We love to look down on other people, and we love it even more when they look up at us. The architect Morris Lapidus understood this when he designed the grand staircase of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. He called it the “Stairs to Nowhere” because they led only to a coat closet, where the beautiful people could leave their jackets and then swan down the stairs, catching the eye of everyone below.
Sixty-five years later, the new stairs-to-nowhere are “stepped seating” — though it may look like the thing in high school you called “bleachers” — and it’s become one of the most Instagrammable and possibly the most overused architectural features of the decade.
The swanning is still part of the point, but they’re also for sitting and waiting. Sitting and working. Sitting and eating. Watching and being watched. We have entered a new golden age for butts on steps not seen since the Colosseum.
It’s a Friday night at the Wharf, Washington’s $2.5 billion redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront, where the stepped seats leading up to the open-air bar of Cantina Bambina are like the Chichen Itza of vodka sodas.
Concertgoers hike to a higher elevation to meet their friends before the EDM show across the street; a teenager in a dinosaur T-shirt claims the top tier as her solo dance platform. But careful — don’t confuse these dramatic thigh-high risers for an actual user-friendly stairway: A guy on a date catches his toe on an edge and trips on his way up. A waiter finds himself separated from the functional steps by the banister. “Oh, the stairs are on this side,” he said, sheepishly, to a bystander smoking a cigarette. The whole front of the restaurant was stairs, but there was still only one path to the top.
Stepped seating is big these days in tech headquarters — Slack, Evernote, Amazon Ring, and Facebook all have it. They’ve replaced some tables at certain locations of Sweetgreen and Beefsteak. They’re in the lobbies of the Line and the Eaton hotels in Washington. Many have taken their cues from New York’s TKTS booth — a glowing glass staircase that looks out over Times Square — as well as the city’s High Line and redesigned Domino Park.
“I kind of think of them as a little theater of the street,” said Nico Wright, an associate at San Francisco’s CMG Landscape Architecture. They’re great for people-watching, a place where we can be alone, together. “You think you’re in a position of anonymity or safety, but you’re also definitely on display.”
It’s no wonder they’ve become such Instagram magnets, though architects insist they’re not designed with that in mind. But like all things that have become social media favorites, after a while, stairs to nowhere can feel like a dead end.
From the Mayan pyramids to the Spanish Steps to the Lincoln Memorial, stairs have always held a place between the functional and the symbolic — getting us where we need to go but also elevating us to sacred spaces and making us feel exalted. The metaphor is of a stairway to heaven, said Val Warke, a professor of architectural theory at Cornell University, which may be why “the idea of a disjunctive stair that doesn’t really go anywhere” — as in those mind-boggling M.C. Escher drawings — “is always sort of a fascination.”