Les Escaliers de Montréal
Sounds like a romantic novel.
I was first introduced to Montréal’s iron exterior staircases back in 1993 during my first visit. There was snow on the ground and it was freezing (-40F at night). My future wife pointed them out and said they were special to the city. At the time I thought for sure I had seen staircases like that elsewhere and why were they so special here.
But my primary thought was similar to other people’s initial reaction to the stairs. First, why would you build your stairs outside given the wintery conditions in this city. It wouldn’t take much for you to slip and bounce down the stairs on your rear end. Plus the stairs have no risers so there is an opening between the horizontal treads. So if your foot slips the other way, my imagination sees your leg slipping into that hole and your shin cracking in half as the weight of the rest of you body is taken down by gravity. Ouch!
After two years of asking around, I think I’ve come up with some reasons to counter that initial logic. Many of the areas where these were built were the poorer areas of the city. Since they did not have much money, it made sense to place the stairs outdoors so that they would not need to be heated all winter. I think eventually they became part of the built vernacular and it was an architype adopted by buildings built by and for those with better means.
As for that opening in the stair riser, it’s a question of climate. Yes, the snow will fall on the stairs, but it is much much easier to remove it off a surface open to all sides than one with only one side open. I remember trying to sweep the snow off our wooden front stairs and it took quite a bit of extra work since the snow wanted to stay lodged between the riser and the tread.
Lastly, there is the reason for steel as opposed to wood stairs. Firstly, I think it is because the strength of steel allows more flexibility of form that is needed to wind the stairs so they have enough run (length). You wouldn’t be able to create wooden stairs that twist like that and seem to float in space. Another reason for steel is that it would not deteriorate as quickly. The freeze-thaw cycles up here are brutal and something that is so exposed like these stairs would be destroyed. As it is, the steel already takes quite a beating. Lastly, there may have been some other force like strong steel unions or political will that influenced steel over wood. If someone has some other explanations, I’d love to hear them.
I can’t say that I was too enamoured with the stairs at the beginning. For me they seemed like glorified fire escapes. They tend to be a separate entity from the building and they are not always in character with the architecture of the building. They seemed like unattractive appendages.
But over the past couple years, I’ve started to warm up to them. They really are unique to the city and are an integral part of it’s character. I work in a neighborhood where 80% of the upper floor inhabitants access their residence via these stairs. It is the exterior extension of their abode just like the ubiquitous balconies used primarily for bicycle storage. Now, I’m not passionately in love with the stairs, but I have become mildly fascinated with them. I have even created a Flickr group. From a structural standpoint, I find the twist and turns that they take quit interesting. From an urban observation viewpoint, it is interesting to see people climb up to their residence every night. It’s kinda like they are climbing up to a treehouse safe from the predators below (OK, I’m stretching a bit there.) But they do evoke some sort of romanticism with their curvatious and ornate forms. And in a climate so cold, they seem to offer a feeling of someplace warmer like New Orleans or the south of France.
So love them or hate them, they are one of the things that make Montréal Montréal. They are part of it’s heritage and character and are definitely worth a look.