Helix (Credit: Adam Mørk)

The best contemporary staircases

Spiral, floaty, curvy or extrovert – the stunning stairways taking design to the next level.

We may live in an age of lifts and escalators, but architects are still attracted to staircases that perform myriad functions. Today, a stairway can be a theatrical focal point, a feat of engineering or somewhere that encourages chance encounters and the exchange of ideas

Upwards and onwards

The protagonist of the Experimentarium science centre in Hellerup, a suburb of Copenhagen, is its so-called Helix staircase, fashioned from steel clad with 10 tons of copper. Protagonist is an apt word since its Danish architects CEBRA see the staircase in anthropomorphic terms: “Previously an introverted building, the Experimentarium now appears as an extrovert, engaging, vibrant attraction,” says Kolja Nielsen, a founding partner of CEBRA. “It also ensures a better internal flow and creates more coherence between the floors.”

The lustrous copper surface of this 100m-long, dramatically spiralling staircase is symbolic, too: “It lets visitors know they’ve entered a world of science,” continues Nielsen. “The stairs take the form of an abstract version of the DNA strand’s structure, so the idea of the Helix staircase was born.”

Line of beauty

The eye-catching, brandy-coloured stairwell lined with oak fins at Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds, UK, is designed to contrast with the mall’s predominantly white, sharply angular interior. The curvilinear staircase rises four floors to the roof, emerging at the juncture between an American and a Japanese restaurant. “We wanted the staircase’s rich, warm colour to speak about the night,” says Friedrich Ludewig, of ACME architects, which designed it.

By day, the stairwell, which widens as it ascends the building and is crowned by a skylight, draws light into the shopping centre: “It’s shaped like an inverted pyramid to bring more light into the space,” continues Ludewig. “People feel like they’re walking towards light as they climb up. At roof level, they have a view of the market nearby and of a beautiful landscape. We wanted the walk up the stairs to feel like a celebratory journey.”

Form and function

The arresting staircase at The Import Building, a co-working space for the creative and tech industries in East India Dock, London is conceptually complex. Designed by Studio RHE, it boasts a 10-storey atrium made of glulam (glued laminated timber). A top-heavy, asymmetric staircase, clad in powder-coated aluminium panels in a shrill, ultra-pop turquoise called Mexico Blue, devised by Porsche in the 1970s, cascades from the third to the ground floor.

“Its form is derived from the angular journey the staircase makes as it intertwines with the timber grid,” says Richard Hywel Evans, director of Studio RHE. ”We chose this blue –one of the most synthetic colours available –  to create a striking contrast with the timber’s neutral hues. The staircase is the main focus in the space, inviting visitors to climb stairs rather than take the lifts in a bid to create a healthy workplace. Generous landings as you venture upwards also encourage users to stop and take in views of the atrium and activity below.”

Up, up and away

In an unlikely, remote rural spot 85km north of Bangkok stands a wine bar constructed from plywood and steel cloaked in sheets of PVC that shields it from the rain. It’s in Ayutthaya, a city razed to the ground in the 18th Century, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “The building was constructed to become a new tourist attraction in the hope of stimulating the local economy,” says Boonserm Premthada of Bangkok Project Studio, which designed it. Its translucent outer layer allows the building to blend with the surrounding landscape. Enhancing this experience inside, are five spiral staircases with platforms at different levels, which multiply the vistas of the greenery outside.

Each staircase incorporates a wide plywood strip that emphasises its corkscrewing motion and harmonises with the building’s frame. While having a strong sculptural presence, the staircases perform a functional role too: they help to stabilise the columns that support the building.

Lightness of being

The stairs zigzagging up the Savile Row office of property company Derwent London – recently refurbished by architects Piercy & Company – buck the trend for attention-grabbing staircases. Made of steel painted white, the large yet understated staircase is suspended from a new triple-height atrium, although its base makes contact with the lower floor. The ethereal-looking staircase almost disappears in the all-white interior of this 1930s Art Deco building, and seems to float in the space. “The stairs’ visual lightness translates into physical lightness,” says Stuart Piercy, director of Piercy & Company. “The entire structure is made of 0.5 cubic metres of steel.”

The staircase is also subtly designed to encourage social interaction. At the top of each flight, its pale-oak handrail twists from a vertical to a horizontal plane, providing a ledge to lean on while people chat. In addition, by the staircase on each floor are designated spaces for socialising.

Less is more

Minimalism and old-world grandeur collide at Foster + Partners’ Apple store in Singapore. Its interior is lined with cream-coloured Italian Castagna stone that incorporates two sweeping staircases made of hand-carved stone. The architects describe these theatrical features as “beautifully sculpted bookends” that pay “homage to craftsmanship”. Paradoxically, even in the high-tech environs of an Apple store, traditional materials and aesthetics prevail.

Step up

A bombastic-looking Victorian staircase in a house in Stoke Newington, London, has been recently replaced with a thoroughly 21st-Century version. “The old staircase was designed to be impressive,” says Japanese architect Taro Tsuruta, who remodelled the house. “It hogged space.” Rising two storeys above the ground floor, the new staircase and landings are considerably slimmer. There were originally seven cramped bedrooms radiating from the stairs; now there are four roomier ones.

The staircase is made of 2,000 pieces of plywood cut by a computer-controlled cutting machine and assembled on site by carpenters. Slits between these pieces afford dramatic views up and down the stairwell.

Email messages between the architect and his clients – film-maker Ramon Bloomberg and his wife Marie Cesbron, who works in the beauty industry – are carved into the staircase. ‘Can you remind me on what basis you will calculate your fee?’ reads one. “We thought why not incorporate these conversations into the design,” says Tsuruta. ”When a building is finished, they tend to be deleted. We wanted to keep those memories of the house’s history and highlight the process behind redesigning it.”

Colour pop

A yellow freestanding staircase – nicknamed the ‘sunshine stair’ – is the standout feature of the compact, three-storey London home of portrait photographer Jonathan Root, called Pop-Up Ute. (The name refers to a lightweight, multipurpose truck popular in Australia.) The house, which won New London Architecture’s Don’t Move, Improve! Award for most innovative project this year, has been entirely redesigned by architects Friend and Company in the functionalist, high-tech style that first rose to prominence in the 1970s. Indeed, Friend and Company’s director Adrian Friend is a fan of iconic high-tech building, The Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris.

The staircase, which connects all floors and has rubber treads, descends through the house like a beam of sunlight. “The staircase is painted zinc chromate yellow – a favourite of ours – which is used as a protective coating in the aerospace industry,” says Friend. “The staircase acts as a light transmitter: it reflects sunlight from the roof terrace and saves electricity by helping to illuminate the rooms below.”

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