We love to look down on other people, and we love it even more when they look up at us. The architect Morris Lapidus understood this when he designed the grand staircase of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. He called it the “Stairs to Nowhere” because they led only to a coat closet, where the beautiful people could leave their jackets and then swan down the stairs, catching the eye of everyone below.
Sixty-five years later, the new stairs-to-nowhere are “stepped seating” — though it may look like the thing in high school you called “bleachers” — and it’s become one of the most Instagrammable and possibly the most overused architectural features of the decade.
The swanning is still part of the point, but they’re also for sitting and waiting. Sitting and working. Sitting and eating. Watching and being watched. We have entered a new golden age for butts on steps not seen since the Colosseum.
It’s a Friday night at the Wharf, Washington’s $2.5 billion redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront, where the stepped seats leading up to the open-air bar of Cantina Bambina are like the Chichen Itza of vodka sodas.
Concertgoers hike to a higher elevation to meet their friends before the EDM show across the street; a teenager in a dinosaur T-shirt claims the top tier as her solo dance platform. But careful — don’t confuse these dramatic thigh-high risers for an actual user-friendly stairway: A guy on a date catches his toe on an edge and trips on his way up. A waiter finds himself separated from the functional steps by the banister. “Oh, the stairs are on this side,” he said, sheepishly, to a bystander smoking a cigarette. The whole front of the restaurant was stairs, but there was still only one path to the top.
Stepped seating is big these days in tech headquarters — Slack, Evernote, Amazon Ring, and Facebook all have it. They’ve replaced some tables at certain locations of Sweetgreen and Beefsteak. They’re in the lobbies of the Line and the Eaton hotels in Washington. Many have taken their cues from New York’s TKTS booth — a glowing glass staircase that looks out over Times Square — as well as the city’s High Line and redesigned Domino Park.
“I kind of think of them as a little theater of the street,” said Nico Wright, an associate at San Francisco’s CMG Landscape Architecture. They’re great for people-watching, a place where we can be alone, together. “You think you’re in a position of anonymity or safety, but you’re also definitely on display.”
It’s no wonder they’ve become such Instagram magnets, though architects insist they’re not designed with that in mind. But like all things that have become social media favorites, after a while, stairs to nowhere can feel like a dead end.
From the Mayan pyramids to the Spanish Steps to the Lincoln Memorial, stairs have always held a place between the functional and the symbolic — getting us where we need to go but also elevating us to sacred spaces and making us feel exalted. The metaphor is of a stairway to heaven, said Val Warke, a professor of architectural theory at Cornell University, which may be why “the idea of a disjunctive stair that doesn’t really go anywhere” — as in those mind-boggling M.C. Escher drawings — “is always sort of a fascination.”
One of the newest tourist attractions in New York, the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Vessel, is a 150-foot tall cyclone of stairs-to-nowhere, inspired by Indian stepwells from around 650 A.D. Visitors come from miles around to hoof it up 16 stories, even waiting in line for the special selfie spot midway up. And of course, at the top, they can take in the stunning views of … Weehawken, New Jersey, on one side and a mall on the other.
Some of the earliest stairs were built around 3000 B.C., for Sumerian ziggurats, but stairs intended for seating came about 2,000 years later and were an established feature by the time of the Archaic Greek period, said Brian Rose, an archaeology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. By 80 A.D., when the Romans opened their Colosseum, stair seating brought a familiar hierarchy: The wealthier and more important people got to be closer to the action.
But as it’s used in the workplace today, architects say, the new stepped seating is meant to break down those hierarchies — creating casual gathering spaces where anyone can have an impromptu meeting, or give a presentation.
“It encourages people to stay in their moment of thought,” said Danu Kennedy, design director for Parts and Labor, the firm that designed the Eaton’s lobby steps, “as opposed to being like, ‘We have a conference room scheduled for this time.’ “
Are stairs-to-nowhere the new open floor plan? Or are they the new foosball table? As with so many other innovations in “fun” office design, they’re quite clearly a way of cramming more seating into a smaller space.
They’re also, frankly, an open act of hostility toward women who wear short skirts. And unless they’re “stramps” — a terrible word for a combination stair/ramp — they’re inaccessible to many disabled visitors. They make you feel like you’re in a high school marching band. Besides, they’re just plain uncomfortable.
When Emily Stock, a 24-year-old media relations specialist for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, was sent to New York for a conference at PayPal’s headquarters in April, she was initially impressed by the recently redesigned space. Then she learned she’d be sitting on the risers at “Central Park,” the company’s stepped-seat event space — for two-and-a-half days.
“There was padding for your butt, but there was nothing to lean back on,” she said. After a day of typing notes hunched over her laptop, she had a backache. “I’m 24 years old, but by the time I left I felt like I was 84 … It wasn’t designed for people to be sitting there for more than a few hours.”
There was nowhere to put her stuff, so she set a coffee on the bench seat, and, naturally, bumped into it a few minutes later. “It flew forward into my purse. I had to spend an entire session cleaning out my bag,” she said.
Now, some architects are wondering whether their industry has started to overstep. Lately, stepped seating “seems to get jammed into, like, almost every single lobby project that you see nowadays,” said Wright.
“I’ll always joke about it: ‘We can’t do this again,’ ” said Primo Orpilla, principal and founder of the firm O + A, which designed the Slack headquarters. Tech office trends have been taking design cues from rec rooms for decades now, and stairs are beginning to remind him of the beanbag chair, the cool office signifier of the late ’90s. “Will this turn into that?” he asked. “Obviously, there always is the risk.”
Yet for now, dead-end stairs captivate us. “It’s something to do with the way we like to congregate,” said Nick Leahy, a co-CEO of Perkins Eastman, and the design principal for the TKTS stairs. “We like to find vantage points to understand the space around us.”
Or maybe we just want to live the metaphor. We are always climbing and getting nowhere, and wouldn’t it be nice to sit down?