Act 1 - A building telling stories

stairIt happened one day in early November 2014 when we were having unseasonably good weather and I wasn’t concentrating. I had been approached by a primary school in Camden earlier that summer to give their entrance areas a facelift and resolve a few nagging problems in circulation that had built up over the years, like in most schools. Rhyl Primary School is a Victorian behemoth built from masonry walls half a metre thick as part of the London School Board building programme. Wiith no care for logic, yet, built with such blind magnificence and sincerity that one is left slightly baffled that 100 years later schools can be built with such contempt for time and the future, considering that these are the very commodities in which schools need to be proofing us all against.

I met Ben our structural engineer, that balmy day. As we were looking at the ear-marked rooms that I have been in over and again, he pointed out that a staircase must have once stood in the entrance as the brickwork was patched up in the walls in a diagonal arrangement.

I suddenly felt as if the building was somehow quietly singing to me about a lost moment in its history. I could see and picture this small intervention, I began to notice old ventilation panels half blocked off and fanlights that had been covered up. Of course buildings are not human, but they contain the traces and stories of the lives that have passed through them. Buildings become scarred and ripped apart and adapted, especially if they are allowed to last as long as Rhyl.

I began to think of lost staircases, about the gravity-free stairs of Escher, or the grim etchings of Piranesi’s prisonscapes. I thought about a rainy February visit to the seemingly delight-free world of Bison planks in Derby, where curing staircases are littered in the plant forecourt like scattered leaves. I wondered about the Descending Nude by Duchamp and that the staircase is this essential and timeless architectural entity that makes a meaningful scale even from the most monumental monument.  Something to be descended.

I began to think about Rocky running up those stairs in Philedelphia, over and over and getting distracted and mixing this in my mind with the unbuilt Monument to Stalin which has so many stairs it becomes unfathomably big.  Could Rocky make it up those stairs? Rocky slow down. Of course he can make it!

I began to think of the stair at the Altes Museum, half inside half outside, how peculiar and domestic and stately all at once.

Still standing in that slightly dusty, school corridor a previous student I had taught, David  sprang to mind. His ingenious project for a new art school in Stratford took two identical buildings and interlocked them, but one being in plan and one in section of course! A series of curious and uncanny intersections occured. Most vividly in the staircases, which were imagined as rooms as well as circulation.

All whilst standing there with Ben from Price and Myers. I realised that I wasn’t concentrating again and came too.

So the stair.

Was this the hook that I had been looking for in my quest for a time-based architecture at Rhyl? Could I somehow re-animate the stair in an environment that did not require it? Could it be used as a motif, but sideways and inside out and upside down. Creating nooks in the wrong direction. Stairs to nowhere.

The entrance at Rhyl school quietly acts out its past history in the hidden and fading marks within its structures. Listen a little more closely and you can hear them whispering.