Beaches, ponds and zero-entry swimming pools are all bodies of water without inconvenient level differences at their edges. Zero-entry swimming pools are sometimes called “beach-entry” pools.
When we arrive at a crowded beach, we begin to look for a spot long before we reach the water, especially if the beach is accessed by stairs or ramps leading down from a seawall or dunes. As we progress towards the water, we weigh alternatives and keep altering our route until we settle upon a spot. It’s usually not too close to other people and most likely to be as close to the water as possible and with a direct view of it.
People sometimes need to get to rivers for different reasons but rivers often run through built-up areas without the land for zero-entry. Parts of the The Ganges have stepped banks called ghat that allow people to access the river and bathe in the holy waters whatever the water level. As with a beach, people can begin to look for a suitable spot while coming down the stairs but the situation is more critical because bathing requires an empty spot at the waterline.
Underground water is generally further down and there is less space to access it whether to bathe in it or to fetch it for cooking and drinking. Stepwells are basically holes in the ground accessed by steps. A temple pond is used for ritual bathing and can be a well or a cistern filled by aqueducts. Either way, the problem is one of accessing the waterline. If space is unlimited and the water not that far down, the easiest way is to create a ghat on all four sides as a kind of inverted stepped pyramid void. This creates an infinite number of possible routes to whatever length of waterline there is.
This stepwell has irregular steps around three sides and an access ramp on the fourth. The maximum length of waterline can be accessed as if it were a river. There’s no need for a complex solution if a simple one will do.
This next temple pond has only the one access. Its steep sides are stepped for structural reasons rather than access. I say this because what look like paths along the sides will not always be a convenient height relative to the water and there’s no reason people should choose them if they have to access them from the main steps. And even if they did, they could only ever be used by one person at a time as they’re too narrow for people to pass each other, and they can’t step up or down as with the stepwell above.
This next stepwell is the same typology and has the same limitations. Stepping the walls helps prevent them from buckling. After all, wells are built to access water that’s close to the surface because of sandy soil or soft rock and, wells being wells, both sides of their walls are subject to hydrological pressure. That so many stepwells survive is testimony to their builders’ understanding of hydrology and soil engineering.
This next temple pond has gentle steps at one end, and sides that offer multiple but vastly less convenient positions. The main staircase is a miniature ghat that allows the water to be accessed. The side flights of steps may be ornamental but offer some structural advantage in addition to a backup functional one. People aren’t keen to use them.
This is the Adalaj Stepwell in the village of Adalaj, close to Ahmedabad city in the Indian state of Gujarat. It’s five storeys deep with stairs leading down to the water. It’s accessed by a single flight of steps and its galleries provide places for people to meet and appreciate the lower temperature. Circa 1490.
This next temple pond at Hampi Pushkarini, Hampi, Karnataka, India is a reconstruction from fragments, possibly circa 1200. It’s not particularly deep and this configuration gets people to the waterline in as little area as possible. It also allows them to plan their route so they arrive at an unoccupied position or, if they feel like a chat, to make their way to or near to an occupied position. Either way, a person can easily change their route should a better position become or look like becoming available. It’s an inverted pyramid void and steps of unequal treads create landings and three-sided flights that encourage movement around the well rather than movement forward and down.
This temple pond is a variation.
A thousand years ago it was already understood how to integrate structure and function in a way that was ornamental only incidentally. A stepwell such as this next one offers maximum alternatives but for only three sides. The flights function as buttresses and as access, and their regularity and symmetry enhances both. This one is from the sixteenth century.
This next is another example of a three-sided stepwell. I don’t know when from. From this angle it’s somewhat terrifying but it illustrates all the principles.
This next stepwell, Chand Bouri, dates from the 18th century but some parts are as old as the 8th. It’s another three-sided stepwell and a steep one. It wouldn’t be necessary to have so many stairs in such a confined space if the water weren’t so far down and there was more space to reach it.
More extreme solutions are called for when the water is lower down and there’s less space to access it. This one at Champaner in Gujarat, India has a 1.2m-wide staircase spiralling down the wall. It’s from the 16th century but is still the same typology as the ones above.
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These days, we’re only grateful for stairs when there’s a fire or emergency or the elevators aren’t working. We design buildings and other structures in which stairs aren’t even a design element. This footbridge has elevators that are part of the design and stairs that aren’t.
In these next images, stairs are design objects whose only function is to be design objects. And what would be the function of a design object?
Umschreibung (Endless Staircase), Olafur Eliasson, Munich, 2004 The Vessel, Thomas Heatherwick, Hudson Yards, NY, 2019
The designer of The Vessel is reported as having visited Chand Bouri stepwell and saying he noticed people observing each other, but doesn’t seem to have bothered asking why that might be. The problem he corrected was insufficient objectless due to there not being stairs on all sides. The other problem he corrected was not being able to see the stairs from both sides. (The ones at Chand Bouri are only visible from the inside, having to hold the soil back as they do.) From this I conclude that contemporary design culture still takes its cues from function, but the game is now to see who can trivialize and diminish it in our eyes the most.
Corporate-funded art is corporate-approved art. Its triviality is not benign. The postmodern juggernaut rolls on, continuing Venturi’s and Jencks’ groundbreaking work in de-meaning meaning.
A December 23 report on Architect states that The Vessel will become ADA compliant with the fitting of a “one of a kind platform lift mechanism on the upper levels … to increase the Vessel’s accessibility for individuals with disabilities [. …] The platform will ensure that people with disabilities can move around the upper level perimeter of the Vessel in order to enjoy the Vessel’s 360-degree views over Hudson Yards, the Hudson River, and New Jersey.” A single elevator and a set of inclined platform lifts on the uppermost level is going to be all it takes to make the structure ADA compliant but, to do this, the essential experience of the structure has had to be defined as accessing and enjoying those 360° views. The function of a stepwell is to allow people to access water and the essential experience is to allow them to do that without unnecessary delay. Accessing a view is not the same. For one, there’s no urgency. Granted, the view may be unique but every point on the planet has a unique 360° view. The view accessed from the particular set of viewpoints called The Vessel is special only because it can be accessed by a multitude of staircase and route options that allow people to a) enjoy arriving at some arbitrary position on the uppermost level b) if they wish, and c) for whatever reason. The essential experience of the design remains inaccessible to persons with disabilities and, even if every set of steps were equipped with an inclined platform lift, it still would be as it wouldn’t be much fun.
The Chand Bouri stepwell is known for its size, its depth, its geometry and its repetition. This next still from a 2006 movie, The Fall, highlights all these features. It illustrates part of a dark story told by a man in hospital, newly paralyzed because of the eponymous fall.