Viewer Ascending a Staircase
An essay commissioned for the fifth anniversary of the Anderson Collection, Stanford University. Published in Left of Center: The Anderson Collection, edited by Amber Harper, 12-16. Stanford: Anderson Collection, 2019.
Slowly. That’s the only way to go up the long and sloping staircase than links the lobby of the Anderson Collection at Stanford University to its upstairs galleries. The stairs—forty-three in total—are short and deep. Each tread is barely four inches high and almost fourteen inches deep. That ratio—a shallow rise and a deep run—is unusual for a staircase. It is unusual enough, in fact, that as you start to climb the stairs you have to pay attention to your stride, far more so than you would on any other staircase. You are forced to take short, careful steps—many more than you would think you would need to ascend a flight.
At first the effect is somewhat off-putting. The short rise feels too low for a single footstep, but the treads are too deep to take two at a time. There’s nothing for it but to go at the pace the stairs require, slowly, methodically, actually thinking about how you’re climbing a staircase. But what feels plodding at the onset becomes almost meditative. The short steps mean the climb isn’t particularly arduous or tiring; the stairs just require a little more of your attention as you take each step at a time, carefully not lifting your feet too high, placing your whole foot on each tread as you go. Maybe you’re chatting, or looking at your phone, or just not paying attention when you start to climb. But by the time you’re a few steps in, the staircase has your focus. Conversations pause. Phones slip back into pockets.
Something happens on the stairs—something almost imperceptible but utterly fundamental to the Anderson Collection itself. It’s physical, sure, as your body adjusts to the environment of the building, but it’s also more than that. It’s a microcosm of the museum, a tiny echo of what the Anderson Collection can do. That staircase, those forty-three steps of polished concrete, takes you away from Stanford’s quads, from classes and assignments, from emails and group text threads and Snapchat stories. It takes you into an immersive world of visual art, of sculptures that play with light and space, of paintings of profound and endless depth. Between the everyday of campus and the timelessness of the Anderson Collection, the staircase is a few moments pause, a re-centering, a subtle reminder to think about how you move through the world.
You may not know it in the moment, but somehow the staircase works on you. You find yourself upstairs in the galleries, in front of Mark Rothko’s Pink and White Over Red, lost in the vastness and immensity of its color. Or you are unconsciously walking in circles around Martin Puryear’s Dumb Luck, following the layers of wire mesh daubed in thick, black tar. Or you are standing in front of Robert Irwin’s Untitled, a disk of lacquered acrylic that appears to disappear into the wall. Before it your eyes toggle between seeing the artwork’s almost invisible edges and letting them blur into the surfaces of the building itself. You are in the crook of brilliant blue at the center of Robert Motherwell’s Italian Summer. The campus and the whole world outside feel impossibly distant.
The staircase and the building it traverses were designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects. The structure’s exterior is clad in panels of tan stone that matches the Santa Teresa sandstone of the campus’s oldest buildings. Downstairs, the building has a lobby and cloakroom, a small gallery for temporary exhibitions, as well as a well-lit classroom, and an administrative wing is neatly tucked away. But upstairs the building is open and vast. Echoing Stanford’s quads, the galleries form a ring around a central void, punctuated by the staircase. Large picture windows at the front of the museum overlook Lomita Drive and afford a view of trees and greenery. The gallery spaces themselves offer obstructed vistas, each visible from another. A gently undulating ceiling links the galleries, drawing your gaze around the space. The building is contemporary and bright, straightforward and supremely easy to maneuver. It blends gracefully into the architecture of Stanford’s campus and the foliage of Stanford’s landscape. But in this otherwise unassuming building, the peculiar staircase feels all the more conspicuous.
Olcott’s staircase has a long history: for more than a century, architects have been using the staircase as a subtle way to assert something of a museum’s ethos to its visitors. Richard Morris Hunt’s grand exterior stairs to the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art projects largesse and civic grandeur; Giuseppe Momo’s wrought-iron, spiraling double-helix stair at the Vatican Museums in Rome harkens back to a private staircase designed for Pope Innocent VIII by Donato Bramante in 1505. But unlike many of its predecessors, Olcott’s staircase isn’t a dramatic architectural statement. It doesn’t telegraph the museum’s stature or its history. It just provides a subtle reminder.
The Andersons’ gift to Stanford was more than simply an outstanding collection of modern and contemporary art. Theirs was a gift of the time and the space to lose yourself in paintings and sculptures. But even with this incredible resource on Stanford’s campus, it’s hard to take full advantage of it. It’s hard to take yourself away from the everyday stress and busyness of academic life and just to be open and attentive to the world in the way that the art of the Anderson Collection deserves. But Olcott’s staircase reminds you how. Its short steps slow you down, force you to pay attention to how you’re moving; they demand your focus.
The staircase primes you to experience the works in the Anderson Collection. The way in which you ascend the stairs—conscious of your body and the physical space around you and how awkward you many feel taking tiny, little steps—accomplishes what the best work of art can do. Like an artwork, the staircase changes how you perceive your environment. It takes what could otherwise be ordinary and somehow electrifies it, defamiliarizes it. Above all, it reminds you to slow down and appreciate it.