The Poetry Of Lutyens' Stone Staircases

At The Stonemasonry Company Limited we try to be a collaborative team, bringing knowledge and experience from different disciplines together to give the best service and provide the best possible products for our clients. If you have met our expert project manager Pierre Bidaud you will know that his passion and knowledge knows no bounds. He has taken time this week to produce this article, which we hope you enjoy. (Below The Stonemasonry Company Limited’s very first attempt at matching Lutyens’ simplicity, in 2013 https://www.thestonemasonrycompany.co.uk/chester-square (1/2))

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The first time I encountered Edwin Lutyens’ work was 17 years ago, and it was with one of his most dramatic buildings, Castle Drogo. The powerful geometry of its elevation and his decision to use local granite at its simplest, like a coarse and resilient building material, made me want to know more about this genial architect.

It was a journey of discovery. I came across lavish commercial buildings, gentle country houses, commemorative monuments and even affordable housing. All his works mixed natural materials with a refreshing look at everything from moulding composition to material texture, to achieve spaces that make you gasp!

Being more than slightly interested in staircases, and stone ones in particular, I started to research Edwin and the way he designed these accesses. I found that most of these structures were wooden ones, but already I think you can see something that would become a trademark of his design of steps - the Astragal is missing, or extremely discreet, moving away from the round shaped bullnose and inverted base column detail much loved by the Georgians, later you can see a pattern of using limestone or marble for his more grandiose staircase. A great example of this can be seen in Lutyens work at Britannic House (See Illustration below). 

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(Above Britannic House Sketch)

To my mind Lutyens’ stone staircase designs are based around 4 main principles-

1) The space for the staircase needs to be allocated as early as possible. Making it a room and not just an access.

2) Frame the staircase with appropriate entrance doors and pre-empt the view from the top landing.

3) Be bold in the moulding design

4) Supporting walls on single flights (or first flight) on the stair-light edge make for a more balanced start.

I do believe that Lutyens must have placed the staircase as early as possible in the building set out. The stone staircases are never confined, except the service staircase of 1 Poultry lane, the rooms are always large and the staircase an articulate twist in his usual rectangular hall. 

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(Above Poultry Lane Sketch (1/2))

The staircase at the Ambassadors Home in Washington is one example, a rare double entrance with a bridge/landing. This is a welcoming stair that sets the tone; it is wide, with a large going, on a very long, rectangular shaped stairwell. These majestic stairs are very challenging because they tend to become very heavy. However, in this instance, the designer decided to make the staircase rest on some well-balanced arches to avoid a scary torsional step set out. This allowed for a thin step rise, suddenly harmonising the whole space. 

The stairwell in Castle Drogo becomes nearly a room in itself, with the quarter landing acting as some sort of stage, a space for respite, for reflexion. The wide window splashes light on the stone steps with their wooden treads, as well as on to the granite walls, which are transformed as a screen of shadows on sunny days. 

Something striking in Lutyens projects is that, except for the Washington secondary elliptical stair, 42 Cheyenne walk and 1 Poultry lane service staircase, all of his staircases are on a rigid rectangular set up.

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(Above Poultry Lane Sketch (2/2))

Whether they are for public spaces or private the technique used is always the same, either torsional or supported by a wall on its outer edge. But, in all of them, Edwin stays loyal to the Palladian stone staircase builder, stacking steps, one on top of each other; a pack of stone cards arranged statically (as simple as the Venice Academia staircase (seen below, alongside Poultry Lane)). No bird mouth or rebate or continental crossett, just weight, heavy weight but thin treads, long and narrow stone.

I think the Architect was not keen on the curtail steps of traditional cantilever stone stairs, springing sometimes too lightly from the floor. I believe he wanted to have the steps more anchored via the supporting wall on which it is based.

On the plan of these staircases, and the few circular staircases that he designed, he always managed to make the staircase very dynamic, transforming the inner line of the steps into a never-ending zigzag ribbon of stone linking from top to bottom, or, as at 42 Cheyne Walk, the abnormal step moulding seems to spin the stairwells inner edge like a wheel. 

Something very unusual in the way Edwin designed stairs was with the use of black or white stone, sometimes even alternating them (see the remarkable Gledstone Hall treads), mind you the black and white was very popular in the Italian renaissance, but to re-use it in so many stair projects is quite rare, again, a way to really set himself apart in the UK. On the continent the use of different marble for interior design had been revived in a more radical way since the 1910’s in Vienna and Prague, it is a refreshing way to energise the whole staircase.  

As described earlier the stacking of the treads means a totally different way of handling the mouldings, you can have a much more simple soffit too. At Number 1 Poultry Lane the architect tapered the return of the step section to reinforce the visual winding of the staircase when viewed from underneath. As most of the staircase are on a rectangular configuration the connection and interface between the steps and landing are simplified, with the going becoming very thin so that you can link the whole tread together with much more fluidly.

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(Above The Stonemasonry Company Limited’s very first attempt at matching Lutyens’ simplicity, in 2013 https://www.thestonemasonrycompany.co.uk/chester-square (2/2))

Often his stone staircases are tensely rigid and geometrically strong, but Lutyens softens the whole structure with an extremely thin metal balustrade. This is a very unique design signature when it comes to the handrail; he really seems to pull these from nowhere. I cannot recall ever seeing any such delicate curvature anywhere other than in Lutyens’ work. All of the swirls and curves look like ripples, springs that have been stretched flat or silhouettes of stone balusters that would have been lifted from their own simple shadows. This delicate zigzag seems to give a vertical rhythm to the whole ascent, which makes me think of Karl Bossfeldt’s works (seen below, either side of an image from the Ambassadors Home in Washington).

Whether using stone or steel Lutyens, like later Carlos Scarpa, surrounded himself with incredible craftsmen, and he must have had an immense love of the material, working mostly with local ones, all of the details are carefully executed, making the whole of the stone staircase sculpture-like. 

Lutyens was lucky (mind you, he was a very good networker), most of the stone staircases he designed were for grand spaces, he used stone in these structure to really make a point and enhance status, houses are mansions, commercial building are banks, places of both power and luxury. When revisiting Lutyens’ work you can really appreciate his wish to break from Georgian visual markers, Lutyens was a true Edwardian architect.

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(Above The closest that The Stonemasonry Company Limited has come to working with Lutyens - our stone staircase features alongside an original Lutyens lamp at the Casa Loewe, 41 New Bond Street. London.)

Whatever he does drama is at the heart of the structure, straight from the framing of the stairs and the use of half landings, a place to pause or pose, to enjoy the view or welcome guests. From the general space to the minute details of the soffit Luytens sticks to his idea of architecture as “building with wit”. As much as at The Stonemasonry Company Limited we use technology to build with a feel of “magic”, Lutyens is more about “poetry”.

What would Lutyens have done with our new developments in stone engineering? With the capabilities of post-tensioned and reinforced stone would this have change his drafting and creative spirit? Although I can’t answer that I can tell you that I would have loved to work under his refined skills and sharp pencil, what a “chef d'orchestre” of Stone! 

We hope you enjoyed this brief article and hope you can come back next month for our piece “Scarpa and the art of Mineral Ascent”.

Emma Garner