Lifts: social spaces worthy of academic study

A new history of the elevator prompts Sally Feldman to consider life’s ups and downs

September 4, 2014

One day Eric Morecambe was standing in the atrium of Broadcasting House waiting for the lift to arrive. When the carriage eventually clanged to rest, the doors slid open to reveal the solitary figure of Michael Parkinson, resplendent in a full-length leather coat. “Good heavens, Michael!” Eric exclaimed. “You’re wearing your wallet!”

During my time at the BBC, I always relished such improbable lift exchanges: Gloria Steinem berating Melvyn Bragg for his treatment of rape in one of his novels; Virginia Bottomley confiding that she hoped Jenni Murray would be kind as she wasn’t yet quite across her new ministerial brief.

And I was in complete awe of the presenter Susannah Simons who, long ago, when women were expected to dress sedately, shocked an ancient BBC controller by entering the lift in a – gasp – trouser suit. “You can’t come to the BBC in trousers,” he said sternly. “Oh, OK,” she said, and there and then, between floors, obligingly took them off.

No one knows quite how to behave. Some stare straight ahead; others look down at their feet, or pretend to be fascinated by a discarded latte cup

Such an encounter could only have happened in the office lift; it is the one place where hierarchies dissolve: where part-time researchers brush shoulders with heads of department, studio managers with governors, eminent scientists with secretaries. The director general might never be seen in the canteen or the coffee bar, let alone a studio. But even he has to use the lift.

In Lifted, his new history of the elevator, Andreas Bernard argues that this mechanical invention represents a turning point in class, political and social relations. “Here,” he observes, “the greatest possible anonymity is conjoined with the greatest possible intimacy of contact.”

It is this enforced grouping that makes the lift a source of such enormous anxiety. No one knows quite how to behave. Some stare straight ahead; others look down at their feet, or pretend to be fascinated by a discarded latte cup, or examine their phones with studied concentration.

And there are now established rituals for passengers to arrange themselves in a lift. “We walk in and usually turn around to face the door,” says the historian Lee Gray. “If someone else comes in, we may have to move. If there are two of you, you take different corners. When a third person enters, you will unconsciously form a triangle. And when there is a fourth person it’s a square, with someone in every corner. A fifth person is probably going to have to stand in the middle.”

Before the advent of the lift, there was no need for such delicate negotiations. Everyone had their place, defined by the staircase. Grand mansions and hotels would pride themselves on the size and majesty of their curves and embellished bannisters. The spectacularly decorated Grand Escalier at Versailles, for example, was designed explicitly as a projection of power.

But even more modest buildings, without such elaborate frescoes, sculptures and ornamental steps, traditionally designated status: the lowliest, the servants, would be housed at the very top, with the furthest to climb. Which was why, at the beginning of the last century, so many heads of state were suspicious of lifts.

The Russian tsar refused to use them. Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria was so allergic to them that he wouldn’t even visit his mistress in her top-flight apartment. Queen Victoria was reluctant to install one in the palace, so entrenched was the idea that going up was – well – coming down.

The lift, argues Bernard, has transformed buildings from horizontal structures to upright ones. Stairwells are hidden away at the back, while the elevator becomes central, allowing for clear open spaces with nowhere to hide. Gone are individual offices and closed doors, and with them those mazes of corridors and nooks so conducive to secret encounters, gossip, exchanges of confidences.

Universities have embraced with almost religious zeal open-plan offices, indoor streets, fora and atria. Some have gone even further, with impressive high-rise structures such as the University of Leicester’s 18-storey Attenborough Tower. That building still proudly houses its paternoster lift – a non-stop, conveyor-belt style contraption where you have to be quick or you’ll miss it.

On one occasion, a distinguished but rather unsteady professor of sociology simply couldn’t make the jump into the moving compartment. Each time he advanced, the paternoster slid out of range and he was forced to retreat. Eventually, he had to be lifted off his feet by two students who levered him on to the moving platform.

At least the paternoster never stops. Unlike most lifts, which are always in danger of breaking down. Indeed, the commonest fear among passengers is of getting stuck. At the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus, where I was dean, it was so usual for at least one of the three lifts to be out of action that I’d developed an antipathy to travelling in any one of them alone, irrationally assuming there must be safety in numbers.

But that day, I was in a hurry. No one else was around. There was no notice on any door suggesting malfunction. So, against my better judgement I stepped into the first one to arrive. And sure enough, within just a minute it juddered to a halt and I was marooned, jammed between two floors. Half an hour after I’d rung for assistance, two hefty security guards proceeded to hammer, batter and finally wrench open the doors, to reveal that my cubicle was now stuck several feet off the landing floor.

Desperately wishing that I hadn’t chosen that day to sport my new leather micro skirt, I allowed myself to be lifted, legs flailing, down to safety. “Just don’t tell anyone about this,” I hissed. “Ever.”

And that was when a first-year journalism student appeared with a camera. And a tripod. And a flashbulb. And the caption in the campus magazine the very next day? “Down with the Dean.”

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