The culture of each building, and the culture of the more abstract sphere they represent—retail, water treatment, banking, undergraduate education, and so on—has its own history of making and remaking, of possibility and impossibility. Many things that are entirely possible in a cafeteria—say, a food fight—are all but impossible in a dentist’s office, and vice versa.
—Culture Making, p.44
Ms. Acedo [the housekeeper who must clean Rem Koolhaas's Lemoîne house in Bordeaux, France] is a star, a woman of determination, ingenuity and forthright opinions who can match anything the house throws at her. As the film starts, she stands on the platform surrounded by her pails, mops, brooms, rags and vacuum cleaner while it rises slowly to the strains of a romantic Strauss melody. (Actually, she does not use the platform, preferring the arduous stair route ever since she got stuck between floors and a technician had to crawl through the books to reach the controls.)
She even succeeds in confounding the notoriously self-possessed architect, in his recorded 10-minute response to the film. One sequence shows her aggressive cleaning of one of the house's most offputting features, a punitive spiral stair consisting only of toe holds in a round concrete void open to the rain, unfazed by the seeming impossibility of dragging a vacuum up it. Mr. Koolhaas is momentarily flummoxed by the irreconcilability of his architecture and her cleaning methods.
But only momentarily. He quickly redefines the subject as the collision of two systems—"the platonic conception of cleaning and the platonic idea of architecture"—which I take to be the consideration of each on an elevated abstract plane of theoretical existence. Anyone who has ever done any cleaning knows that is not where it lives.
Let us concede the point: It is clear that the job is being pursued with familiar and archaic methods and devices that seem surreally unrelated to the task at hand, revealing how out of sync the vision—no matter how beautifully executed—and the result can be.
So how does one design a building where people actually use the stairs? There are three key features.
1) Fewer turns between the stairs and the closest entrance.
2) Stairs with large surface areas (not too narrow and steep).
3) Create a view, either up, down, or across, from the stairwell. No one wants to walk up a tiny, white box.
The Booth School of Business staircases meet all of these requirements (perhaps it’s no surprise the building won a major design award last year). For those who can’t build new stairwells, there are a few other nudges to try. Displaying motivational signs in the lobby and throughout the building, and playing music in the stairwell can increase stair use. Together, these two nudges can increase usage by as much as 9 percent. Hanging artwork on the stairwell walls, closing elevators occasionally, and offering incentives like fruit are also known to work.
In 1997, the BBC aired a three-hour documentary based on Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn. Brand has posted the whole program on Google Video in six 30-minute parts: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six.
If you’re hesitant about whether to watch the series or not, check out this two-minute appetizer of perhaps the meatiest tidbit in the book: the oak beam replacement plan for the dining hall of New College, Oxford. (via smashing telly)
Update: An old version of the New College web site says that the oaks were not planted specifically for the replacement of the ceiling beams even though they were used for that purpose. (thx, emily, david, and phil)