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London's Confusing 'Endless Stair' Would Make M.C. Escher Proud

A public sculpture outside the Tate Modern plays screwy games with people's sense of perspective.


Attention, visitors to London's Tate Modern who haven't seen their children for 5 hours: It is quite possible they've become lost inside a confusing outdoor sculpture called the "Endless Stair."

Britain's newest brain-badgering work of public art went up this month in front of the Tate art gallery for the London Design Festival, a nine-day festival of international creativity that ended this weekend. The interactive sculpture takes slabs of stairway and bends and knots them together like the fantastical architecture of every high-schooler's favorite artist. Stare at it long enough and you might crack the clever way it skews one's sense of perspective; what you won't see is that the whole thing is a love letter to the timber industry.

"Endless Stair" was sponsored by one of the design fest's partners, the American Hardwood Export Council, whose European director had this to say about the quizzical project:

Installed outside Tate Modern, the towering structure will invite visitors to climb and explore a series of 15 Escher-like interlocking staircases made from a prefabricated construction using 44 cubic metres of American tulipwood donated by AHEC members. As a viewpoint, Endless Stair provides breath-taking views along the River Thames.

The complex construction is designed by Alex de Rijke, Co-Founder of dRMM Architects and Dean of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, working closely with engineers at Arup. De Rijke has described timber as ‘the new concrete’, predicting that it will be the dominant construction material of the 21st Century.

Art aficionados should know that this is not the world's first deployment of infinite steps. "Revolutions," a figure-eight gnarl of intertwined stairs, went up in Monreal back in 2003. That one is unclimbable, though, unlike the London conundrum. Here are a few photos the hardwood council sent over of people enjoying its unusual angles, which seem to culminate in a clifflike precipice that would drop you right back to the ground (if a safety barrier weren't in place):

From the factory:

Images courtesy of the American Hardwood Export Council

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.