It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that during recent trips to Paris there were moments when staircases dominated my thoughts; on one visit the staircase was threatening, on the other it was seductive.
Architecture has always fascinated me, indeed, in my early teens it was my dream career and, while there is little in building design that doesn’t interest me, for years one of my favourite features has been the staircase. Apart from marvelling at the ingenious solutions staircases offer for getting people from one level to another, sometimes I wonder at their sheer beauty, sometimes at the riddle as to how exactly they stay up, and sometimes that they can create a feeling of despair. Could there be anything more beautiful in design than a spiral staircase spanning several floors? Conversely, for me anyway, could there be anything worse than the steep, dank, banister-less staircase leading to the cellar in my childhood Victorian home. Going down into the cellar was the stuff of nightmares, and in retrospect the image makes me shudder.
The two staircases that absorbed me recently were very different from each other, although both were chance discoveries at museums I visited with my wife Rohan. The first was at an exhibition about the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War [Greyhares, ‘Time traveller‘, 19 April 2015]. We were in the 17th century former manor Hôtel de Soubise which by coincidence was once part-owned by another Rohan, the Duc de Rohan to be precise – no relation. We had bought our entry tickets and, having taken our money, the women at the desk told us that access to the gallery was through the door at the top of the stairs to the back of the hall behind us. Turning round we were faced by a six-metre high, four-metre wide, single flight of stairs in overbearing grey stone.
At the time Rohan was only just re-learning how to negotiate stairs after her accident and, inevitably, climbing stairs was going to be both painful and difficult. We turned to the staff for help, but without apology, were coldly told that there was no other access available. Our question, “What about disability provision?” was greeted by blank faces.
We slowly climbed to the top where, fortunately, the exhibition was outstanding and justified the visit. But the horrible climb left me puzzling. Firstly, I realised that four hundred years ago many visitors to this palace would have seen the stairs as a threat just as we did. But there was worse. I imagined the scene where one of the original landlords would have stood at the top of these stairs greeting out-of-breath or otherwise compromised guests, and in doing so enjoying one of French aristocracy’s games of one-upmanship. Secondly, how interesting it is that the view of a staircase is influenced by one’s own demeanour. I remember how my elder sister, later in her life and by then very short of breath, said how she hated stairs; every step was a challenge, “like climbing Everest”.
The second staircase was at an exhibition of works by one of France’s leading twentieth-century non-figurative painters, Alfred Manessier, at the Mendjisky Museum where the works were spread over three floors. The building was designed in 1930 by the French architect Francis Robert Mallet-Stevens. For those who love art-nouveau architecture the museum is a treat, and on entering the building I was drawn to what I saw as its most lovely staircase. To get to the third floor I could have taken the lift, but instead found myself taking the staircase, which wound round the lift shaft. It happened that the stairs were so simple and so elegant that I found myself walking up and down three times simply for the pleasure. Mallet-Stevens had found the perfect balance between the height of each step, the depth of each tread and the slope of the staircase as a whole. What’s more, the breadth of the stairway and its illumination seemed perfect.
I very much like Manessier’s work, but for me and in this setting, unlike the German Occupation exhibition, it was the pictures that faded into the background, taking second place to the building and in particular to the stairs. And while the stairs where good to look at, walking up and down them was the greater pleasure. My two Paris staircases reminded me just how powerful architecture can be.