Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator 16.05.14

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Lifts changed how classes mixed inside buildings and skyscrapers couldn't exist without them. Will Wiles rides up to the executive suite

"The following pages," Andreas Bernard writes in the introduction to Lifted, "will attempt to restore to the elevator, an object that has become dull and inconspicuous in the twenty-first century, the lustre of strangeness." Rather than a technical or architectural account of the century and a half of the lift, Bernard promises a cultural history. And there's plenty of culture here, mostly literature, but what we get is more its psychic history – how it changed the idea of buildings, how it rearranged musty attics of the human mind.

In Bernard's account, the celebrated "primal scene" of conventional histories of the elevator, Elisha Otis's demonstration of his safety mechanism to a crowd at the Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations in Chicago in 1854, is aglow with myth. Otis's performance had little impact at the time and it was decades before the cable elevator properly started its ascent.

When it did, it wrought massive change. We think of it as driving buildings upwards, of creating the skyscraper, but that is much told and Bernard instead focuses on the neglected but enthralling story of what it did to mid-rise buildings. The elevator demands a vertical shaft through the structure. Bernard connects this "novel, hermetically sealed, conduit" to the hygienic modern project from Haussman's boulevards on – ordering and sanitising space by opening breaches through it. The lift shaft disciplines the building. Every floor is accessed at the same point, harmonising floor plans, and discrete floors are imposed where before they might not have existed. Buildings went from being analogue to digital, governed by push-button logic.

Bernard is an editor at a German newspaper and his history has a heavy emphasis on German attitudes and sources, but this is no disadvantage; it means that we get a hugely atmospheric portrait of central European tenements and apartment buildings: the sprawling, amorphous buildings that the elevator combated. The cultural history comes from the stories of Robert Musil, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. To understand the social changes brought about by the elevator it is necessary to understand the universe of the attic rooms – the stuffy fifth and sixth storeys of buildings where the poor trod the stairs. These levels were a constant concern to hygienist and planners. Infant mortality was connected to attic dwelling; stillbirths to excessive stair-climbing. Worse yet, bannisters could spread germs to the fancier folk of the bel étage, the second floor.

The elevator aerated this world out of existence and created instead penthouses and roof gardens. "The elevator freed the upper storeys from the stigma of inaccessibility and lent them an unheard-of glamour instead," Bernard writes. But the decline of the stairwell was also the decline of a social melting-pot and engine of class empathy. "[T]he elevator created not only new visibilities but also new invisibilities;" Only the lobby and your destination floor truly exist, the rest is "forgotten space". The same unfolded in office buildings – with the addition of the telephone, the top-floor executive suite was created, a new chapter in the history of power.

Elsewhere Bernard examines the controls of the elevator, along with allied systems such as electric doorbells and fire alarms. In the splendid final chapter, he explores the new psychological space created inside the cab – a strikingly insecure space, rife with fears of breakdown and exposed social nerves. Lifted has been translated from the German by David Dollenmayer. Enjoyable though it is, from time to time the reader must move at a rather sedate pace, like driving through an attractive residential area thick with speedbumps. But it crackles with imaginative energy and is full of bright and memorable scenes. It is an excellent architectural history, a magical and valuable example of the work that can be produced within the discipline.

Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator by Andreas Bernard, translated by David Dollenmayer, New York University Press, $35

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 Words

Will Wiles

quotes story

The elevator freed the upper storeys from the stigma of inaccessibility and lent them an unheard-of glamour instead

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