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Monday, October 19, 2015

The Dextral Case for Spiral Stairs

Even when the journey is over, it isn't really over - for one continues to learn.

It's an enormous stack of photos that must be gone through. I am doing so, methodically, painstakingly. They are being grouped by location, by timeline, and by subject.  In so doing, I paired two photos from two different weeks and two different locations.

Descending the stairs of St Rule's Tower in St Andrews, Fife.
A kind university administrative friend in Saint Andrews showed me Saint Rule's Tower at the ruins of the old Saint Andrews Cathedral. A talented musician friend showed me some of the hidden gems in downtown Glasgow, among which was an architectural center known as The Lighthouse.  In both locations I snapped a photo of the whirling pattern of a descending spiral staircase, but it wasn't until now that I noticed that both sets of stairs spin downward in a counter-clockwise fashion. And I began to wonder why. Do all spiral stairs run in this direction?

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After some very interesting online dialog on the matter with friends and a bit of Google research, the facts and reasons began to reveal themselves. Once known, it was rather obvious. Most spiral stairs in the UK do this, and the practice has its roots in medieval history.  Castles, towers and other such buildings were defended from the top down. Having a spiral staircase that descends in a counter-clockwise fashion makes it easier for the owner to ward off invaders, as his right hand is not obstructed and he may freely swing his sword.  The invaders who climb these stairs are doing so clockwise, so it is more difficult for them to fight. Most people are right-handed, so this is why this construction is effective.

There are notable exceptions to this, though. There are a few castles whose owners were left-handed, and so theirs were built with left-handed stairs so they may more easily defend their castle.  Ferniehurst, owned by Clan Kerr, and Bolton Castle in Yorkshire are two examples of such. There are stories that Clan Kerr trained their swordsmen to fight left-handed, so that they would have an advantage in attacking castles and ascending the more commonly built right-handed stairs.

So how are such spiral staircases built here in America? Did architecture continue this medieval practice, or does the direction of the staircase rely completely on aesthetics and design?  I don't have the answer to this, but one thing's for certain - next time I find myself in a large building, I'll opt to take the stairs!

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