A Series of Escalations

What’s so interesting about walking on escalators?

As a solo sideline to The Demolition Project’s work, I’m starting to explore the experience of walking on escalators.

There are two basic ways to approach an escalator: as a faster way of walking up or downstairs, or as a way of getting down or upstairs without walking at all. I’m generally quite impatient and I usually take the first approach; I get a little annoyed with people who stand on escalators when they could be walking, especially if they’re standing in my way. I find negotiating escalators a stressful and dull experience, full of obstacles. Often they’re in crowded and unappealing urban environments – tube stations, department stores, shopping centres – where it is impossible to move easily.

The idea of exploring these obstacles came from a Site Space event organised by Poppy Jackson and Andre Verissimo, where I came across an escalator near London Bridge station that only led to a ticket barrier. It was a Saturday morning and no commuters were around; instead a steady stream of tourists would get on the up-escalator, then when they reached the top and realised they couldn’t get any further without a ticket they would turn round and take the down-escalator back to the street.  I spent an hour going up and down this set of escalators, trying to find a way to enjoy something that would normally annoy me. I played games with myself, alternating between running and standing or even sitting, tried shadowing passers-by, tried walking the wrong way until strangers shouted at me…  I began to think that the very monotony and routine of walking on an escalator made it a perfect symbol of urban life, and that here was something worth exploring.

The first escalator was patented in 1859 by an inventor called Nathan Ames from Saugus, Massachusetts, who called it “revolving stairs” and seems never to have made a working model. it was the first of a rash of attempts to design and build moving stairs, with Jesse Reno, patenting the “Endless Conveyor or Elevator.” in 1892 and installing a working version in Coney Island in 1896; the Otis Elevator Company built its first prototype in 1899 and trademarked the word escalator. While the modern lift (elevator) is a key technology that allowed the building of skyscrapers, the escalator plays an equivalent role in public (or quasi-public) architecture, wherever large numbers of people need to move through a space on different levels. Wikipedia sums up their uses and advantages:

Escalators are used around the world to move pedestrian traffic in places where elevators would be impractical. Principal areas of usage include department stores, shopping malls, airports, transit systems, convention centers, hotels, arenas, stadiums and public buildings.

Escalators have the capacity to move large numbers of people, and they can be placed in the same physical space as one might install a staircase. They have no waiting interval (except during very heavy traffic), they can be used to guide people toward main exits or special exhibits, and they may be weatherproofed for outdoor use. A non-functioning escalator can function as a normal staircase, whereas many other conveyances become useless when they break down.

I decided to try taking walks up and down 60 escalators sets of escalators, each walk lasting 60 minutes. The number 60 was chosen at random but it feels right. I’ve drawn up a set of rules for myself, which may change as the project progresses. And I’m also going to be thinking about how I can apply anything I discover, and how I can take it further…


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