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The 20 Coolest Staircases in the World

The architecture of the staircase combines form and function, upper and lower space. It can represent power or status, or symbolise spiritual elevation and the climb to knowledge. Join me in discovering the 20 most spectacular staircases around the world. 

 

From the simple, straight-flight steps of the Mayan pyramids, to the radical spiral ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and the computer-aided designs of today. The steps of the Toltec-Maya pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico are an early example of the simple, straight-flight staircase – the ancestor of all stair design. Appearing to stretch up to the sky, this style of staircase came to symbolise an ascent to heaven and infinity, and has captured artists’ imaginations from the Odessa Steps in Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin to the steps in Orson Welles’s The Trial. (All images courtesy of Thames & Hudson from The Staircase: The Architecture of Ascent by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Martine Diot, Adelaïde de Savray, Jérôme Coignard and Jean Dethier.)

The History of Staircases

The origin of stairs is uncertain, but it is certain that humans have been carving steps in mountains for millennia. In the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, for example, built 4,500 years ago in Pakistan, there are examples of stone stairways. Around 2000 BC the Egyptians started to build stairs leading up to temples. The Romans were fans too, and staircases often featured in their theatres, basilicas and amphitheatres. The earliest surviving stairs were made of stone, but that may be more due to the durable nature of the material. Nowadays most stairs are made of wood, although this depends on the type of staircase. Other materials that are commonly used are iron, steel and concrete.  Indeed, reinforced concrete has allowed architects to design seemingly gravity-defying staircases. Stairs were born out of necessity, but often design and form work hand in hand. In Georgian houses, the staircase was frequently a statement, indicating wealth. Broad, sweeping, winding staircases often greet a visitor as they walk through the front door.  At the other end of the spectrum, simple stairs found in dwellings across the world are often made with just two chunky stringers—the sides of the stairs—with the treads hung between them.

 

The 20 Most Incredible Staircases in the World 

1. Chand Baori

Chand Baori is a stepwell built in the 9th century in the Abhaneri village of Rajasthan. With 3,500 narrow steps arranged in perfect symmetry, it is India’s largest and steepest stepwell and one of the most unusual staircases in the world. The steps descend 13 stories (65 feet) to the bottom of the water storage facility. On three sides, the stairs encircle the water, while on the fourth side a three-stored pavilion boasts carved jharokhas (a type of overhanging enclosed balcony), galleries supported on pillars, and two projecting balconies enshrining beautiful sculptures.

Chand Baori is said to be named after a local ruler of Nikumbh dynasty called Raja Chanda. However, no epigraphic evidence has been found regarding the construction of the Chand Baori or the adjoining Harshat Mata Temple. Based on similarities in style and carvings with the terraced temples of Paranagar and Mandore, the Baori can be dated to 8th-9th century. It was likely constructed before the temple.  According to Morna Livingston in Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India, Chand Baori is one of the few stepwells that has “two classical periods of water building in a single setting”.

The oldest parts of the step-well date from the 8th century onwards. An upper palace building was added to the site, which is viewed from the tabulated arches used by the Chauhan rulers and the cusped arches used by the Mughals. Access to these rooms is now blocked for tourists. The upper stories with the columned arcade around it were built around the 18th century during the Mughal era. The Mughals also added art galleries and a retaining wall around the well. Today, there are remains of old sculptures and carvings, which were suggested to be in the temple or in the various rooms. The nearby temple of Harshat Mata, goddess of joy, was a pilgrimage site and formed a complex together alongside the well. Many of these stepwells, including Chand Baori, served multiple purposes alongside drawing water and playing a significant role in religious or ceremonial activities.  Pilgrims are said to have found comfort in quenching their thirst and finding a resting spot at the steps of Chand Baori after their long travels. This unique form of underground well-architecture remains constant from the 7th century in the existing monument.  Excavated stones of the temple are now kept by the Archaeological Survey of India in the arcades of the well. Chand Baori is a significant architectural site in western India. Chand Baori has been used as a filming location for a number of films, such as Bhoomi, The Fall, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and Paheli. The 2012 Hollywood movie The Dark Knight Rises starring Christian Bale as Batman used Chand Baori as inspiration for one of its production sets but was not actually filmed on location at Chand Baori. 

 

2. Monumental Steps of Bom Jesus do Monte

Bom Jesus do Monte is a pilgrimage site outside the city of Braga with an outdoor Baroque staircase that climbs 381 feet. The staircase of dark granite covered in white plaster is known as the Sacred Way and leads to the 18th-century sanctuary of Bom Jesus (Good Jesus) on top of the hill. Although there are no visions or saints associated with the place, many pilgrims choose to uphold tradition and climb up the zig-zagging 577 steps on their knees. Each sense (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste) is represented by a different fountain along the stairways giving the idea of purification of the faithful.

Many hilltops in Portugal and other parts of Europe have been sites of religious devotion since antiquity, and it is possible that the Bom Jesus hill was one of these. However, the first indication of a chapel over the hill dates from 1373. This chapel – dedicated to the Holy Cross – was rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1629 a pilgrimage church was built dedicated to the Bom Jesus(Good Jesus), with six chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ.

The present Sanctuary started being built in 1722, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Braga, Rodrigo de Moura Telles. His coat of arms is seen over the gateway, in the beginning of the stairway. Under his direction the first stairway row, with chapels dedicated to the Via Crucis, were completed. Each chapel is decorated with terra cotta sculptures depicting the Passion of Christ. He also sponsored the next segment of stairways, which has a zigzag shape and is dedicated to the Five Senses. Each sense (Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch, Taste) is represented by a different fountain. At the end of this stairway, a Baroque church was built around 1725 by architect Manuel Pinto Vilalobos. The works on the first chapels, stairways and church proceeded through the 18th century. In an area behind the church (the Terreiro dos Evangelistas), three octagonal chapels were built in the 1760s with statues depicting episodes that occur after the Crucifixion, like the meeting of Jesus with Mary Magdalene. The exterior design of the beautiful chapels is attributed to renowned Braga architect André Soares. Around these chapels there are four Baroque fountains with statues of the Evangelists, also dating from the 1760s. The religious significance of the staircase endows it with unique power for many, while its beautiful design and ornate craftsmanship do for most others. 

 

3. Baroque Spiral Staircase of Melk Abbey

Melk Abbey was founded in 1089 and sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube River. The spiral staircase with Roccoco grate leads from the small library room to other library rooms, which are closed to the public. The undersides of the stone steps have been painted in great detail, adding to Melk Abbey’s reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful monastic sites. Other highlights are the stately royal rooms, the golden, glittering church, and the ceiling fresco by Austrian painter Paul Troger. The spiral staircase has been viewed as a metaphor for both personal growth and historical development. Rather than ascending along a linear plane, we find ourselves tracing circles along the staircase as we move, we hope, inevitably upward. In so doing, wisdom impels us to embrace both progress and preservation. It adjures us not to attempt to cast aside or stamp out swaths of our experience and heritage, but to reclaim and recreate our individual and collective past and to preserve our present for the assurance of a richer, more viable future.

Today’s Baroque abbey was built between 1702 and 1736 to designs by Jakob Prandtauer. Particularly noteworthy are the abbey church with frescos by Johann Michael Rottmayr and the library with countless medieval manuscripts, including a famed collection of musical manuscripts, and frescos by Paul Troger. Due to its fame and academic stature, Melk managed to escape dissolution under Emperor Joseph II when many other Austrian abbeys were seized and dissolved between 1780 and 1790. The abbey managed to survive other threats to its existence during the Napoleonic Wars, and also in the period following the Anschluss in 1938, when the school and a large part of the abbey were confiscated by the state.

 

4. Rococo Staircase at Palazzo Biscari’s

Palazzo Biscari, a privately owned villa in imperious Baroque style in Catania, is home to an elegant white Rococo-inspired staircase. Its décor is unparalleled in all of Sicily and features panels of dense rococo stucco, a complex balustrade design and magnificent 18th-century frescos above the door of the gallery. Built in several stages from 1707 to 1763, Palazzo Biscari’s ornate interior is decorated in the rococo style and houses collections of paintings, vases, coins, and other antique exhibits.

After the devastations of the 1693 Sicily earthquake, the Prince of Biscari, Ignazio Paternò Castello, 3rd Prince of Biscari, obtained the permission to build this palace. At the time the building stood against the French king Charles V’s walls of the town.  The oldest section was built under Ignazio, the third prince of Biscari, who commissioned the design from the architect Alonzo Di Benedetto. Ignazio’s son, Vincenzo, commissioned the elaborate decoration of the seven large second-storey windows facing the seaside, on the southwest corner of the palace on Via Cardinale Dusmet, by the Messinese sculptor Antonino Amato. The final additions eastward were designed by Giuseppe Palazzotto and, later, by Francesco Battaglia. The building was finished in 1763 and inaugurated with big celebrations.

The outer facade on Via Museo Biscari appears somewhat dilapidated; the entrance is through a grand stone portal, decorated with facial cartouches and brackets as well as the coat of arms of the Biscari. It leads to a large inner courtyard, which features a large double outdoor entrance staircase. The Rococo interiors are elaborately frescoed and decorated with stucco. The large octagonal ballroom has a complex decoration of mirrors, stuccoes and frescos painted by Matteo Desiderato and Sebastiano Lo Monaco. A small dome has a balcony designed to contain an orchestra. The dome fresco is meant to depict the glory of the Paternò Castello di Biscari family. It is accessed through a staircase decorated in stucco within the gallery facing the sea. The staircase is elaborately finsihed on the bottom with organic movement and forms, wrought iron railings and a light pastel colour palette. 

 

5. Muralla Roja

Rising from the rocky cliffs of Calpe, La Muralla Roja–Spanish for  The Red Wall–is a housing project. Looking like an impossible structure, the complex of 50 apartments includes many elements of classic Arab/Mediterranean architecture. Perhaps best described as a labyrinth or puzzle, the staircases zig-zag and are held in jewel-like blues and shades of indigo, contrasting with the vertical walls painted in pink and red tones. ts organization challenges the increasing division between public and private space through its reinterpretation of the casbah, which is the walled citadel typical of traditional architecture in North African countries. Characterized by a series of interlocking stairs, platforms, and bridges, this organization is a modern illustration of the circulation in a typical casbah, providing access to the 50 apartments that form La Muralla Roja. 

The complexity of the project extends into the division of apartments, which is in three sizes: 60 sqm studios, 80 sqm two bedroom apartment, and 120 sqm three bedroom apartments. Bofill’s desire to provide enhanced living is seen through with the roof terraces, solaria, a swimming pool, and a sauna, all reserved for the residents’ use. Various tones of red paint cover the exterior facade, accentuating the contrast with the landscape. Stairs and circulation surfaces, on the other hand, are treated with different tones of blue ranging from sky-blue to indigo and event violet, depending on weather the intention is to contrast with the sky or create visually continuity with it.

 

6. Vertigo Staircase in QVB Building

Syndey’s Queen Victoria Building and its Vertigo Staircase were designed in 1898 by architect George McRae as a monument to the British monarch. Construction took place when Australia was in a severe recession and the elaborate Romanesque architecture of the building provided work for craftsmen like stonemasons, plasterers, and stained-glass artists. The QVB spans an entire city block and features an inner glass dome, an exterior copper-sheathed dome, stained glass windows, arches, pillars, balustrades, and intricate tiled floors. The Romanesque Revival building was constructed between 1893 and 1898 and is 30 metres (98 ft) wide by 190 metres (620 ft) long. The domes were built by Ritchie Brothers, a steel and metal company that also built trains, trams and farm equipment.

At the time, Sydney was undergoing a building boom and since in architecture “no one school or style predominated”, McRae produced four designs for the building in different styles (Gothic, Renaissance, Queen Anne and Romanesque) from which the council could choose.  The council’s choice of Victorian Romanesque style conveys the influences of American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The use of columns, arches, and a prodigal amount of detail such as was used by McRae in the chosen design are typical of Richardsonian Romanesque, an eclectic style identifiably established between 1877 and 1886. 

 

7. Olivetti Showroom Staircase

The Olivetti Showroom by Carlo Scarpa has recently come full circle. In the late 1950s Adriano Olivetti commissioned Scarpa to design a display space for his Olivetti products. The resulting Olivetti Showroom was a beautiful space used for decades by Olivetti before changing owners.In April of 2011 Scarpa’s Olivetti Showroom re-emerged once again as the display space for Olivetti products. Though this time Scarpa’s design of the space is what is truly on display. The Olivetti Company was a typewriter manufacturer experimenting with producing early computers and calculator by the 1950s. 

The company had a strong and positive reputation for its attention to design. This appreciation for quality and design was visible in Olivetti products, as well as in its spatial design choices. When Scarpa was commissioned by Olivetti in 1957, it was understood that this showroom would be a space designed to show the products, as well as Scarpa’s talent as an architect.The Olivetti Showroom is located in Venice, Italy on the northern edge of Piazza San Marco. It was designed and completed between 1957 and 1958. Scarpa transformed the space provided to him from a long, dark alley into an open jewel box. Through the addition of windows and attention to interior transparencies, Scarpa blended the exterior and interior and was able to open the Olivetti Showroom into a light, comfortable place for visitors. Featured prominently in the space is Scarpa’s strong marble staircase toward the back of the showroom. Individual stone slabs are supported by brass rods and form the stair leading up to the second level and balconies. The stairs appear to float weightlessly, and allow views through the room. The mosaic tiles on the floor are of different colors. The main entrance has a red mosaic floor, the side entrance blue, the rear yellow, and the central space white.

Another prominent feature of the Olivetti Showroom is a large sculpture, “Nudo al Sole”by Alberto Viani, near the front entrance. The sculpture sits on a slab of black marble with water running over the stone. Scarpa’s collaboration with Olivetti was understood from the beginning to be a space for their products, but also a space for his talent.

 

8. Stairs Above the Sea

A man-made stone staircase, connecting the Gaztelugatxe island to the mainland, is a very famous staircase. With a chapel dating back to the 9th Century on top, there are around 230 odd stairs that the visitor has to climb to reach it. Along the way, there are several staircases leading to the water. Legend says the visitor has to ring the bell at the entrance of the chapel thrice to make a wish. The island is on the coast of Biscay, in the Spanish Basque County, and it is connected to mainland through a man-made bridge. The upper part of the islet “hosts” a beautiful monastery, which dates from the tenth century. Both visitors and residents can reach the church via a narrow path that consists of 237 steps. However, there are some sources that say the path has fewer stairs, such as 229 or 231. According to the legend, those who arrive at the church must ring the bell the find at the entrance three times and make a wish.

The best place to visit both the island and the monastery is spring and autumn. You can also go to Gaztelugatxe during the summer months, but keep in mind that during this hot season the small island get very crowded. The church is closed in winter. It is believed that the small church belonged to the Templar Knights. In 1053, this holy place was donated to the monastery of San Juan de la Peòa, by Iòigo Lûpez, who was the first Lord of Biscay. After a few more decades, in 1593, Sir Francis Drake and his pirates attacked and robbed the monastery. On other several times, the small church was damaged by fires, and in 1978 it was destroyed in such a fire. Two years later, the hermitage was re-built and was open for the public.

 

9. Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Designed by Zaha Hadid (in collaboration with the South Korean firm Samoo), the staircase within Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a dizzying display of the late architects work. With a distinctively neofuturistic design characterized by the “powerful, curving forms of elongated structures”. The landmark is the centerpiece of South Korea’s fashion hub and popular tourist destination, Dongdaemun, featuring a walkable park on its roofs, large global exhibition spaces, futuristic retail stores, and restored parts of the Seoul fortress. Hadid integrated historical, cultural, urban, social, and economic aspects of Seoul deduced from this method in order to create a scene of the landscape. Designed as a cultural hub in the historical district of Seoul as well as Korea’s largest fashion district, the DDP is composed of undulating surfaces that resemble the flow of liquid and allow flexibility in space. The state-of-the-art BIM (Building Information Modeling), mega-truss (extra-large roof truss) system, and space frame system are the key features in terms of creating grand-scale spaces. According to Hadid, the fundamental features of her design were “transparency, porousness, and durability.” Many ecological features, double-skin facade, solar panels, and recycling water system are included in the building. The exterior envelope of the DDP, a smooth and giant mushroom-like structure floating above ground level, is made of concrete, aluminum, steel, and stone. The interior of the building is finished with plaster reinforced with synthetic fiber, acoustic tiles, acrylic resin, and stainless steel and polished stone in the interior.

 

10. Heaven’s Gate Mountain (Zhangjiajie, China)

Located within Tianmen Mountain National Park in southeastern China, the Heaven’s Gate Mountain allows visitors to quite literally walk up a mountain. Once at the top of the staircase, visitors are rewarded with spectacular views on both sides of the divide thanks to a 431-foot tall natural hole in the mountain. The stunning views including ‘Heaven’s Door’ and the 99 Bends, vertical cliffs, the thrilling cliff-hanging walkway and glass skywalk, and the world’s longest cable car ride, make it unquestionably one of the best mountains to visit in China.

A cablecar was constructed in 2005 by the French company Poma from nearby Zhangjiajie railway station to the top of the mountain. Tianmen Mountain Cableway is claimed in tourist publications as the “longest passenger cableway of high mountains in the world”, with 98 cars and a total length of 7,455 m (24,459 ft) and ascent of 1,279 m (4,196 ft). The highest gradient is 37 degrees. Tourists can walk on kilometres of paths built along the cliff face at the top of the mountain, including sections with glass floors. An 11 km (7 mi) road – Tongtian Avenue – with 99 bends also reaches the top of the mountain and takes visitors to Tianmen cave, a natural arch in the mountain of a height of 131.5 m. 

The Tianmenshan Temple is located on the summit, with chairlift or footpath access. The original temple there was built during the Tang dynasty and destroyed during the first part of the 20th century. In 1949, as the Chinese Communist Revolution neared its end, construction of a new temple, with Tang dynasty architecture, began; the temple now sits on landscaped grounds covering 2 hectares (4.9 acres). In 2007, Alain Robert scaled the cliff below the arch, bare-handed and without protection; a plaque commemorates his feat.

 

11. The Vessel (New York City)

The Vessel is an interactive sculpture comprising a network of stairs and landings that visitors can climb (or take an elevator) to the top. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick (who beat out, among others, Anish Kapoor to earn the project), the structure was created to add harmony and balance within a grid of vertical metal and glass. The team at Heatherwick Studio used a noncorrosive steel to coat each level of the structure. This was meant to mirror the action and movement above and below every layer of the 150 foot-tall Vessel, making the experience more interactive. Comprised of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs — almost 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings — the vertical climb offers remarkable views of the city, the river and beyond.

Upon its opening, Vessel received mixed reviews, with some critics praising its prominent placement within Hudson Yards, and others deriding the structure as extravagant. Vesselwas also initially criticized for its restrictive copyright policy regarding photographs of the structure, as well as its lack of accessibility for disabled visitors, although both issues were subsequently addressed. The copper-clad steps, arranged like a jungle gym and modeled after Indian stepwells,  can hold 1,000 people at a time

 

12. Moses Bridge (Halsteren, Netherlands)

As the name suggests, this bridge takes on biblical qualities, as it parts the waters and allows visitors to walk through a moat without getting wet. The bridge, which was constructed using waterproof wood, may not look very high-tech. But that’s certainly not the case. RO&AD architects, the firm responsible for designing the bridge, ensured that the height of the water was controlled by adjustable dams at both sides of the moat.

The West Brabant Water Line is a defense-line consisting of a series of fortresses and cities with inundation areas in the south-west of the Netherlands. It dates from the 17th century but fell into disrepair in the 19th century. When the water line was finally restored, an access bridge across the the moat of one of the fortresses, Fort de Roovere, was needed. This fort now has a new, recreational function and lies on several routes for cycling and hiking. It is, of course, highly improper to build bridges across the moats of defense works, especially on the side of the fortress the enemy was expected to appear on. That’s why they designed an invisible bridge. Its construction is entirely made of wood, waterproofed with EPDM foil. The bridge lies like a trench in the fortress and the moat, shaped to blend in with the outlines of the landscape. The bridge can’t be seen from a distance because the ground and the water come all the way up to its edge. When you get closer, the fortress opens up to you through a narrow trench. You can then walk up to its gates like Moses on the water.

 

13. Taihang Mountains (Linzhou, China)

The 300 foot-tall spiral staircase next to China’s Taihang Mountains are not for the faint of heart. In fact, visitors are required to be under the age of 60 years old to even be allowed to use the stairs. The 300ft spiral staircase has been installed on the wall of the Taihang Mountains in Linzhou to offer the thrill of mountaineering without the danger. Chinese tourist officials in Linzhou, Henan province, hope the stairs will give visitors a real experience of the mountain range. ‘Here the wind blows and batters them, the birds fly past them, the stairs creak. It is a lot more authentic than an elevator,’ explained one official.

The Taihang Mountain range encompasses 250 miles from north to south and runs through Shanxi, Henan and Hebei provinces.  Most peaks range from 5,000 to 6,500ft, with the principal peak of Xiao Wutaishan reaching 9,455ft.

 

14. Tiger & Turtle Magic Mountain (Duisburg, Germany)

Tiger & Turtle Magic Mountain is like no other roller coaster in the world in the sense that visitors do all the work by walking throughout the structure. Designed by German artists Heike Mutter and Ulrich Genth, the loop is more of a sculpture than an actual ride. Nevertheless, those who go will be awarded with a workout and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside of Duisburg. From the cover page of numerous magazines to the start screen on Windows computers, ‘Tiger & Turtle – Magic Mountain’ is one of the most photographed and published subjects of recent times. Made out of zinc and steel left over from local mining operations, the project was also quite low impact. 

While a little disappointing that physics don’t allow for passage around the loop, you can still work off that amusement park lunch at the speed of a turtle, on a structure that represents the speed of a tiger. With 249 steps making up the walkway, and LED lights so that the climb can be appreciated after dark, this twisted metal track gives you a chance to see this classic ride from an entirely new perspective day or night.

 

15. El Peñon de Guatape (near Medellin, Colombia)

Located some 40 miles due east of Medellin, El Peñon de Guatape is a 7,000-foot rock that has turned into a landmark in the region. Visitors can reach the top and take in the sweeping marshy landscape by scaling the 600 stairs to the summit.

The landform is a granitic rock remnant that has resisted weathering and erosion, likely as result of being less fractured than the surrounding bedrock. The Peñón de Guatapé is an outcrop of the Antioquia Batholith and towers up to 200 meters (656 feet) above its base. Visitors can scale the rock via a staircase with 708 steps built into one side. Near the base of the Rock, there are food and market stalls for shopping. About halfway up the stairs, there is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The summit contains a three-story viewpoint tower, a convenience store, and a seating area.

According to geologists, the rock is approximately 65 million years old. The indigenous Tahamí, former inhabitants of this region, worshiped the rock and called it in their language mojarrá or mujará (meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’). The rock was first officially climbed in July 16, 1954, when Luis Eduardo Villegas López, Pedro Nel Ramírez, and Ramón Díaz climbed the rock in a five-day endeavor, using sticks that were fixed against the rock’s wall. A new species of plant, named Pitcairnia heterophylla by a German scientist, was found on the top of the rock. A viewing spot was built on top of the rock, where it is possible to acquire handicrafts, postcards, and other local goods. It is possible to see the 500 km shore-perimeter dam. There are 649 steps to the uppermost step atop the building at the summit, a fact reinforced by yellow numbers also seen in the climb up the stairs. In the 1940s, the Colombian government declared it a National Monument. 

 

16. The Guggenheim Museum (New York)

The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York was Frank Lloyd Wright’s final masterpiece, completed in 1959. The building’s iconic quality derives from the spiralling ramp that surrounds the circular atrium, celebrating the movement of visitors through the museum’s six floors and unifying interior and exterior. While this isn’t strictly speaking a staircase, as it is a ramp, it deserves a spot in our top 20 staircases for its winding beauty. If you’ve ever walked up and down it you know how mesmerizing the experience is. 

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1937, and its first New York–based venue for the display of art, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, opened in 1939. With its exhibitions of Solomon Guggenheim’s somewhat eccentric art collection, the unusual gallery—designed by William Muschenheim at the behest of Hilla Rebay, the foundation’s curator and the museum’s director—provided many visitors with their first encounter with great works by Vasily Kandinsky, as well as works by his followers, including Rudolf Bauer, Alice Mason, Otto Nebel, and Rolph Scarlett. The need for a permanent building to house Guggenheim’s art collection became evident in the early 1940s, and in 1943 renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright gained the commission to design a museum in New York City. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened on October 21, 1959. Rebay conceived of the space as a “temple of the spirit” that would facilitate a new way of looking at the modern pieces in the collection. She wrote to Wright that “each of these great masterpieces should be organized into space, and only you … would test the possibilities to do so. … I want a temple of spirit, a monument!”

From 1943 to early 1944, Wright produced four different sketches for the initial design. While one of the plans (scheme C) had a hexagonal shape and level floors for the galleries, all the others had circular schemes and used a ramp continuing around the building. He had experimented with the ramp design in 1948 at the V. C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco and on the house he completed for his son in 1952, the David and Gladys Wright House in Arizona. Wright’s original concept was called an inverted “ziggurat”, because it resembled the steep steps on the ziggurats built in ancient Mesopotamia. His design dispensed with the conventional approach to museum layout, in which visitors are led through a series of interconnected rooms and forced to retrace their steps when exiting. Wright’s plan was for the museum guests to ride to the top of the building by elevator, to descend at a leisurely pace along the gentle slope of the continuous ramp, and to view the atrium of the building as the last work of art. The open rotunda afforded viewers the unique possibility of seeing several bays of work on different levels simultaneously and even to interact with guests on other levels.

 

17. Arts and Crafts Museum, St Petersburg Florida

The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement (MAACM) is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the American Arts and Crafts movement. Founded by local philanthropist and collector Rudy Ciccarello, MAACM is St. Petersburg’s newest museum, featuring stunning architecture, incredible works of art, and an ideal location in the downtown waterfront arts district.

Ciccarello, along with Alfonso Architects, designed and oversaw the incredible task of creating the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg, Florida. The five-story, 137,000 square-foot museum is a work of art itself, with incredible architectural elements such as a grand atrium, skylights, and a dramatic spiral staircase—all adorned with period art, light fixtures, windows, fireplaces, and more. MAACM features more than 40,000 square feet of gallery space, as well as a destination restaurant with private dining rooms, a retail store, an upscale café, a children’s gallery, a reference library, a theater, a graphic studio, a beautiful event space for weddings and corporate events, and an outdoor green space enhanced by original period tiles and fountains.

Project architect Alfonso Architects, a Tampa-based firm led by Cuban-American architect Alberto Alfonso, was tapped in late 2013 and, initially, the museum was slated to open in early 2016—construction ultimately didn’t commence until January 2017. The staircase is evocative of the Guggenheim museum, condensed into a singular staircase inside the building. 

18. Vatican Museum, Vatican City

The Bramante Staircase is one of the most recognizable and most photographed stairways in the world. This confounding, snail-like structure was built in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo and actually comprises two staircases—one going up, one going down. Pope Julius II founded the museums in the early 16th century. The Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling and altar wall decorated by Michelangelo, and the Stanze di Raffaello (decorated by Raphael) are on the visitor route through the Vatican Museums.  In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vatican Museums were visited by only 1,300,000 persons, a drop of 81 percent from the number of visitors in 2019, but still enough to rank the museums fourth among the most-visited art museums in the world. There are 24 galleries, or rooms, in total, with the Sistine Chapel, notably, being the last room visited within the Museum. 

The modern double helix staircase, also in the Pio-Clementine Museum, and commonly referred to as the “Bramante Staircase”, was designed by Giuseppe Momo, sculpted by Antonio Maraini and realized by the Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry in 1932 and was inspired by the original Bramante Staircase. This staircase, like the original, is a double helix, having two staircases allowing people to ascend without meeting people descending; as with the original, the main purpose of this design is to allow uninterrupted traffic in each direction. It encircles the outer wall of a stairwell approximately fifteen meters wide and with a clear space at the centre. The balustrade around the ramp is of ornately worked metal. A canopy located above provides the necessary light to illuminate the stairs. The staircase is located at the end of the museum visit and all visitors leave by this route. 

Several architecture professors have speculated that Momo’s staircase (particularly the skylight and atrium, and the helical nature of the ramp and the technical aspects of its construction) was the inspiration for Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

 

19. Pompidou Centre, Paris

Unlike the other staircases on our list, the stairs of this iconic French museum are located on the exterior of the building, helping to decongest its interior spaces. The utopian-inspired design is the brainchild of star architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, who envisioned the structure as an “evolving spatial diagram. The innovative Pompidou Centre in Paris was nicknamed the ‘gasworks’, and typified the fascination with technology of the time. Opened in 1977, it was designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers who, in a grandiose theatrical gesture, strung stairways across the full width of the main facade. A functional and geometric triumph, the main staircase stretched across all six floors.

Known locally as the Beaubourg, after the area of Paris in which it is located, the Centre Pompidou is a cultural landmark that has its structure and mechanical services visible on the exterior of the building. “The centre is like a huge spaceship made of glass, steel and coloured tubing that landed unexpectedly in the heart of the Paris, and where it would very quickly set deep roots,” Piano said of the building. The building is designed so that the internal spaces can be easily rearranged – made possible by placing the building services, corridors, elevators and structural members on its exterior. The building’s exposed superstructure, which was developed in collaboration with Peter Rice and Edmund “Ted” Happold of Ove Arup and Partners, is constructed from more than 16,000 tonnes of prefabricated steel parts. Some of the structure’s prefabricated components are of a scale rarely seen in the construction industry. One particularly unique element is its 10-tonne gerberettes.

 

20. Chateau of Chambord in the Loire, France

The ‘lantern’ at the dome of a staircase is an important design feature — allowing the light to stream in. The view shown here of the lantern of the chateau of Chambord in the Loire, France, shows the flat ceiling embellished with coffering. Flanking the large windows are eight niches intended to hold statues. The chateau marks a high point in the development of the staircase, illustrating the Renaissance architects’ fascination with the spiral structure around an open space.

Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley; it was built to serve as a hunting lodge for Francis I, who maintained his royal residences at the Château de Blois and Amboise. The original design of the Château de Chambord is attributed to Italian architect Domenico da Cortona; Leonardo da Vinci may also have been involved or influenced the design. Chambord was altered considerably during the twenty-eight years of its construction (1519–1547), during which it was overseen on-site by Pierre Nepveu. With the château nearing completion, Francis showed off his enormous symbol of wealth and power by hosting his old archrival, Emperor Charles V, at Chambord. In 1792, in the wake of the French Revolution, some of the furnishings were sold and timber removed. For a time the building was left abandoned, though in the 19th century some attempts were made at restoration. During the Second World War, art works from the collections of the Louvre and the Château de Compiègne were moved to the Château de Chambord. The château is now open to the public, receiving 700,000 visitors in 2007.

The roofscape of Chambord contrasts with the masses of its masonry and has often been compared with the skyline of a town: it shows eleven kinds of towers and three types of chimneys, without symmetry, framed at the corners by the massive towers. One of the architectural highlights is the spectacular open double-spiral staircase that is the centrepiece of the château. The two spirals ascend the three floors without ever meeting, illuminated from above by a sort of light house at the highest point of the château. There are suggestions that Leonardo da Vinci may have designed the staircase, but this has not been confirmed.