Elevators, the vertical utility: Part 1, The experience, deconstructed

April 1, 2014 | Apartments, Buildings, Cities, Development, Elevators, Employment, Housing, Infrastructure, Land use, Mores, Transportation, Urbanization, Zoning

By:David A. Smith


The magnificent lobby of the Chrysler Building – faced with rare marbles, aglitter with decorative metalwork, and surmounted by a ceiling painted with a totemic image of the tower itself – leads to elevator cabs inlaid with exotic woods in fanciful patterns. The entire route from street to office is invested with ceremony, dignity, and delight. – Martin Filler


Cities are where strangers live companionably side by side, and where you share a wall, floor, or ceiling with an unrelated household.  None of this would be possible without the vertical utility we unthinkingly use, many of us multiple times a day, and a new book, Lifted, by German journalist and cultural studies professor Andreas Bernard, triggered a short piece in the New York Post (February 8, 2014); blue font and an engaging and lengthy Leon Neyfakharticle in the Boston Globe (March 2, 2014):




WhenDaniel Levinson Wilk steps onto the elevator at work, he doesn’t just stand there and zone out.



Wilk is zoned in, whether going up or down


Instead he focuses on what’s happening to him: the strange push against his feet, the sense of moving through a dark and hollow artery in the middle of his building. Over the next 90 seconds, Wilk absorbs—or tries to—the sense that he’s having an experience that profoundly changed America.


Actually, the whole world, not just America, though this conveyance and utility was born in America and proliferated most dramatically in New York City.



And a new profession was born: elevator operator


Even Mr. Neyfakh’s entertaining excursions barely stops at all the floors of the elevator’s comprehensive revolution of our world; instead, this multi-story post will stop at ten floors of the elevator’s impact, including what the elevator is, what it does to human and urban society, what it requires of buildings and infrastructure, and what it compels for the future of humanity.


Previous AHI blog posts referencing or emphasizing elevators


March 14, 2006: The earliest apartments, Roman insulae

April 28, 2006: The credit of apartment living: New York City

August 13, 2007:Cities and scale (3 parts)

November 15, 2007: The ultimate future city: The Caves of Steel (2 parts)

December 26, 2007: The ultimate future city: The World Inside

February 19, 2009: Cities and privacy, the case of Rear Window (2 parts)

December 2, 2009: The ultimate future city: Trantor

April 20, 2011: The high-rise’s mahout

July 20, 2013:The new urbanism of Tiny Tower


For people in cities, the elevator is both a microcosm of urban experience and the most fundamental particle of urban society, and every ride in an elevator confronts us with the most basic questions about urban living:


Personal space or shared experience?

Private property or public space?



How much character is revealed? How much concealed?


Lee Gray, a columnist for Elevator World, associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and author of a 2002 book on the early history of elevators, [noted] the basic uncertainty about what this space really was – a mode of transportation, or some kind of tiny moving room.



This is awkward


Elevators felt simultaneously public and private, taking people out of the broader world while locking them into a narrow, self-contained one alongside a random assortment of colleagues, neighbors, and strangers.



Both of us work here: Detroit, 1950


This is a basic attribute of cities.  Unlike villages or rural communities, where everyone knows everyone else, in a city one encounters strangers every day – for many of us, scores and even hundreds – and one coexists peaceably, tolerantly, and with some mutuality of understanding. We have all evolved etiquettes of personal private space – visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile – that allow us to travel alongside strangers without having to introduce ourselves to them. 


The elevator, Wilk says, is responsible for shaping modern life in ways that most people simply don’t appreciate. An associate professor of history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a board member of the Elevator Museum in Queens, Wilk would like everyone to be more conscious of the elevators in their lives.


Because this social self-cocooning began with the elevator’s invention, let’s begin on the first floor, by deconstructing the actual experience of being in an elevator.



­1. The elevator experience, deconstructed


What is this distinctive space?


According to Gray, one big issue was whether a man in an elevator ought to remove his hat in the presence of a woman, as he would in someone’s home or a restaurant, or keep it on, as he would on a train or a streetcar.


As so often happens, a new technology disrupts all our paradigms, including our previous typological pigeonholes.  Elevators are vestibules, passenger cars, subway cars, and even highways – and yet they are none of these things, possessing neither windows nor drivers (though at one time they did).



Is this conveyance safe to ride in?


An elevator’s interior space is not demarcated, so who claims what space is entirely self-determined without reference to even a symbolic authority.


In a new book, “Lifted,” German journalist and cultural studies professor Andreas Bernard finds that the elevator experience has never been a totally comfortable one. “After 150 years, we are still not used to it,” Bernard said.



Don’t lift the book


Through it all, it has never quite lost the strangeness that makes it so different from anything else we experience in our daily lives.


Elevators are distinctive among urban spaces in several other ways:


A. We are in them frequently, but never for very long.


B. We have little choice over who shares the journey with us.


C. We cannot sit down.


D. We are usually closer to other people than is comfortable for Westerners.


E. We have minimal control over the journey.



Now what?


All together, these features make the elevator ride a unique interpersonal environment in urban life (even buses and subways have seats).  Standing implies transience, and yet it is transience without direct perception (no windows, minimal sound), and for all most of us know, the elevator might be completely motionless, just humming quietly to itself.



Am I going anywhere?


Couple that with the short duration of most elevator rides and the low probability of meeting again the people one encounters randomly in elevators, and the cost of introducing ourselves to other people is greater than the potential return in friendships or contacts made.  So just as we seldom introduce ourselves to people we stand next to at traffic lights, we usually avoid starting up conversations with people in elevators.



Do any of you know each other?


“We still have not exactly learned to cope with this … mixture of intimacy and anonymity.” That mixture, according to Bernard, sets the elevator ride apart from just about every other situation we find ourselves in as we go about our lives.


That brings us to the second floor on our way up: the elevator’s impact on people’s relationships with one another.


Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]