A step up

My office looks out to the original front entrance of the National Museum of Scotland. The restoration of the entry steps is now complete. The architects for the renovation of the museum provided an access-friendly entrance at street level. Once protected inside the basement of the building you ascend by elevator or escalator to the impressive gallery levels above. The restoration of the redundant external flights of steps came last.

MuseumStepsFlights of steps in public spaces are in the company of plinths, podiums, and other means of communicating elevation, grandeur and importance.

Thinking no doubt of narrow domestic staircases linking cellars to living quarters and attics, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard denigrated the flatness of modernity: “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky. Home has become mere horizontality” (27).

Setts in the city

There’s lots to say about stairs. For Sigmund Freud “Steep inclines, ladders, and stairs, and goinup or down them, are symbolic representations of the sexual act” (234). He adds in a footnote, “with rhythmical intervals and increasing breathlessness one reaches a height, and may then come down again in a few rapid jumps. Thus the rhythm of coitus is reproduced in climbing stairs” (235).

I think he only meant this to be the case when you dream of stairs. Freud’s characterisation is now a cliche, but it speaks of anxiety rather than pleasure. For Freud, sex is never about pleasure pure and simple. Neither are steps.

Mood and immobility

Some of us are engaged in a project on mobility in outdoor spaces for older people. Now I think of steps as impediments. They are grand to look at, to sit on, treat yourself to a prospect, but not as a device for progressing through public space, especially where slopes, gradients and subtle contouring will do just as well for transitioning across levels.

I’m also pursuing the theme of mood and mobility. Mobility is important in setting the mood. See post  Mood and movement (and trams). But on the contrary for many people, steps speak of immobility. Here’s a possible step mood list: aggravated, annoyed, anxious, exhausted, frustrated, giddy, listless, rushed, and stressed. That’s when going up. Reaching the top of a long flight of steps may afford elation, enthralment, surprise, hope. Coming down: free, energetic, jubilant, refreshed, restored, depending on where the steps lead. In any case steps may contribute to shifts in atmosphere, and other threshold effects. See post Betwixt and between.

ECA Beaux-Arts stair by John More Dick Peddie and George Washington Browne (1909)


  • As every architect knows, stairs are made up of steps, and are internal. It’s not usual to speak of external stairs, though there are exceptions (e.g. external fire escape stairs).
  • Also see posts: Heidegger on vertigo and Swinging.


  • Bachelard, Gaston. 1964. The Poetics of Space. New York: Orion Press
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1952. On Dreams. Trans. J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis
Grand library staircase in the game Uru.
George Square running plinth. Architect Robert Matthew (1906–1975).


  1. catatsea says:

    Funny one steps – actually a great way for the old and the disabled to get some exercise *if* there are banisters (and an alternative way in). It’s the lack of banisters on steps into buildings that gets me. Steps like those at the museum suitable adorned (banisters, standing perches, etc.) could become places to stretch, practice walking, get some exercise. Just like they are for kids – inject a little playfulness. We already use them as you say for sitting, watching the world go by etc. Of course the lawyers would put the kibosh on it but I can dream.

    1. Those particular steps could certainly fulfil that purpose. Even before they were repaired, and without handrails, people would use them recreationally, and for health/fitness. The doors were locked so the steps didn’t lead anywhere.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating article. Your comments regarding access reminded me of one of the pedestrian routes from Aberdeen railway station up to Union Street. Although the shopping centre has now slightly improved the decor, and added ironic comments (‘nearly there’, etc), the walk remains arduous. Here is a short video I prepared a couple of years ago, and apologies for the slightly sarcastic on-screen remarks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDXqrYTXZgE&feature=youtu.be

    1. Thanks Richard. Seeing all those steps reminds me of the transformation of the arrival experience at Edinburgh Waverley station — since they installed the escalators on the Waverley steps. They seem to be under repair often though, and there’s a terrible intermittent squeak. No doubt it’s all on a maintenance schedule. The glass lift is one of Edinburgh’s pleasant secrets. It affords an interesting, dynamic prospect of the city, though the journey is over in a few seconds.

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