The Decaying Staircase 2012

Staircases are about rising and falling and gravity and flight. Spiritual ascension has been a recurring theme in the history of art but I find it lacking in contemporary architecture. Today stairs are only used functionally as anti gravity machines.

I read On Adams House in Paradise by Joseph Rykwert and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. My co-teacher, Don Wall, gave me Architecture, Nature and Magic by William Lethaby. I studied the origins of wood architecture and the numerous rituals humans have developed since the beginning of time associated with trees.

Temple Houses and Forest Houses are works that were inspired by my readings as a young artist. During the creation of Temple Houses between 1977 and 1978, I paused to take a divergent path and built Staircase. Working in a meditative fashion I placed stair tread atop stair tread, offsetting each to reach higher and higher elevation. The stacked stairs began to topple. This moment, when mindless stacking hits it head against the effects of gravity and when abstract idea meets the concrete of the making, I shifted to the architectural standbys:  scaffolding and diagonal bracing. Like Bunraku Theater, where puppeteers dressed in black are rendered non-existent by our selective vision, I chose not to see the staircase’s supports but rather envision its delicate ascension upwards and out of sight.

For many years the staircase remained stored in the protection of my large studio. Thirty years of experiments, studies, prototypes, models, stacks of construction drawings, files of preliminary sketches and abandoned projects were stacked higher and higher, often toppling over and crashing into other works. I didn’t use juxtaposition as a means to arrive at new meaning.  Juxtaposition was a result of accident and gravity. I was confined to working in a small corner. By necessity my work got smaller and smaller. I worked with multiple pairs of reading glasses on top of each other to increase magnification. Tweezers became an extension of my too large fingers.

Expression became more difficult. As my studio became ever more cluttered I needed longer and longer levers to pry ideas from the clutter filling my mind.  In an effort to give myself some space I threw some non-biodegradable projects into the town landfill, and placed the biodegradable projects in the woods behind the studio. I placed Staircase in a pine grove. Only a few fragments of Staircase remain today. Soon I will harvest a white pine and mill it into boards to rebuild Staircase. Thirty years older will what I build be the same staircase?

In 2000 I began to build another staircase. It was to be 110 stories, the height of the World Trade Center. The Trade Center had inspired a number of projects since its construction the year I arrived in New York City in 1974. I was now seeing the Towers from my studio window on the 17th floor of 601 West 26th Street. I was intrigued about its ascendance and disappearance into low hanging clouds. For Incomplete Continuous Staircase I used Strathmore white museum board and Elmer’s glue at a scale of ¼ in. equals 1 foot. As I added step upon step, flight upon flight it began to falter. Once again my idealism was brought to earth and I added diagonal bracing to stabilize the piece. I built the staircase until at 32 stories it hit the 14 feet ceiling.