Onwards and upwards
by Uta Abendroth | Oct 2, 2013
Showdown at London Design Festival: “Endless Stair“, a project by „American Hardwood Export Council“ (AHEC) together with „dRMM Architects“. All photos © London Design Festival

London is a great place for temporary installations. The Victoria & Albert Museum, the Serpentine Gallery, Trafalgar Square ... the Brits love such transient art in their cultural institutions (entrance free of charge!) and public spaces, even if the content is on occasion somewhat shallow. Never mind. Art is a matter for the eye of the beholder and we all have a different view of the world and what it has to offer us.

On the occasion of the London Design Festival the “Endless Stairs” have been erected on the lawn in front of the Tate Modern – a joint venture by the “American Hardwood Export Council” (AHEC) and “dRMM Architects”. The walk-on walk-off sculpture, which originally was meant to head skywards outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, invites you to walk this way or that way up its 187 wooden stairs and cast a glance from the South Bank out over the Thames, be it upstream or downstream.

The AHEC has for years been campaigning for the US hardwood industry, advocating the use of American woods in Europe. In London they’ve often sought to present the quality of their hardwoods in the form of visually attractive and in part spectacular projects. For example, in recent years they supported, among other things, David Adjaye, who built a “Sclera Pavillon” made of American tulipwood on the South Bank (2008), Amanda Levete, who designed the “Timber Wave”, a mesh of Red Oak rods that framed the entire frontage of the entrance to the V&A (2011), and Royal College of Art students who designed chairs made from US hardwood for the “Out of the Woods” project (2012), which also went on display at the V&A. Of course these projects are marketing events. But for the designers and architects they also spell an opportunity to explore creative approaches and test materials, and leave visitors gob-smacked.

The staircase so reminiscent of the M.C. Escher drawing is actually based on an idea by architect Alex de Rijke, the founder of London architect firm dRMM and Dean of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, together with engineers at Arup. The total of 15 staircase elements in front of the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern are several stories high. The interlocking stairs were made by Swiss company Nüssli and delivered as prefabricated modules for assembly on site. De Rijke terms the design a “three-dimensional exercise in terms of composition, structure and scale”. And he adds: “The appealing structure is both a landmark and a meeting point, aligned to the axis of the Millennium Bridge.”

The stairs are of course not really endless, and you can’t permanently walk upwards as can the eye in Escher’s deceptive drawings, and are above all a celebration of architecture as a stunning visual experience. And anyone not seduced by the view from the uppermost stair, may perhaps be interested to hear that 44 cubic meters of “American Tulipwood” were used in the form of CLT (cross-laminated timber), produced by Italian company Imola Legno. The CLT panels possess wood’s structural properties and can thus be used to swiftly and efficiently erect buildings – in this case one that can be reconfigured – that can be recycled and are thus sustainable in a new way – and can function as a festival eye-catcher into the bargain.

The “Endless Stair” will be on view until October 10:
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG


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Walk the way up its 187 wooden stairs.
The stairs are of course not really endless, and you can’t permanently walk upwards as can the eye in Escher’s deceptive drawings.
A stunning visual experience based on 44 cubic meters of “American Tulipwood”.
At least it is a simple, but beautiful marketing idea, that leave visitors gob-smacked.