contrast between the natural tuff stone floor of the outdoors and the abstract value of the interior floor.


A stone carpet (Roman floor mosaic from Villa d’ltalia near Seville, drawn by Koch, from Kunsthandverk 2/3, 1981).

The Open Floor

In contrast to both the attached and the detached floor, the quality of the open floor is purely visual. This means that the opening effect in such floors is optical only and is brought about by the use of specific materials and patterns in the floor plane. These may be summarized in four archetypes, each of which lends special depth effects to the floor: (1) transparency, (2) mirroring (3) reflection, (4) layering.

The Transparent Floor

A floor of transparent glass constitutes the very essence of what we mean by a floor that opens downwards. It is seldom used in architecture and the reason is obvious. Apart from the lack of tensile strength in glass and resulting structural limitations, the glass floor is insecure from a psychological point of view as well. To walk over a void is like walking on nothing (Fig. 63). It gives the same sensation of dizziness and falling as that which we feel on top of a mountain or high tower. The depth has a magnetic effect — it ‘sucks’ us downward — a phenomenon indicating that depth, just as all other types of space, is a potential sphere of activity which we ‘try out’ by ‘falling’. The transparent floor conveys, therefore, a spontaneous feeling of insecurity and danger (Fig. 64).


The open floor: glass floor.


View from the Eiffel Tower (from Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture).

This feeling of insecurity remains despite knowledge and reason. Although we know that the floor will hold technically, it is only after considerable experience with it that the feeling of insecurity lessens. The sensation of falling is fundamental and also applies to animals, as demonstrated by experiments. Similar experiments have been carried out with small children. They all avoided crawling onto a glass slab even though they saw precisely the same pattern below as the secure slab on which they sat (Fig. 65).15


A transparent floor elicits a spontaneous feeling of insecurity and danger (photo by W. Vandivert).

The Mirror Floor

On a transparent floor, whether of glass or grating, one finds oneself between an above and a below which differ from one another. Looking down from above one sees things in the depths as something upon which one could fall, just as from a height.

In the mirror floor, what is below is the same as what is above. Ceiling and walls are mirrored in its depths and one finds oneself in an enclosed space, between reality and illusion (Fig. 66). The mirror floor gives no main directional indication to the space — one finds oneself in its centre. But, this centre is not a specific point on the floor, rather it is like the centre of a ‘sphere’ in which all directions are equal. One’s feet and legs constitute the central point, the meeting place between above and below. As a result, the movements of the legs become the shifting centre of a personal space limited both upwards and downwards by the body. On a mirror floor we find ourselves, therefore, in the middle of what is in principle a homogeneous and directionless space.


The open floor: mirror floor.

It is interesting to note that the mirror floor is very frequently used as a dance floor. Not only do the legs initiate the dance but the inherent nature of the dance and music is directionless. ‘The dance is independent of any particular direction’, says E. Straus.16

Many modern discotheques and dance halls exploit this content. A combination of mirrored wall and ceiling areas and flickering, blinking lights creates a total space in which the visitor experiences a feeling of unreality. In contrast to the city outside with its directional and destination-accented network of streets, where noise, people and traffic embody the ‘back and forth movement’, we comprehend the mirrored space as a detached fairyland in which we ourselves are the affected and ecstatic central point.

The Reflecting Floor

The reflecting floor is an ‘indistinct’ mirror floor.

This means simply that below is not a copy of above. In the reflecting floor the opening effect is determined by the floor’s material, structure and colour. By mirroring the walls and ceiling, the floor is given a shifting depth character depending upon whether the surface is of wood or stone, whether it is patterned or is white or black.17

Most important, nevertheless, is the reflection itself — its qualities convey the effect. The reflection creates a belowness, one which shifts between light and dark in that objects, ceiling and walls are transformed and converted into diffuse forms as they are reflected downwards (Figs. 67, 68).


The open floor: reflective floor.


The reflective floor expands the space downward (Bohuslan, from Scanorama, 1978).

This characteristic has a counter effect on objects above the floor. Objects are optically detached and freed from the floor on which they stand. They seem to stand only on their own shadows. The objects do not appear to stand on a ground equally substantial or stronger than the objects themselves. On the contrary, the floor seems to be non-supporting and thereby increases the detached air of the objects. Our illustration shows the throne dais (morja) in Seiryoden in Kyoto, where the dais seems to hover in the middle of a space bounded above by the four surrounding columns and below by their reflection in the floor (Fig. 69).18


The reflective floor expands the space downward (Seiryoden in Kyoto from Alex, Japanese Architecture).

Reflection And The Relation Between Inside And Outside

We realize that in the relation between inside and outside the reflecting floor is important because it ‘enlarges’ a space.

The space is enlarged not only downwards in optical depth but also outwards because solid boundaries appear to be lighter, more distant and have greater mobility. Typical in this context is the Renaissance and Baroque periods’ feeling for highly polished reflecting floors. The Renaissance skeletal wall system appeared lighter, and the curving forms of the Baroque were given even greater life and movement. In modern architecture the reflecting floor plays a similar role. In Jan & Jon’s 16 square metre garden room in an Oslo suburban house (1978), the polished floor is essential for an understanding of the space as a whole (Fig. 70).19 This small interior reaches out in all directions to a larger, ever-shifting environment; up into the ceiling’s illusionistic mirror surfaces, out into the landscape through large expanses of fenestration and down into the shimmering depth of the polished stone floor.


The reflective floor expands the floor downward (Sunroom by Jan & Jon from Byggekunst 6/1978).

The freedom, expansion and movement which the gleaming floor lends to objects applies also to ourselves. Like the objects we too seem to be ‘lighter’. The reflecting floor is without the rootless character of the mirrored floor. Its downward opening is mysterious and merely intimated. It reflects objects in a lively interchange of light and shadow and not in exact and comprehensible forms. Brilliance, motion and expansion are the reflecting floor’s contribution to interior space. These same words also describe the qualities of a party as Rilke interprets them in his poem evoking the mood of a ballroom:

The flames of the fire burn high and brightly, voices buzz, the tinkle of glass and brightness become one and finally from this even rhythm springs the dance.20

The Layered Floor

We have seen that the reflecting floor can also be interpreted as a floor in layers. The shiny surface is seen as a coating on top of the floor plane itself and can be compared to wet asphalt. A layered floor, in this sense, is a floor plane in which the form, material and pattern convey a stratified effect, layer upon layer (Fig. 71). The depth effect and the atmosphere it creates is governed by what each layer ‘has to say’ as to how it supports us and not the least of all, how the interrelating effectual strength of these layers determines the whole. Thus, a black surface may contribute to an opening effect in a shiny floor, whereas a white surface may weaken this effect.


The open floor: The layered floor.

To understand the layered floor’s depth effect it is essential to distinguish between figure and background on the floor plane. In principle, this means that a figure seen against a larger surface may seem to lie beneath it as part of a lower level, as though seen through a hole.

In the following we will emphasize five archetypes within the layered floor. These are carried out with the help of motion, framework, surface, texture and image (Fig. 72, a-e).

72 a-e

The layered floor effect is brought about by: (a) motion, (b) skeleton, (c) surface, (d) texture, and (e) image.

Motion and The Layer Effect

The first variant is based on the difference in motion between the levels (Figs. 72a, 73, 74). We have already noted that the directional floor is actually a layered floor. Whether a path or ramp is imbedded in the floor as a pattern or physically stretches over it like a bridge are degrees within the same expression. Both are directional elements which appear as figures upon a more static ground.


The layered effect brought about by motion (from Police Headquarters in Oslo, photo by R. Jucker).


The layered effect brought about by lines (from Oslo City Hall, photo by R. Jucker).

The mosaic floor of St. Miniato, Florence (thirteenth century), is again a good example (Fig. 75) (see p. 45). Like the runner carpet, this path of stone is a guiding route from the entrance right up to the baldachin over the altar immediately beneath the level of the choir. Path and destination comprise one dynamic unit and become a self-contained ‘place’ detached from the more directionless surrounding floor pattern.


The layered effect brought about by lines: stone runner (St. Miniato, from Saalman, Medieval Architecture).

This path in the floor is vital for the meaning of the interior. The architectural treatment otherwise seems like a series of additions, a restless chain of contrasting links, making the space difficult to understand. The central path, on the other hand, is unambiguous and leads straight to an important place in the church. It is both in form and content a secure place to be — one follows it instinctively in order not to ‘fall off’.

Skeleton and The Layer Effect

In another variant, the upper layer has a skeletal character. These grids seem to be made of beams and convey a sense of security as if safe to walk on because of the ‘openings’ in between.

In Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, Florence (1519), the stripes in the floor join the wall pilasters (Fig. 76). The result is an inner space defined by skeletal elements within an outer space of smoothly plastered surfaces. In the floor, this same deeper space is defined by a black and white checkerboard layer. The checks run diagonally in an independent system beneath the skeleton. The alternating black and white ‘holes’ add to the depth effect. Visually the checkerboard is not a strictly solid level but, as we move about within the space, the floor appears to have an alternating upper and lower level.


The layered effect brought about by a skeleton and surface: lines and checkerboard pattern (Medici Chapel by Michelangelo, from Hitchcock (ed.), World Architecture).

The dimensions of the floor skeleton are decisive in giving the floor a secure load-bearing effect (Fig. 77). If the ‘beams’ are very thin, they seem more like ‘cracks’ and, instead of being safe to walk on, become openings, and the parts that were previously holes now become the firm surface. This phenomenon may be observed in childrens’ hopping games on pavements and stone footpaths. They jump from stone to stone and the one to step on a crack is the loser (Fig. 78).


The layered effect brought about by lines and stars (Bygdø Alle 28 B in Oslo, photo by R. Jucker).


The hopping game from square to square.

Surface and The Layer Effect

This leads us to the next archetype in which planes ‘lie’ one upon the other and are seen through ‘holes’ and ‘openings’ (Fig. 72 c).

The difference in depth which occurs between dark and light areas on a surface is frequently used to obtain a layer effect (Fig. 79). An example is the Renaissance architect Francesco di Giorgio’s project for an ideal city square (ca. 1475-1500, Fig. 80). The large pale-coloured checkerboard is interpreted as the upper supporting level. This top layer is the actual floor lying on top of a dark ‘depth’, which is perceived through openings in between. Here on these pale-coloured paths people walk securely, and it is these which are a continuation of the broad stair flights and on which the heavy triumphal columns stand. The central fountain, too, has its place on a light area. Like an island in a dark well the black fountain draws the water up from the depths below.


The depth effect brought about by surfaces (Cube floor in Amritsar, photo by R. Jucker).


The layered effect brought about by surfaces (piazza floor by de Giorgio, from Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture).

Texture and The Layer Effect

A fourth archetype in the relation between above and below in a floor plane is the use of different combinations of coarse and fine textures (Fig. 72d).

An interpretation of this is shown in our illustration of the Katsura Gardens in Japan (1636) (Fig. 81). The deepest layer is understood as the coarsest and the ‘roughest’ zone, while the levels as they rise become increasingly geometric and delicate.21 The topmost plane consists of a footpath made of square-cut paving stones. Pale in colour and casually combined, they seem to ‘float’ over the dark background. The next level is created by a gutter of natural cobblestones imbedded in the lowest level, which is the soil itself. These graduated depths must, at the same time, be seen as a part of a greater whole. One is really not completely at the bottom until one reaches the water level to which the path leads, nor quite at the top before one enters the house with its geometric carpet pattern. This conception of the floor’s span from top to bottom, from water and ground at the lowest level to the ordered geometry of the house at the highest level, is at the same time an interpretation of the difference between outside and inside. The outside bears the stamp of primeval nature, the inside is the seat of humanity and greatest perfection, a place ‘in which the spirit alone prevails’.22


The layered effect brought about by textures (Katsura, from Alex, Japanese Architecture).

Images and The Layer Effect

Our final archetype deals with the floor that is decorated with abstract or naturalistic representations of objects, people, animals and flowers (Fig. 72e).

This type of floor is found particularly in Roman Antiquity and was usually composed of mosaic or incrustation. The depth effect in such floors depended on the naturalism and plasticity of the figures represented. In this sense, the Republic’s polychrome floors, such as the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii, with its perspective and plasticity, had a greater depth effect than the late-Roman linear patterned monochromes.

Our illustration shows a Roman mosaic floor with all kinds of leftover food strewn about on a white background (Fig. 82). The pale colour of the background ‘detaches’ the objects; it makes them light and independent. This, combined with the sharply outlined shadow, gives them great plasticity in themselves, enhancing the illusion that they are lying both above and on the floor.


The layered effect brought about by images (The Unswept Floor’, Roman floor mosaic, from Sfinx I, 1977).

The effect conveyed by a floor with images is determined by two conditions. The first is the significance of the portrayals as things. The feeling of possibility ‘stumbling’ on the objects makes us instinctively try to avoid them, to go around them. This means that the lowest plane, the one beneath and between the objects, becomes our actual level of movement. Our first reaction to the food-strewn floor, therefore, is to fetch a broom!

To this physical reaction, however, must be added the meaning of what the images represent. The cross in front of the entrance to many Byzantine churches was not meant to be trodden on. Intuitively, that was felt to be a sacrilege. Similarly, human portrayals are associated with something which ‘hurts’ to step on. To put one’s foot directly on the face of a human portrayal is most uncomfortable. A physical conflict arises between reality and illusion, between the form and the image.

All four motifs within the theme of the open floor, which we have examined, have one thing in common. They interpret depth effects on a horizontal plane. The depth effect is purely optical, the downward motion visual and not real. The transparent floor and mirror floor as well as the reflecting floor and layer floor, each convey its own specific character depending on the degree of depth and effects. They are all, nevertheless, marked by the same fundamental tension inherent in the relation between the need to have firm ground beneath one’s feet and the fear of falling — between nature’s primeval forces and the human will to survive.

The Sunken Floor

The sunken floor differs basically from the open floor.

The open floor is physically solid and on the same plane, and downward movement is purely optical. Its effect is in the conflict between a familiar pattern of possible motion and the possibility of falling, which, in principle, is threatening.

In the sunken floor, motion downwards is a physical reality (Fig. 83). In other words, forward and downward motion are one and the same. One ventures into the ground from an upper level. When one is faced with such a sunken floor, a basic reaction occurs, a mental state dictated by two types of previous experience: One involves motion conceptions governed by gravity, the other involves the encounter with underground phenomena.


The sunken floor.

Gravity and The Rising/Sinking Aspect

When faced with a downward slanting floor, one feels a spontaneous sensation of accelerating speed. In contrast to the rising floor, which restrains movement, the downward sloping floor exerts its own additional pull to that which the natural force of gravity exerts on our normal movements (Fig. 84). We transfer this to the floor in front of us. As opposed to the case of the level floor we do not feel ‘free’ to choose our way. Here it is the ground itself which takes over — in both an upward and downward slope. The result, however, is exactly the opposite — to be up at the top is to be independent, whereas to be down at the bottom is confining. Objects at the bottom of a sunken area, therefore, assume two contrasting values. In one way they seem to be heavy and sinking, rather like a well-cushioned landing of a falling object. In another way they seem to rise up from the bottom, to free themselves in the way we feel instinctively that we must do in order not to be imprisoned down there.


The sunken floor: Cove in the amphitheatre (from L’Orange/Thiis-Evensen, Oldtidens Bygningsverden).

In the City Hall piazza in Siena, the rising/sinking effect is a ‘built’ one, in that the motion is given a plastic response in the form of the building mass at the bottom of the piazza (Figs. 85, 86).


The sunken floor (City Hall piazza in Siena, from Favole, Piazza d’ltalia).


City Hall piazza in Siena and the interaction between sinking and rising.

The piazza lies in a natural depression in the valley with residential houses on the south forming an approximate semicircular boundary between town and square. From this ridge the piazza sinks down to its lowest point immediately in front of the City Hall building facing it. Here lies the piazza’s drainage canal, which is connected to gutters forming a fan pattern running up towards the houses.

The City Hall building is massive and heavy. With its breadth and solidity it creates a firmly anchored and heavy block which seems to press down the floor of the piazza. The clock tower on the left, on the other hand, rises dynamically above this sunken volume. With its impressive height, and slender lines, the tower is a manifestation of defiance and upward striving, which in combination with the City Hall’s downward press defines the timeless and universal content of Siena’s piazza.

Ground Space Phenomena

In introducing the sunken floor, we mentioned that the dynamic aspect must be supplemented by the conception of into what we are descending. Architectural history contains many examples showing intuitive understanding that sinking a floor is the same as penetrating the ground itself. In other words, this penetration is interpreted as an encounter with earth’s primeval forces, with the rough and natural, with death, water and fire. By tying itself down, the house shows its essential affinity with nature, says G. Bachelard. The house becomes... ‘related in a brotherly way to the forces of mountains and water working within the earth’.2324

In the following we shall look at some typical examples of this encounter.

Rusticity as A Phenomenon Of The Ground

In our Japanese example we saw that ‘down’ was interpreted as something elemental and unformed, whereas ‘up’ was given an abstract and ordered character. In the church at La Tourette, (1959), Le Corbusier has done just this. The flooris builtin three levels, each having a different content (Fig. 87).


La Tourette and the differentited floor (by Le Corbusier, from Basquin, Eveux).

At the top is the altar platform, the church’s most important level, raised by six steps. This floor is the only one in the entire monastery which is black and shiny, a reminder of the spiritual and irrational character of this area. The floor of the nave with its grey, neutral surface, forms the intermediate level. Not only in the nave but in other parts of the building as well, this floor expresses the normal level and is found in ramps, dining-halls and workrooms. Beneath this level we find the chapels of the saints in a deeply sunken space beside the high altar. Here the floor consists of coarse, rugged stone concrete. Combined with intense overhead lighting and the undulating cave-like walls, the architect has led us right down into the ground’s own world.

Death as A Phenomenon of The Ground

To confront death is also to encounter the earth’s interior, the place of the dead. Architecturally this is expressed in the sunken crypt. As early as the seventh century, the crypt, in keeping with increasing sacred relic workship, was gradually becoming more important as a visible part of the church interior. In addition, as a visual element its meaning was expressed by sinking its level in relation to the church nave.

An example of the graduation of levels is St. Zeno in Verona (1070) (Fig. 88). From the church square outside, one moves upwards and in onto the floor level of the nave. This floor ends in a flight of steps leading down to the crypt below the choir. The choir level lies above and is reached by side steps from the aisles. The result is a composition in four different levels, each with a highly differing content. The floor of the square outside belongs to the city, the level of secular life. The floor of the nave is the level for the congregation. Raised above it is the altar level, which in turn is placed immediately above the very lowest level; the place of the martyrs and the dead. Here we encounter an underworld, a crypt, which, like the earth itself is dark, low and cold. Within the crypt we are actually in the earth’s inner space; here the coffins and reliquaries stand freely on the floor as if only the sod was removed (Fig. 89). This sinking of the crypt carries with it all the mysterious atmosphere of the cellar as we find it in Giovanni Piranesi’s ‘Carceri’ series (Fig. 90). The sinking of the floor conveys a feeling, as Bachelard says, of being one with the ‘cosmic roots’ of the house,25 a confrontation with the nether world which gives the world above its existential meaning.


The ground’s four levels (diagram, section of St. Zeno).


The crypt (Lund Cathedral, from Rydbeck, Lund Domkyrkos Byggnadshistorio).


Vision of the cellar (etching by Piranesi, from Corfiato, Piranesi Compositions).

Water as A Phenomenon of The Ground

The sunken floor also allows us to encounter water. As in nature itself, the lowest point of the existential level is the water surface — beneath it are the depths, the nether regions. This motif is interpreted in architecture by the sunken pool (Fig. 91).


The sunken baptistery (St. Michael’s Church in Nienburg, from Rappe, Domus Ecclesioe).

Fontana di Trevi in Rome, by Nocola Salvi (1762), is in this sense, more than just a fountain (Fig. 92).26 By being sunk into the ground it becomes primarily an opening to something primitive and elemental. The natural rock formations from which the water trickles forth as if from many sources reveal the very foundations of Rome itself. The rocks rise up from below like a petrified water spring, while the water gushed forth, running down to be tamed in the basin below, framed by the surrounding streets. It is in fact the sunken aspect of the Trevi Fountain which lends to it its content. It is like a slash in Rome’s own interior floor revealing nature’s forces in an exterior space, both as seen in the tuff landscape around the city and as they lie beneath the city forming the physical foundations of Rome’s architecture.27


The sunken basin (Fontana de Trevi in Rome).

Fire as A Phenomenon of The Ground

Fire too is a part of our conception of the earth’s interior (Fig. 93).


The sunken fireplace (fireplace by A. Korsmo, from a photograph).

Frank Lloyd Wright has frequently interpreted this association. He leads us down to the fireplace, where we may warm ourselves. In several of his houses, Taliesin West, Hanna house, and Wingspread, the stone floor around the fireplace is several steps lower than the rest of the floor (Fig. 94).28


The sunken fireplace (Taliesin West by F.LI. Wright, after Kaufmann/Raeburn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Writings and Buildings).

The background for this is Wright’s principle of the house as a part of nature. The house and ground on which it stands should be as one: ‘I knew well by now that no house should ever be on any hill or on anything. It should be of the hill, belonging to it, so hill and house could live together each happier for the other’29

What then about fire in this context?

First of all, fire as a phenomenon, conveys an instinctive feeling of being inside. The warmth of a fire is a prerequisite for surviving the cold and frost outside. As a means of preparing food it is also one of life’s fundamentals. These basic experiences make fire a symbol. It represents comfort and security, the centre of our innermost being. As a structure too, the fire is the centre of an interior space. The radiating flames of a bonfire at night welcome us as to a cave of light, beckoning us into safety from the devouring darkness around (Fig. 95). In the circle of this light we and those with us gain substance, our identity is established, an identity otherwise hidden by the night.


An open fire and the space of light.

Secondly, fire as a phenomenon is associated with something which comes from below. In contrast to sunlight, fire is the earth’s own light and consequently has a different meaning. The light that falls from above is spiritual, light coming from the side belongs to ‘wordly’ everyday life, whereas light from below is the earth’s alone. That fire belongs to the earth is also factual. The earth itself is a tamed globe of fire which occasionally breaks out in volcanoes. This knowledge, however, is less important than what we actually see in the fire’s own structure. Fire rises upwards from below, the flames flicker and grow up from the ground.

In Wright’s house these qualities are made tangible. They express an inside that is made synonymous with the centre of the house. In all Wright’s houses the fireplace and chimney-piece are the central and integrating motif. The fireplace becomes an image of survival which gives him happiness in an open and empty prairie, and he says: ‘It refreshed me to see the fire burning deep in the masonry of the house itself’.30

By sinking the fireplace the ‘inside’ is given a cosmic implication. The house is of the ground — to dwell is to be firmly rooted. The cave of light which the fire itself outlines becomes, in the form of the fireplace, a place into which we descend as well as enter. The steps, spreading upwards from the hearth in a rising circle are the visible extension of the radiating flames. Here we can gather around and sit while the house, otherwise, glides past and out ‘into the open prairie’ (Fig. 96).31


Fire, chimney and CI sunken area.

The Rising Floor

The rising floor is the flexed muscle of the earth. As we balance our way across it, we sense the power that wells up from beneath (Fig. 97).


The rising floor.

We shall examine two examples which interpret this expression: Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut (1955) and Michelangelo’s Campidoglio (1544).

Undulating Ground and Notre Dame Du Haut

The Church of Notre Dame crowns a natural height in a rolling landscape around Belfort (Fig. 98). This mighty panorama along with the climb to the top are the spatial experiences we carry with us when we enter. The form of the floor within reflects the same undulating characteristics. It is already familiar to us. In its soft S-like form, the floor is highest at the entrance, sinks as it approaches the altar and rises again abruptly towards the wall behind (Fig. 99).


Notre Dome and the undulating landscape of Belfort (Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier, from Bolle-Reddat,No/re Dome du Haut, Ronchomp).


Notre Dame and the rising floor (from Bolle-Redat, Notre Dome du Haut, Ronchamp).

On this floor one feels dependent upon the ground. One is at the mercy of its changing whims as in a boat on a tossing sea. Whereas the undulating forms outside were perceived as comprising a dynamic part of a free and grandly modelled landscape, the interior floor becomes a concentration of earth’s own mighty forces. Like crackle-work on glaze, the flat stones of this undulating floor seem thin and brittle, about to burst open at any moment from the pressure beneath.

Le Corbusier has exploited this atmosphere to accentuate the meaning of the building. The floor, in fact, consists of four low plateaus: the choir level on the east, the chapel levels to the south under the main tower and under the secondary towers to the north as well as a level area for seating along the window wall on the south.

Le Corbusier has interpreted the spiritual levels as tied to each other. A black cross extending the length of the floor joins the altar level and the two chapel levels at each end (fig. 100).32 In this way, an upper floor level is established — a unified world apart made up of closely linked ‘islands’ on an undulating lower floor level. That the level area containing the pews, the congregation’s only designated place, is not similarly connected explains the meaning of the floor-landscape. Man is ‘lost’ if, in this changing and threatening world, he does not entrust himself to the spiritual and saving dimensions of existence (see p. 323, under Roof).


Notre Dome and the continuous cross (after Le Corbusier, Oeuvre Complete 1910—65).

The Struggling Aspect of The Ground and The Campidoglio

A dramatic example of another variant of the rising floor is Rome’s Campidoglio. This urban space, designed by Michelangelo, is situated on one of Rome’s most revered heights (Fig. 101).33


II Campidoglio in Rome (from Portoghesi/Zevi (eds.), Michelangelo Architetto).

The form of the floor is the result of a conflict, a conflict between the ground beneath, which is the actual rock on which the piazza lies, and the plateau above, which is, in turn, the floor on which the buildings rest. The conflict arises in the way the rock appears to have broken through the surface in the form of a convex oval covered by a stellate pattern, with the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at its centre.

The present form of the piazza interprets this conflict otherwise than Michelangelo’s original project as we see it in Dupérac’s engraving (1544) (Fig. 102). In it a struggle takes place between the rising oval and the floor of the piazza (Fig. 103). In a typical Manneristic way the conflict is between balance and dynamism. The three descending steps to the oval reveal the thickness of the piazza floor and thereby the force needed to break through the surface. The oval is dark and heavy, in keeping with the raw underlying ground of the hill beneath and stands in sharp contrast to the square’s light and abstract surface. The star pattern with the emperor’s statue at its centre has often been interpreted as a description of the curvature’s outward expansion. But, the pattern may also be seen as a net concretely ‘restraining’ any expansion from beneath. This is held together by the emperor himself, which adds to the motif’s ideology in that the emperor is sublimated as the master of nature — man bringing nature under control.


II Campidoglio as planned by Michelangelo (etching by S. Dupérac, from Portoghesi/Zevi, Michelangelo Architetto).


Michelangelo’s Campidoglio project and the conflict between the piazza floor and the ground.

The present execution of the square weakens the balance of this conflict between surface and ground. Several points show that the tension has been relieved and the ground has ‘won’ by breaking up the entire rising of the piazza. In the first place, all the paving stones of the piazza are in the same grey tone, which reduces the contrast between convex and flat areas. Secondly, the four entrance ramps cut up the horizontal plane into small parts, thereby reducing the floor of the piazza to lesser forecourts adjoining the individual buildings (Fig. 104).34


The existing Campidoglio and the ‘victory’ of the ground.

In addition, the main ramp down to the city cuts far into the horizontal plane and thereby serves quite another function than that intended by Michelangelo. In his project this ramp was a branch of the floor of the piazza itself and, as such, the intermediary of a movement from the top downwards. Now it is as if the ground itself has broken free in the form of the ramp’s steps and become a part of the bedrock’s own rising.

Indeed, Michelangelo’s project and the final execution express two different degrees of strength in a conflict between inside and outside, in which the inside is the floor of the square and the outside is the oval. This is also a conflict between man and nature in that, as C. de Tolnay has maintained, the ground is the earth’s cover, which here in the form of the convex oval bursts forth as ‘Caput Mundi’, the world’s crown.35

The architectural history of the Campidoglio is therefore imbued with cosmic ideas of the relationship between local and global. Local is synonymous with Rome, which is the floor of the piazza itself and the buildings around it, whereas the global meaning is expressed in the rising floor representing the Roman Empire.

The Directional Floor

From what has been said so far it is clear that every floor expresses its own dynamics. In our introduction, apart from the supporting aspect, we divided the floor into two main themes. This was done in order to illustrate the extent to which the delimiting floor leaves us at peace within the space or leads us forward in a particular direction.

When we now choose, in the following, to treat this directional aspect as a separate motif, it is because certain floor elements are especially designed for the sole purpose of leading us forward. These are the path, the bridge and the stairs.

The path is perceived primarily as a means towards a destination and is therefore, in principle, subject to this goal (Fig. 105). On flat ground and with the goal at the end, the path is merely the accentuation of a distant intention. Destination and path become one, which means that the path’s space and the goal stand out from the surroundings as a homogeneous space.


The street and the goal (project for Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., from Rudofsky, Streets for People).

On the other hand, the bridge and goal together form a composite space. The impressions created by the bridge are linked to our experiences with it. It carries us over an obstacle (Fig. 106). Thus, forward movement towards the goal represents an event in itself not necessarily dictated by the goal. The bridge helps us so that we avoid having to struggle through valley, river or hollow. But, first and foremost, it is the bridge which carries us and prevents ourfalling into the depths. From the bridge we see this danger on both sides and therefore the bridge becomes the thing we must depend upon and cling to — should it collapse or if we do not follow its course exactly, we are lost.36 On a bridge we are in a state of tension between insecurity and fear on the one hand (the fall) and total dependency and surrender (in casu the bridge), on the other. The bridge assumes value as something independent and active, something strong and victorious which ‘occupies’ the empty space it spans. Having crossed the bridge, the feeling of having reached the goal comes as a relief from having survived a tense situation. The goal is as if conquered after an effort that the bridge has made for us.


The bridge and the conquest (Perugia, from Rudofsky, Streets for People).

We have said that the path accents the goal, indeed as a form it is subject to this goal. The bridge, on the other hand ‘collects’ — it gathers in separate routes and unites them in its own independent and active form.37 Stairs are the connecting link between below and above. This expression, therefore, depends upon whether the goal to which they lead is up or down, as these two directions a priori have very different contents (Fig. 107). A flight of stairs leading upwards guides us to a place of importance. The goal at the top acquires an elevated and ‘sacred’ quality. In going up, tension and expectation mount with every step. To go up conveys a feeling of reaching something, whereas to go down gives the feeling of leaving something. Descending can evoke a feeling of humility and resignation but may also mean to be filled with ‘grace’. One leaves a higher plane as an intermediary of the meaning found there and with the desire to ‘share’ this experience generously with others. In content, therefore, stairs concentrate a conflict between potential humility and potential exaltation.38


Stairs and the elevated goal (the Royal Palace in Oslo by H.D.F. Linstow)

In conclusion we may say that on the path, on the bridge, and on stairs, we are influenced towards our destination in different ways. On a path we are guided by the goal, on the bridge we conquer the goal, and on stairs we find the goal either humbling or uplifting.


In the following we shall limit ourselves to an examination of the expression of the stairs. The meaning of the path’s course and of the bridge will only be considered in so far as they affect the form of the stairs. The reason for this is the importance stairs have had throughout architectural history as an intermediary in the relationship between outside and inside, between the house and its environment.

Other limitations are necessary as well. First of all we assume that in all following examples we are standing at the foot of the stairs. In addition, we assume that we are about to go from the outside in, which means that the interior space is the goal of the stairs.

The main question is; in what way do the stairs prepare us to ascend and enter?

The Stairs’ Expression of Motion

The expression of the stairs is determined by the motion impulses it arouses within us (Fig. 108). These are determined by the extent to which the stairs show comparative strength in upward and downward motion. This strength relationship in turn is dependent upon two particular factors. The first is the spontaneous climbing impulse which any stairs arouse in the spectator facing them. The other involves the way in which the form in itself can lessen or increase this impulse. Stairs going in the same direction as the spectator accent the upward motion impulse, but if they come towards the person they counteract this impulse. Both impulses may be experienced in stairs containing both directions which we call a two-way flight.


Stairs and motion (Magasin du Bon Marche, from Norwick (ed.), Verdensarkitekturen).

A flight of stairs will always ‘invite people to go up’, according to Andrea Palladio.39 This impulse to climb is fundamental and mainly due to two factors.

The first is determined by the expression of the stairs, which is contained in what we have already said about the greater importance of what is at the top than at the bottom. Thus, the top of the stairs is more desirable and alluring than the bottom.

The other factor lies more within the form itself, the basic structure of which is decided by its diagonal form and the form of the steps. A diagonal seems to ‘defy’ gravity. It always rises in relation to the horizontal but in quite different ways, depending upon its gradient (Fig. 109). If the gradient exceeds 45 degrees, any sinking sensation is overcome and the vertical takes over. If it is less than 45 degrees, the ascent encounters resistance, which increases if the gradient becomes less. Similarily, the steps themselves also visualize a climbing movement (Fig. 110). This is not only because they are sensed as being cut in a way made to fit our feet but also because their plastic expression is both inward and upward.


The ascent impulse and the angle of the stairs.


The ascent impulse and the steps.

Whether the expressed motion of the stairs goes in our intended direction, comes towards us, or is two-directional depends upon the overall affiliation of the flight. This means that the impression as a whole is not only dependent upon the form of the stairs themselves but also upon the relationship of the stairs to its surroundings.

Relationship to the environment is determined by the approach, which signifies the way in which one gets to the stairs and the goal, which in this case is the house facade to which the stairs lead. Both the approach and destination will vary from project to project and accordingly, will have correspondingly varying importance for the stairs’ expression (Fig. 111).


Factors which determine the stair’s expression of motion: (1) the form of the approach (the space in front of the stairs), (2) the form of the stairs, and (3) the stairs’ goal (entrance and faҫade).

In the following, therefore, we shall limit ourselves to examining the body of the stairway as an isolated element. This in turn presupposes that in our descriptions of the basic content of individual variations, the approach and goal will be constants. We shall imagine the stairs as facing an open space below and leading to a flat wall with the same entrance door above.

In a study of architectural stair forms it becomes clear that there are four basic motifs which determine the motion expression: breadth, slope, attachment, and form (Fig. 112, 1—4).

112, 1-4

Thestairs’ four motifs: (1) breadth: a) narrow, b) wide, (2) slope: a) steep, b) gentle, (3) attachment: a) attached, b) free, (4) form: a) plateau stair, b) frontal stair, c) fan stair, d) divided stair, e) side stair, f) overlapping stair.

So, the question is: Is climbing a narrow flight of stairs different from climbing a broad one? What about stairs which are shallow compared to those which are steep or the stair flight firmly attached to the ground compared to one which spans lightly over it? Or, what is the importance of the stairs’ plastic form, whether it is straight or arched, symmetric or asymmetric?

In the following we shall examine each of these motifs individually. The aim is to show whether the motion expressed by the stairs is coming towards us, going along with us, or doing both, and how this affects the stairs’ meaning in the relation between the inside and the outside.

Narrow Stairs

First and foremost it is our own physical dimensions which determine whether a flight of stairs is perceived as narrow. If it corresponds to our own body width or is at most double that width, it will be considered narrow. The quality is not relative in the sense that it is determined only by visual connection with the surroundings. Stairs which fulfil the above conditions seem narrow whether or not the dimensions of the surroundings otherwise are large or small, even if the impression of ‘narrowness’ is probably increased in the first case and reduced in the latter (Figs. 112,1a,b, 113).


The narrow stair and the importance of the scale of the surroundings.

It follows that a narrow flight of stairs seems intended for the spectator alone or, at most, one other person. It is the visualization of a ‘personal space’ — it is private. This content is further emphasized in that narrow stairs invite quick movement. The latter quality is to great extent dependent upon the length of the flight and is mainly dictated by two conditions.

The first is visual. A narrow and relatively long flight of stairs accents the line, which in itself concentrates the dynamic principle and reveals a forward movement. The wider and shorter the stairs, the greater will be the effect of its breadth on the motion and thereby a reduction in speed.

The other condition behind this ‘speed’ effect is determined by past experience. Narrow stairs picture a potential ‘struggle’ for space with someone approaching from above. If we are actually on the stairs, we feel crowded and the impulse is to hurry up to the top and away from the danger. One ‘skips up’ a narrow stairway but ‘strides’ up a broad one. In the first case movement is an individual matter, but in the second case it becomes more solemn and public (see p. 95 f).

Narrow Stairs and The Relation Between Inside and Outside

In its form alone, the narrow stairway implies no directional movement, that is to say, it gives no message as to whether motion is from the outside (from below) or from the inside (from above). This means that the relative strength between inside and outside influencing a narrow flight depends upon how the stairs accord with the surroundings (Figs. 114, 115).


The narrow stair and the importance of the inclination of the ground for the motion direction (Diagram of the stair in Giglio Castello).


The narrow stair and motion from below upwards (detail from Giglio Castello).

An example of this is Robert Venturi’s project for a beach house (1959). There the steps run at right angles to the entrance, climbing straight up from an open beach area in front (Fig. 116). The result is that the interior space seems to open up and emerge. The main reason for this is that the stairs rise directly towards the entrance door, and this creates a visual focus in the overall symmetrical faҫade.


The narrow stair and motion from above downwards (project for a beach house by R. Venturi, after Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture).

The symmetry of the house is assured by the roof. This gable roof brings the whole composition together by the way its ridge is both broken and integrated by a dominating chimney. Standing out from the facade immediately beneath the chimney is a small semi-detached vestibule, the link that leads the stairs into the house. The entire house is raised above the ground on narrow stilts.

The outlet itself is formed by the stairs in this composition. From the chimney-accented centre of the house, by way of the vestibule, the interior of the house is led out and down into the sand (Fig. 117). Along with the small vestibule, which is in a way a replica of the house itself, it is as though the entire building ‘moves outdoors’. What is private becomes public and is in itself the welcoming agent.


Section through Venturi’s beach house (after Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture).

Broad Stairs

The narrow stairway is private, the broad flight has a public character. Broad stairs are described as monumental and considered suitable for public display. ‘It is desireable that all parts of the stairs be splendid for there are many who see the stairs but not the rest of the house’.40

Broad Stairs and Public Expression

Again it is our physical experience which determines the impression conveyed by the stairs. What is included in the phenomenon ‘broad stairs’ is, however, more dependent upon a visual relation to the environment than in the case of narrow stairs.41 Nevertheless, we spontaneously characterize a stairway as broad if it conveys a stream of people and not primarily a line of single induviduals as does the narrow stairway. Therein too, lies its content. It is not meant for just one person at a time but for many, the individual being just part of a potential crowd. One feels alone on a broad but empty flight of stairs — a conflict arises between the actual situation and the expression of the stairs as being something potentially filled with people. A broad stairway is generous; it offers space and is inviting (Figs. 118, 119).


The broad stair and the populated expression (Parthenon, reconstruction by G. Stevens, from Papathanassopoulos, The Acropolis).


The broad stair and the public expression (St. Maria Maggiore in Rome, facade by C. Rainaldi and others, from Bacon, The Design of Cities).

Broad Stairs and Ceremonial Expression

Movement up a broad flight of stairs is slow. In a broad flight, the breadth is frequently greater than the length. The arresting factor is, therefore, either equal to or stronger than the forward upward motion. Slow forward movement is associated with a measured pace and is thought of in connection with ceremony, which in turn is associated with large and general forms that minimize individual enterprise. The hasty and propelling atmosphere of the narrow stairs is replaced by one of reserve and control which assumes an air of solemnity in the ascending movement itself.

Broad Stairs and Monumental Expression

The monumentality of a broad stairway lies, thus, both in its collective quality and in its slow solemnity. We find, therefore, throughout architectural history, that broad stairs have been used to accentuate facades, expecially those of public buildings.

We give one example: the main stairway leading into Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall, I.I.T. in Chicago (1955) (Fig. 120).


The broad stair and the monumental expression (Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe, from Hilberseimer, Mies van der Rohe).

It is formed in such a way that the encounter between the interior space and exterior space is in the stairs themselves. The landing that divides the flight is the same width as the entrance ‘space’ where the boundaries are set by two powerful roof beams. It is, in fact, the inside space which is led out and down in the form of one great ‘step’, while movements from outside are conveyed by the smaller flight in the middle (Fig. 121). The entrance itself is through two glass doors, which in turn comprise only half of the stair width. Accordingly, the stairs are wider than ‘necessary’, and the expression becomes monumental. The broad landing increases this impression — both optically, as the entire stairs seem widened, and also in reality in that the climbing tendency is reduced and ‘made solemn’.


The stair in front of Crown Hall and the overlapping between inside and outside.

We spoke of the dependent relationship between the effect of broad stairs and the environment. A functionally broad stairway may lose its entire monumental expression if it leads up to an over-dimensioned house. The reverse may be true and a small house appear monumental when giving onto a broad flight of steps, even if the stairs functionally do not fulfil the preconditions. An example of the latter is a little Kasuga temple from the Nara period in Japan (Fig. 122). The interior measures only c. 3.5 square metres. It is the stairs which give this ‘cottage’ such an impressive character.


The broad stair and the monumental expression (tax house from Kasuga, from Alex, Japanese Architecture).

Steep and Shallow Stairs

In the above we saw that broad and narrow stairs implied only the ‘speed’ and not the direction of the stair’s course.

This is not the case when it concerns the slope of the stairs. The shallow flight of steps invites us to ascend (it accords with our intended course), whereas the steep flight resists our ascent as if pushing downward (it opposes our intended direction) (Fig. 112, 2a,b).

Extremes in this context are the ladder or the winding stairs in the case of the steep variant and the flat pathway when it comes to the shallow flight.

Steep Stairs and Sacred Expression

Again we find the cause of these expressions in the relation between our physical selves and the force of gravity. Stairs are diagonal and the diagonal signifies a situation of tension midway between vertical and horizontal. The diagonal is found as a slanting position between the vertical and the horizontal. Thus it applies as the expressed tension gauge’.42

The tension in the stairs varies with the degree of resistance experienced. To climb a steep flight of stairs is physically exhausting; we move against the force of gravity, which presses us downwards. Gravity is personified as an adversary coming at us from above, and it gives our destination at the top an air of inaccessibility. On a really steep flight one is compelled to hurry to the top for fear of falling backwards and down. Steep stairs, therefore, also convey an impression of a struggle for survival. To fall here can mean calamity, whereas to fall on a shallower flight represents less danger.

In this sense, a steep stairway isolates but also makes manifest the house and entrance at the top. The goal is isolated because it is difficult to reach, but at the same time it is in a way emphasized as the ‘victor’ — in other words, it has occupied the place we ourselves are striving to reach.

These impressions of isolation and strength, of struggle and survival, all combine to make the steep stairway a sacred symbol. The steep form is a visualization of the penitential path itself, up to sacred places such as ‘the Heavenly stairs’ at T’ai San in Shantung or the series of stair flights to the altars atop Mayan stone temples (Fig. 123).43 This unity of stairs, struggle, and sacredness is concentrated in Rome’s Scala Santa (Fig. 124). On their knees, supplicants crawl upward to the crucifix at the top and by this act reveal the very essence of the spirit of the steep stairway.


The steep stair as a sacred symbol (stair temple in Tikal, from Robertson, Pre-Columbian Architecture).


The steep stair as a sacred symbol (La Scala Santa, photo by Natural Colours).

Shallow Stairs and Secular Expression

Shallow stairs are secular. With low, widely spaced steps one can ‘salire con gravita’, says Vincenzo Scamozzi.44 Widely spaced steps are conducive to a calm and comfortable pace, whereas those in which each tread is relatively narrow to the foot are active and demanding. A broad stairway in which the incline is moderated by widely spaced steps accentuates the slow gliding, ceremonial air of the broad stairs. The shallow, gently sloping stairway is in a way so well arranged that it demands little exertion and is easy and natural. Its content, therefore, signifies the opposite of the steep stairs — struggle is relieved by ‘dolcezza’.45

The Aracoeli and The Campidoglio Stairs

It is the slope which creates such a difference of expression in the two stairways up to the Capitoline Hill in Rome (Fig. 125). The flight leading up to St. Maria in Aracoeli (1384) is steep, the other just beside it leading to the Campidoglio is shallow.


The stair up to Aracoeli and II Campidoglio (early 19th century etching).

In effect, these differences in character are already revealed by the destinations of the stairs. One leads steeply up to the church with its cognomen ‘the Heavenly Altar’ (Aracoeli), the other ends in the secular centre of Rome.

The Aracoeli stairway is broader than the one up to the Campidoglio. It has, accordingly, a ‘slower’ tempo than the neighbouring secular stairs. One ‘glides’ lightly up the Campidoglio stairs; its ramp-like steps are a hardly noticeable variation in the hill itself. This inviting character is also shown in the way the flight follows up the pedestrian’s own spatial expansion and from below carves its way right into the plateau of the piazza above (see pp. 85 f).

In sharp contrast, climbing the Aracoeli stairs is a physical self-conquest. Its slow tempo, steep incline, and narrowly indented steps convey a mood of struggle and strength of will. One is subjected to a greater and more powerful dimension than is ‘comfortable’ in this setting, where the twelve landings that break the course of the stairs into evenly divided sections are scaled to the powerful faҫade at the top. The landings constitute the stations in a Via Dolorosa sequence which further emphasizes the stairs’ meaning. In a stage by stage ascent they reveal the whole weight of the movement in contrast to the continuous magnetic flow in the neighbouring ramp (Fig. 126).


The heavy stair. People on their knees (etching from Bergsoe, Rom under Pius IX).

At ground level both flights of stairs have the same starting point in the street, Via del Teatro di Marcello. The goals at the top, however, are vitally different in form, emphasizing each in its own way, the dissimilar expressive content in the stairs.

Aracoeli’s faҫade rises almost immediately from the lip of the stairs and with its massive brick wall conveys a heavy and closed impression (Fig. 127). It is almost obtrusive in the way it fills the entire space at the top of the stairs. Even the great fluted cornice crowning the building arches out towards the climber. In this sense, the stairs are closely related to the church by being the outlet of this ‘thrust’ from above. The feeling experienced when coming out of the church confirms this impression. It is as if the congregation is ‘emptied’ down the stairs. What a contrast this is to standing at the top of the Campidoglio stairs. There one feels the upward movement of those ascending, one ‘receives’ them.


The stair up to Aracoeli.

Nor is the top of the Campidoglio stairs shut off by a solid wall. On the contrary, already at the foot of these stairs one perceives a deep courtyard in front of the tower of the Town Hall at the far end (Fig. 128). The tower serves as the goal of the ascent while the space of the square in front is an invitation to continue moving forwards even after reaching the top. The statuary also has the same effect. Both the Dioscuri facing the city on the balustrade and the emperor in the centre suggest a ‘place to stop’. In other words, the area is already ‘inhabited’ and becomes, thereby, a place we too can use — a place which by way of the stairs has encouraged ascent and conquest.


The stair up to II Campidoglio.

Firmly Fixed and Free-Standing Stairs

By a firmly fixed stairway we mean one in which the whole body rests solidly on the ground in contrast to a free stairway, which is released from the ground and stretches over and above it (Fig. 112, 3a, b).

Fixed stairs are like the attached floor and share with it a character of physical unity with the ground which includes the ground’s permanent and ‘inert’ quality (see p. 37). Thus, the stairs may give an impression of the ground itself rising, either by springing up from the ground or by rising with the ground. In any case, these variants are simply nuances of the same basic impression of motion that rises upwards from below and is in principle ‘safe’ and slow.

This is illustrated by comparing fixed stairs to free-standing stairs. The free stair flight shares the quality of the bridge. It is supreme, active and compels greater speed than the firmly fixed flight. In addition, a free-standing stairway implies another direction than that of its solid counterpart. In principle, it leads from inside to outside. It is as though the interior floor of the house is led down, not as in the case of the solid stairs where the exterior floor is pushed upwards (Fig. 129).


The relationship between the interior floor and a stair which is free and a stair which is attached.

This inside to outside motion in the free-standing stairs is accented in architecture. In Venturi’s beach house project, we saw that the entire symmetric disposition of the stairs and house reveal an inside space which unfolds outward (see p. 93 f). The free stairway emphasizes this characteristic. The whole house is raised on stilts; it ‘floats’ above the ground with the freestanding stair as the only downward contact point. If one imagines the same stair made solid and firmly fixed, the overall impression would be that of an encounter between an exterior floor, which, as it rises, leads upwards and a door and interior space which open and empty outwards.

An example of a stairway (actually a ramp) which is both fixed and freestanding is the barn ramp.

The lower part is usually built of stone or concrete, the upper part is like a wooden bridge stretching freely over to the entrance (Fig. 130). Speed accelerates gradually on the way up. The climb begins heavily and calmly, gathers momentum as we reach the bridge, where the entire motion tenses and takes off to carry us in a spurt through the barn door. Even the sound is part of this experience. The lower part is the thudding sound of ground, gravel and grass, changing abruptly to a hollow drum-like beat indicating that we have reached the bridge and in doing so have created a spontaneous urge to hurry across and into ‘safety’. We may confirm the character of this experience by reversing the process, by freeing the lower part and making the upper part solid (Fig. 131). Now the movement is reversed and accelerates downwards from the solid upper part to the open part below.


Barn ramp.


The attachment of the barn bridge.

Modelled Stairs

In the above paragraphs we have described the importance of breadth, slope, and attachment in the expression of the stairs. The form, however, was the same in all cases. This form is the basic type in all stairs and contains the following qualities: it runs at right angles to the destination, it describes an even diagonal, it is equally broad at top and bottom and has straight steps.

If we assume further that these qualities vary in addition to those already examined, the entire expression of motion will become even more complicated.

Architectural history demonstrates, however, that also when it comes to stair forms there are quite definite archetypes, each of which induces specific ways of ascending. There are six types, which may be grouped according to the motion impulses which they convey. The types that accord with our own directional movement are the plateau stairs and frontal stairs. The types that resist our advance or seem to come towards us are the fan stairs and the divided stairs. Two-directional types are the side stairs and the overlapping stairs (Fig. 112,4a-f).

Plateau Stairs

Plateau stairs are formed as a solid block into which the stairs are cut (Fig. 112, 4a). The type is well known from classical Antiquity’s temple architecture in which the plateau is the raised floor on which the building stands.

The form is a visualization of movement upwards from below. It is as if our own personal space penetrates the block to make way for the ascent.

When one is considering the Roman temple, its form must be understood as a link in a meaningful depiction of overlapping motion between outside and inside (Fig. 132). The Roman temple has been recognized as a directional building. In contrast to the Greek temple, an isolated island within its temenos, the Roman temple was meant to be an integrated part of the urban architecture facing the forum (Fig. 133). Whereas the Greek temple had a strictly defined interior space, the aim in the Roman temple was to establish contact between inside and outside. Plateau stairs must be seen in this context, one in which they reflect an ascending movement from the lengthy public square up towards the temple.46 This movement continues at the top as the cella is ‘shoved’ back to the far end of the platform. Additionally, its deep entrance encourages progress into the space towards the statue at the end.


The plateau stair and the Roman temple (Maison Carree, photo by Fototeca Unione).


The Roman temple and the relationship between inside and outside.

This inward motion is overlapped by an outward motion found in the column-supported superstructure forming the rest of the temple. In relation to the set-back cella, the gable wall juts forward and, combined with the platform beneath, appears active and prominent. This peculiar quality in Roman temple architecture may have had an ideological meaning. With roots in the Etruscan pattern, the Romans had developed a temple which showed more clearly than did those of the Greeks the interdependence of man and divinity, an interdependence culminating in the deification of the emperor.47

Frontal Stairs

Frontal stairs take the form of a triangle in which two side stair flights lead from opposite directions along the house wall to join in a common landing in front of the entrance (Fig. 112, 4b). It is a typical street stairway adapted to the passing current of movement in the street. It occurs frequently in a monumental version in Norwegian urban wooden architecture (Fig. 134).

This frontal stairway distinctly conveys an impulse to ascend. The reason lies in the triangular form which draws attention to the uppermost point where both flights are joined. The entrance is independent and at a right angle to the stair flights. Clearly, the motion from the entrance plays no part in the form of the stair.


The front stair up to a Norwegian wooden house (from Brochmann, Bygget i Norge I).

An example of emphasis on the rising qualities of frontal stairs is the double flight in front of Rome’s City Hall, facing the Campidoglio. The form was chosen for reasons of space, since a direct flight would have taken up too much of the square. At the same time, however, the frontal stairs convey the impression of an element ‘pressed’ against the wall by the expanding, rising oval in the floor of the square in front (see p. 85 f) (Fig. 135). In Michelangelo’s projected plan from 1544, he intended to introduce a baldachin over the landing at the top. In this way two effects would be achieved. First of all the junction of the two flights would have stood out more clearly. Secondly, the rising quality itself would have been given greater emphasis. The latter is obvious from the way in which the pilaster articulation of the intended baldachin is joined to corresponding pilasters around the niche in the wall beneath. In combination with the main tower immediately above, which also repeats this pattern, an accented vertical effect is achieved. This not only emphasizes the rising quality of the stairs but also repeats the entire ascent to the Campidoglio, the ramp across the square.


Campidoglio: The relationship between the front stair and adjoining space.

Fan Stairs

The fan stair is formed in the shape of a spreading fan that opens 180 degrees. (Fig. 112, 4c). It occurs sporadically throughout architectural history but perhaps most frequently in high Baroque. Its form is expansive, facing large open spaces and gathering people (Figs. 136, 137).


The fan star (Chapel in Vitorcano).


The fan stair (axonometric of St. Andrea al Quirinale by L. Bernini, from Norwick (ed.), Verdensarkitekturen).

The form conveys a clearly opposing effect. Its motion is directed dynamically from above as if an interior space is being ‘emptied’ from the entrance at the top. An accomplished example of the exploitation of the possibilities of fan stairs is the semicircular entrance stairs to St. Andrea al Quirinale by Lorenzo Bernini (1670). The facade is dominated by a huge pediment with a semicircular columned baldachin beneath. This baldachin is directed from inside to outside, as is shown in two ways. In the first place, it appears to be cut out of the wall and ‘falls’ out of the semicircular window above. At the same time, it is tied to the walls by its powerful cornice, which continues on behind the pilasters and around the oval body of the building.

The stairs repeat the expansiveness of the baldachin’s form and appear to spring straight from the entrance beneath. This is the language of the fan stair form, one which is emphasized by the courtyard’s concave lines. The courtyard receives, the stairs spring forth, and, by means of this overlapping encounter, inside and outside are tied together.

Divided Stairs

As with the frontally attached double stairs described above, the divided stairs are joined together by an upper landing (Fig. 112, 4d). An explicit example is to be found in front of Giacomo Vignola’s Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola (1559) (Fig. 138). Here, however, the dominant motion in the flights is reversed as compared to frontally attached stairs. Here both flights seem to expand from the upper level down the one ascending. Two conditions are responsible for this effect. First of all, the form depicts something which is enfolding and receiving. Secondly, the area at the foot of the stairs becomes particularly significant.


The divided stair (Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola by G. Vignola, photo by Anderson)

We associate spontaneously the two outflung staircases with two ‘arms’ (see p. 295 the niche motif). This similarity to a meaningful physical gesture affects the preparation to climb the stairs. One seems ‘to be grasped’ as in a huge embrace.

In addition, Caprarola, with its semicircular stair flights, is a good example of this form’s space creating effect between the arms. The flights both encircle and flow into a clearly defined oval space, which in itself is a meaningful conclusion to our outward expansion. Vignola has defined this situation by halting forward movement at the accentuated arches placed directly beneath the landing plateau. Our destination, therefore, seems to have been reached already at the lower level and any further movement upwards is not immediately ‘necessary’. This also heightens the descending effect of the stairs. The flights are led downward to fetch us up from a space where we have paused expectantly.

Side Stairs

Characteristic of the stairs described above is their fundamental symmetry in both form and relation to the entrance. By the side stairway we mean an asymmetric and single flight form (Fig. 112, 4e). The motion expression of the side stairs is, therefore, to a far greater extent than the previous examples, dependent upon its ‘setting’.

Essential in deciding the motion effect (whether it accords with or resists our forward motion) is, therefore, whether one of the two levels, top or bottom, is formed after the same asymmetric principle as the stairs (Fig. 139). A single stairway, paralleling the house wall and leading to a door in the centre of a symmetric faҫade will, in principle, be interpreted as having an ascending movement, in that the exterior is led up to an ordered system. In the reverse, the same form placed against an asymmetric faҫade will have a suppressing effect on this upward motion. The order within the house emerges by way of the asymmetric stairs to ‘meet’ us.


The side stair and symmetrical and asymmetrical connections.

Typical of the latter is the garden faҫade of Le Corbusier’s Maison Stein in Garches (1927). In contrast to the strict, formal symmetry of the main faҫade in which the main door’s baldachin juts forward almost ‘grasping’ and drawing the exterior space inside, the freer form of the garden faҫade with its projecting terrace stairs is an example of an outward expansion of the entire interior space (Fig. 140).48


The side stair and the asymmetrical connection (Villa Stein by Le Corbusier after Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complete 1910-65).

Overlapping Stairs

As has been said, the importance of the stairs in expressing the degree of upward or downward motion is also decided by the shape of the steps themselves. In principle, there is no priority of motion either from above or below in stairs with straight steps. Convex steps, however, ‘pour’ downwards in a flowing mass,49 whereas concave steps illustrate upward expansion.

We find these three step forms combined in the same flight in the lower part of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera stairs (started in 1862, Fig. 141). The lowest part of the flight, where the stairs are at their broadest, consists of convex steps which moderate upward motion. In the middle part the stair width narrows, the steps straighten and then become concave to assist the upward impulse in the transition to the landing and to further movement on up to each side.


The divided stair and the fan stair combined (the Paris Opera, main stair by Ch. Gamier, from Dexter (ed.), The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts).

The following example will show how this two-way principle may vary even further both in form and complexity.

The vestibule staircase leading to the Biblioteca Laurenziana by Michelangelo (c. 1542) is adapted to two situations. The first is the large library to which it leads and which expands visually outward and down the central flight. The other is our upward movement which is taken care of by the side flights (Fig. 142). The central flight has convex steps and has the same width at the top as the library entrance but widens gradually as it descends. It is as if the inner space pours forth in a great cascade, ‘curling’ into small waves where it meets the banisters. The centre flight is in a way ‘occupied’, whereas the side flights with their small steps set into larger ones, by which one penetrates both inwards and upwards, are more inviting to the visitor (see p. 105 f).50 Slightly more than halfway up, the side flights join the middle flight, but now the opposing aspect of their convexity is overpowered by the increasing view into the library itself.


An overlapping stair: Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence (by Michelangelo, from de Tolnay, Michelangelo).

The volume of the stairs is overdimensioned in relation to the small vestibule. The scale is that of the library and not of the vestibule. This aspect, too, prepares us already beforehand for our encounter with the importance of the interior space.51


The experiential nature of the wall (photo by R. Crane).