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When is a stair not a stair?

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When it’s an inter-floor enabling and connecting element, says Rory Olcayto

There is something faintly ludicrous about architectural writing that dwells on the obvious. You know, this kind of thing: ‘The stairs act as a near vertical circulation device that effectively link the ground floor with the first floor.’ Isn’t that clear from the plans and sections published alongside? Actually, isn’t the idea of stairs connecting one floor with another something that’s been obvious since you were three years old?

Yet architects seem to enjoy reading about buildings described like this. And when we commission architects to write reviews of buildings, it is this kind of observation that is most commonly made. (It’s the reason we often commission writing like this - because architects relate to the approach.)

Here’s an example from AJ last year, from a piece written by an architect describing a building by a peer they admire: ‘On the ground floor, these open corners reveal the lecture theatres, and larger teaching spaces, encouraging diagonal movement between the two stair cores, which link the other entrances to the upper levels.’ So the stairs link the entrances to the upper floor. Okay. I get it now. Thanks. I’d never have guessed!

Here’s another example of stating the oh-so obvious, again by an architect writing about a friend’s work in AJ: ‘The first room encountered is a large entrance hall housing a wood stove - a room for pausing and orientating oneself, it leads to and suggests others.’ Yup - that’s what halls do. Bravo. Forgive me for having a laugh. In both instances, the writing was clear, the architects who designed the buildings were happy with their reviews, and so was I, even though I’d have taken a different approach myself. Design statements for planning submissions often read like this - perhaps that’s why it’s a common writing style among architects when composing reviews.


The other end of the spectrum is the Jonathan Glancey approach, much copied today, especially by younger critics. Here he is in The Guardian on Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Riverside Museum (pictured): ‘The steel and zinc roof, with its rippling zigzag, may have the drama of a Guggenheim spiral, but it looks to me like a heartbeat on a monitor, or tightly lapping waves - compressed, perhaps, by the sort of ocean liner that used to be launched into these waters.’ Riveting stuff, as they might say on the Clyde.

But if you go too far in this direction, describing architectural elements in more than simply pragmatic terms, as I once did when I suggested a staircase in a south London house was ‘erotic’, you can find yourself lampooned in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

Regardless of such hazards, the reviewer must be prepared for a fall (and so too should the architect under review), and refuse to conform to what the reader - and other architecture critics - expect. It is right to try and capture the feeling of space, the emotional feedback architecture can give, or to place the building within a social and political context even if these factors are not immediately clear.

So why do we bother with building reviews? What should they tell us? What kind of language is appropriate? And how should a reviewer translate the experience of their visit into words? The answers will always depend on the subject. No-one believes all buildings are equal. A new parliament is always going to be more interesting to write about (or should be) than a private, one-off house, and will by its nature demand a degree of interpretation that goes beyond functional commentary. Although maybe its not really a matter for debate: most architects just look at the drawings and photos instead. Right?

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