Up and Down

On Movement, Access and Sydney’s Stairways

By Emma Yearwood

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1. Where I live now, in the inner west of Melbourne, it’s very flat. Sometimes I miss the texture that hills provide a city, the rhythm and unexpectedness. The undulations here are made of the buildings themselves and are a square kind of up and down.

2. The brick apartment block where I live has a set of stairs and despite their mildly bleak nature, I like them because they lead to a space that is temporarily mine. They are made of stained concrete slats and the gap between each step draws my eyes downwards. I sneak looks into the downstairs apartments through the safety of the slats, observing my neighbours’ dirty clothes strewn across the floor, dusty knick-knacks, the flickering of a television screen, a low wooden coffee table, an unhealthy potplant. The stairs themselves are an odd distance apart, so taking them a single step at a time seems slow, but taking them two at a time somehow seems dangerous. I am a slow person in general, so usually I take them one step at a time, but very occasionally the mood comes upon me to double up and I welcome it.

3. Stairs are on my mind because I am visiting a friend who has recently moved to Sydney—the city of bays, the city of beaches, the city of very expensive boats and it seems, the city of stairs.

4. The stairs seem to exist to navigate its beauty, its rhythm and unexpectedness.

5. I like stairways. They encourage a gentle, propulsive kind of movement, and I welcome propulsion wherever I can find it. Walking up or down stairs, or even hesitating, pausing on them for a bit, helps me to become unstuck. Perhaps becoming unstuck is nothing more than the gradual change of perspective that movement up or down offers.

6. My body is the kind of body that is assumed by stairs, the kind of body for which stairs are a connective tissue through space. There are other bodies though for which stairs may as well be a wall or a canyon — those of the elderly, disabled, ill, exhausted and very young.

7. I am reminded of Eula Bliss writing on vaccinations and the safety of herd immunity, how it “seems implausible only if we think of our bodies as inherently disconnected from other bodies. Which, of course, we do.”

8. Impenetrable space is not disease or health, but urban design that preferences some bodies over others, seems to follow the same delusion that our bodies are not connected to other bodies.

*

16. The friend I am visiting is lucky enough to live near the beach, and as I like edges, I go exploring.

15. At first I am shocked by all the private stairways going down to the ocean. A sense of injustice rises in me that there are so many sections of beach that are closed off to public access. I keep walking along the sand only to find that I must head up a steep hill and walk through the streets if I want to continue.

14. I linger at the top of private stairways, peering down through the gaps in the view that these spaces allow. I think snarkily of rising sea levels.

“When I’m in Sydney, it’s cool and the seaside pools are empty, which makes these built places seem wild.”

13. Despite my faint disgust, I look at these long, private stairways with a disquieting longing. To own them, to possess them. To dwell in them/on them. I am reading Heidegger at the moment and I am attracted to his understanding that building is dwelling, and dwelling is building—that to dwell in this way is essential to ‘being’. But in the process of thinking about stairs and dwelling and building and being, I read Evelyn Araluen’s essay ‘To Outlive a Home’, and what it means to consider “building as dwelling, dwelling as building” becomes clearer to me—that this kind of philosophy requires a perceived entitlement to possess. And as I move about the city peaking down private stairways and into the open stairwells of the art deco apartment buildings, feeling pangs of longing and jealousy, what I am really desiring is to possess. And as Araluen’s essay reminds me—in an Australian setting at the very least—to possess and to build on land, often requires the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and a non-reciprocal, exploitative relationship to the land and earth itself, with the ultimate endpoint being an erratic, violent climate. Araluen’s essay reminds me that the land I covet is stolen land and it is fragile land, and that it is best to keep moving.

12. There are other things about Sydney that unsettle me. The leaves are bigger. In fact, all the vegetation much lusher. The plants burst out of crevices and strangle each other alarmingly.

11. The humidity gives everything an air of decay, black mould smearing down rock and concrete. Against this decay the people seem disturbingly fit, bronze, blonde and aggressively happy, at least in the bayside suburbs.

10. Cranes protrude like giant dead trees, acting as ephemeral landmarks.

9. Because the landscape is hilly, the roads always seem to be turning in on each other. The rivers and harbour, though beautiful, act as chokepoints, which makes it difficult to get anywhere.

8. Huge old houses peek from between leaves, next to new monstrosities that are all balcony and rendered concrete, the spores of the black slime already waiting for the next wet spell to germinate on their textured surfaces.

7. Between the ostentation of these bigger domestic structures, there is still the odd slim terrace, nestled like a forgotten old person between the others.

6. It is a brutal landscape.

5. Soon though, I find a network of public stairways that help me navigate the tangle of roads. The steps themselves are made of concrete, whilst the handrails are a flimsy treated pine or sometimes a sturdier metal bar. The distance between each step is uniform, which makes them perfect for long walks—one foot in front of the other.

4. I find out later that the part of a stair that is designed to be stepped on is called a tread and the vertical component a riser. That they are so literally named delights me. The following days whenever I use the stairs, I repeat under my breath, “Tread, tread, tread. Rise, rise, rise.”

3. I try to tread lightly.

2. I think about the phrase ‘a flight of stairs’, and the kind of buoyant, graceful movement this implies. But also how it is impossible to be still when in flight. In this landscape the stairways act to both rupture and connect. They allow me to move from one level to another, to rise and to fall. Heidegger writes of how a bridge “gathers the earth as landscape around the stream”, but he could very well be referring to stairways, how they gather the landscape around them, pinching it in at the closed off edges and expanding it out at the bottom and top of the stairs—a release after a constraint.

1. The users of the stairs, those with the kind of bodies stairs imply, are gathered by necessity into certain ‘locales’ in order to ascend or descend through the landscape.

*

1. There is another type of Sydney stairs that are more iconic, those that descend into the seaside pools. They cross the boundary between two types of matter—air and water. They are not just an aid to movement, but also a representation of this transition.

2. They offer the possibility of slowness, rather than a sudden, startling plunge.

3. When I’m in Sydney, it’s cool and the seaside pools are empty, which makes these built places seem wild.

4. I can easily imagine people descending the stairs into the water, but find it difficult to imagine them clambering up. In Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, he writes of how, in our minds, certain stairs, like those to a cellar, are always descended; whilst others, those to an attic for instance, are always ascended. The book itself is an odd treatise on how domestic spaces, houses in particular, act as templates for daydreaming. For Bachelard, it is not building that constructs ‘being’, but the act of inhabiting. There is an appealing lightness to the idea that inhabited spaces construct the way we daydream, that daydreams construct the houses we live in.

5. The Sydney stairs have become for me a sort of template—a way to wander both physically and imaginatively. Like a path or a road, they imply elsewhere. Thinking about them provides a sense of transit, of flight, even when I am physically still.

“The humidity gives everything an air of decay, black mould smearing down rock and concrete. Against this decay the people seem disturbingly fit, bronze, blonde and aggressively happy, at least in the bayside suburbs.”

6. As I wander about, I notice even more stairways that are made for only either ascending or descending, like Bachelard’s attic and cellar stairs.

7. The more difficult, narrow, far apart or unevenly spaced ones are made for going up, I feel. These are the stone and gravel staircases, hewn from rock. They are most often found along the walks through the bushy extensions of land that jut out into the bay.

8. Their ‘rise’ is unevenly spaced and can sometimes be very deep. To ascend seems safer. Less difficult on the knees. Less chance of tripping.

9. The wider, easier, and more palatial are made for descending in grandeur and leisure. These are the stairs around the Botanic Gardens, at The Rocks, near the Opera House, those that piece together places already close to each other.

10. They are made to be walked down and for the splendour of the bay to open up slowly, as you move over them without thinking of where your feet must go.

*

6. Tara Brabazon offers an architectural alternative to stairs in the theory of the oblique. An architectural collaboration between Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, it draws on their shared fascination with bunkers, and is an architecture that aims to do away with verticality in buildings.

5. This often takes the form of building floors at an angle, negating the need for elevators and stairs to navigate verticality.

4. I daydream about a network of angled paths through the hills of Sydney, eclipsing the need for stairs. There are the choked roads but they are often very steep and already monopolised by the type of transport that requires fossil fuels, the footpaths often narrow and uneven next to them. I imagine angled paths suitable to wheelchairs, slow movers, frail movers, small movers.

3. The opening up of property, to allow slow human movement through the landscape. It’s both a horrorscape and a utopia.

2. My daydream reminds me of the Czech artist Kateřina Šedá, whose participatory piece ‘Over and Over’ involved repeatedly running through the backyards of members of the small community of Brno, where she lives. Šedá moved over the fences and walls separating the participants’ houses, using items that they had provided.

1. It is this voluntary puncturing of the private that I am imagining.

*

1. On the weekend my friend and I go inland to pick up a bookshelf for him from a secondhand store. The undulations are gentler here, so there seems to be less need for the network of stairways I have come to rely on.

2. However, in their place all the older houses have steps leading up to their front doors decorated in brilliantly coloured tiles. They are old and dusty but still catch the eye and I want to sit and perch a little on each and every one of them.

3. To pierce the private space with my own private moment.

4. They make me think of a scene in Claire Louise Bennett’s novel Pond—the unnamed protagonist is sweeping the leaves down her front steps. She thinks of a more efficient way to do it, but instead continues to sweep them down, one step at a time, because she enjoys “how the heap spilled and prospered”.

5. And in that moment I think about how the stairs have gathered those leaves, and how they have gathered me and many others, and how I am hopeful that we will all be able to spill and prosper as we move through space.

REFERENCES:

Araluen, Evelyn. ‘To Outlive a Home: Poetics of a Crumbling Domestic.’ Cordite Poetry Review,  1 February, 2019. Accessed online: http://cordite.org.au/essays/to-outlive-a-home/

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Bennett, Claire-Louise. Pond. Sydney: Picador Australia, 2016.

Biss, Eula. On Immunity. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015.

Brabazon, Tara. ‘The Politics of Stairs.’ Enabling University : Impairment, (Dis)Ability and Social Justice in Higher Education, Springer, 2015, pp. 3-21.

Heidegger, Martin. ‘Building Dwelling Thinking.’ Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, Routledge, 2008, pp. 243-255.

Šedá, Kateřina. Over and Over. Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2010.

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