Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator

I’d never have thought that I would find a book about elevators so interesting. Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator by Andreas Bernard, translated by David Dollenmayer, made the technical aspects of elevators as well as their cultural importance a page-turner. I must commend the translator Dollenmayer, as the text flowed as naturally as if the original text was English. It was a beautiful read. The key to the book’s success was its specific reference to the cultural history of elevators. For sure, Bernard talked about how elevators worked and the evolution of lift mechanics. But the focus was the impact of the elevator in culture, especially urban culture, from city planning, the reconstitution of building floor plans, to elevator references in literature and popular culture. Bernard asks early on:

“What effect did the technical apparatus have on the conceivability and expressability of what happens inside the buildings, about the distribution of spaces and people?”

From the late nineteenth century on, the elevator had a profound effect on building construction. Suddenly a central shaft was designed as the centerpiece of all new buildings, and the interiors radiated from this vertical passageway:

“The stairway as means of access to the various levels had to now compete with a vertical shaft cutting a breach through the center of the building: this in turn had far-reaching consequences for the floor plans of new buildings since, as Robinson insisted, the linearity of the transport channel was to be applied to the entire organization of interior space. In office buildings equipped with elevators, the old winding corridors and labyrinthine stairwells replete with blind corners and dead-ends were replaced by a clear distribution of space comprehensible at a glance.”

Flowing Scarlett O’Hara staircases, the eye-catching feature in stunning foyers designed to impress the visitor were now architecturally superfluous, primitive even. Suddenly, their central focus as one entered a building disappeared:

“How strongly floor plan configuration was focused on the elevator’s conduit from the 1870s on was particularly apparent in the changing status of the stairwell in American buildings. In the course of only one or two decades, this traditional means of vertical access was pushed into the background, downgraded from a grandiose structural element occupying the center of a floor to a mere escape route.”

The elevator was regarded with fear at first, at least in the United States. The first elevators were nothing more than platforms enclosed by ornate metallic meshwork. They likely instilled fear in those who stepped into them and slid the doors shut. In the beginning elevators had an on-board operator, whom passengers got to know and trust. With the introduction of push buttons (and the unfortunate en masse unemployment of all elevator operators) passengers were afraid to use the first buttons. But after the period of timid toes and fingers had passed, people learned to like the elevator, and it grew to have a sense of exclusivity. Companies which occupied single buildings relocated their head offices to the top floor (instead of the second floor in the age before elevators). Company executives worked among the clouds, and soon after this, people wanted to live there too. Needing to use an elevator developed into a matter of personal importance, and the higher you lived, the more you needed an elevator to get there. Thus after only a couple decades the top floors of apartments–which were, before elevators, limited to only six storeys with only stairs as the means to ascend to the top–went through a transformation in the organization of living space. No longer were the top storeys reserved for the servants. With so many stairs to climb, the wealthy let the hired help climb them. Now with the elevator, building height could reach skyward, and the rich wanted to be as far away as possible from the ground. Thus was born the exclusive penthouse suite.

The Dakota apartments in New York, perhaps best known as the residence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, took the elevator to an extra degree of exclusivity. In any other apartment building up until the Dakota was built, the rich had to ride in the same elevators with everybody else. The claustrophobic space of an elevator car kept the passengers standing closely together, too closely together for some. The Dakota offered a solution for its exclusive clientele:

“The Dakota initiated the history of the private elevator, the installation of a vertical passage that made movement in a multistory residential building completely independent of public spaces. This transportation option was so essential to the development of the image of New York because it prepared the way for the final phase of the transformation of Manhattan in the first two decades of the twentieth century: the willingness of the most wealthy class to sell their remaining mansions on Fifth Avenue, together with their building lots, and move into the apartment houses rising in the same location.”

Thus many rich families, notably the Vanderbilts and Huttons, were persuaded to sell their downtown mansions provided their new apartments in the luxury buildings going up on their former properties gave them exclusive use of an elevator.

The most interesting part of Lifted was the section on elevators in books and film. In the chapter section entitled “The Moment of Truth: The Stalled Cab as Secular Confessional”, I realized that what Bernard wrote was so true:

“In novels, films, and commercials, elevators get stuck with a frequency that bears no relation to official statistics. As Nabokov’s Mary and Fechter’s Der Ruck im Fahrstuhl show, elevators tend to appear in big-city stories precisely, and only, at the moment they stop working. Although malfunctions have been infrequent exceptions since the development of safety mechanisms in the early twentieth century, they seem to be the rule in fictional narratives. The reason for this statistically indefensible preference is undoubtedly that, while one can (with difficulty) ignore uncomfortable physical proximity for the length of a normal ride, it becomes oppressively unavoidable in the case of a malfunction.”

Isn’t it? He elaborates:

“The ‘unease’ that Lethen says arises ‘when the traffic flow is suddenly interrupted or backed up for a long time’ is intensified in the elevator, where fiction and film can portray it more sharply than in any other means of transportation. The crises that unfold in the cab are one sign among many that the elevator is a paradigmatic site of modernity.”

I can recall many TV episodes I have seen–even commercials–which have taken place in elevators. At the sign of a crisis–like a stuck elevator–the passengers who wouldn’t dare glance your way five minutes ago are now confessing their innermost secrets. A stuck elevator is eerily threatening. To be stuck in a box without an escape route can lead to a panic, or a feeling of impending doom:

“If we seek to understand why the elevator is still such a popular location in novels, films, TV series, and advertisements with urban settings, we need to keep in mind the latent threat embodied in this unobservable intersection of individual lives.”

Bernard wrote about many feature films with chilling elevator scenes, including a German film which takes place entirely within the claustrophobic confines of the metal box, “Abwärts”. I am going to order a copy on-line.

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