JUNE 9, 2014
ELEVATORS are commonplace. That’s the magic of them. Otis Elevator Company, the world’s most famous manufacturer of “vertical transport systems,” reputedly carries the equivalent of the global population every five days. It’s conceivable that some people, especially in vertically dense cities like New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, commute greater distances in elevators than they do by any other form of transportation. Elevators were part of an industrial revolution in how we move through the world. But unlike other signal technologies of the industrial age — trains, steamships — elevators have remained a quotidian part of daily life. If this is a marker of their success, it is also the reason elevators lack the romantic, steampunk exoticism that trains and ships still possess. Perhaps that is why, as a formative technology, they are relatively uncelebrated. But without these “vertical railways,” according to Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator, not only would cities like New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong bear no architectural resemblance to their current forms, they would also be radically different social spaces. It is Bernard’s aim, in this book, to restore the “luster of strangeness” to an object we often take for granted.
While the train and telegraph were harbingers of Modernism’s impact, it was the elevator that changed how people lived and worked on a daily basis, providing proof and confirmation that space and time could be overcome by mechanical means. No longer constrained by two dimensions, the elevator, in tandem with steel-frame construction, allowed cities to expand upward rather than outward, leaving behind the unsavory aspects of life at ground level. “The elevator is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy,” writes Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York, “the further it goes up, the more undesirable the circumstances it leaves behind.” First described as “moving rooms,” early elevators emphasized luxury and comfort, often containing couches and chandeliers, in order to alleviate the anxiety of entering an uncertain social space.
This uncertainty meant that elevators didn’t only affect the vertical direction of urban planning. They reorganized space within buildings, which is to say, the spaces where humans came together to live and to work. The elevator shaft cut corridors through a building’s viscera, simultaneously making the upper stories as or more appealing than the lower by making them more accessible. In so doing, elevators created anonymous yet intimate spaces where the public and private spheres overlapped. Lifted traces the history of these spaces, at the same time providing the history of a specific kind of human interaction — the elevator interaction, marked by chance, accident, fate.
As Bernard acknowledges, the elevator’s effect on urban planning has been well documented. Consequently he devotes less time to exploring how the elevator determined the outward layout of cities than to how it determined what happened architecturally and socially within buildings. Lifted dwells primarily on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the elevator became a mainstay of daily life. A German journalist and academic, Bernard explores the cultural history of the elevator in both Europe and America, in an amount of detail that can be overwhelming. (He devotes nearly 20 pages, for example, to explaining the “semantics of the attic.”) But it is invariably interesting, and Lifted’s abundant detail creates a historical and social context to help readers understand how elevators affected and informed almost every aspect of existence.
Although the first recorded “lift apparatus” is often attributed to Archimedes, in 236 BCE, the history of the modern elevator really begins only when, in 1854 at the Crystal Palace on 42nd Street, Elisha Graves Otis successfully demonstrated the safety mechanism that would prevent elevators from plummeting to the bottom of an elevator shaft. Ascending as high as he possibly could on a platform, Otis (taking the scissors from a velvet pillow) then cut the cable suspending him, and, much to the surprise of the onlookers, descended only a couple of inches, saved by the mechanism he had created. Once consigned to simply moving freight, elevators, proven safe, began to move people, quickly displacing the staircase. The staircase, in Bernard’s metaphor, soon became a replaceable analog version of the elevator’s digital mode of transportation.
The elevator’s rapid ascent as a technology changed everything, down to the social hierarchies of space. It’s easy to forget, but the upper stories of a building had long been stigmatized. Unlike now, when people pay premium rates for penthouse suites, in the 1800s, the most privileged place to be was the first floor. Until the invention of the passenger elevator, Bernard tells us, the upper stories were only accessible via stairs, and no one wanted to climb up and down multiple flights of stairs every day. Consequently the upper floors were inhabited by the lower class, if they were inhabited at all, and because of their comparative inaccessibility were often unventilated and unhygienic. The advent of the elevator changed all that, not only making the top floors easy to reach but also opening up the roof as a possible place to socialize and even cultivate gardens. The reversal of this hierarchy was epitomized by the 43-floor Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built in 1931. Although the first 29 floors were available to anyone who could pay, floors 30 through 43 were reserved for exclusive guests. The top floor in a building could now possess the same significance as the peak of a mountain: “Someone who has made it,” writes Bernard, “looks down on the world; the mountaintop and the top floor offer the same perspective.”
As elevators transformed buildings, changes happened elsewhere, too, and Bernard persistently connects the elevator to other, more widely recognized cultural trends. For example, he links the breach the elevator shaft created in modern buildings to other efforts people made to “align” European urban areas in the 19th century. Boulevards, avenues, canals, and tunnels corrected what was errant, sorted out what was mixed. “The breach as a correction for everything random and organic,” writes Bernard, “is the architectonic signature of modernism pure and simple.” Drawing on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bernard argues that elevators were yet another means of regulating space, making it more transparent and eliminating the possibility for “collective dispositions” that might disrupt the status quo. However, while this point does not seem wrong, it also does not seem as illuminating as Bernard wishes it to be, and in the next section of the chapter, devoted to the ways elevators fragmented space, he argues that elevators in fact made buildings less transparent and created “new invisibilities.”
Bernard argues more compellingly about the way in which elevators atomized space by making each floor a discrete unit, creating new contexts in which the public and the private encountered each other in uncertain ways. His explanation is particularly persuasive because it seems just as true now as when the passenger elevator was invented; in this way, at least, elevators have retained the “strangeness” Bernard describes. Elevators created a number of places of “indeterminate status” in which “the greatest possible anonymity is conjoined with the greatest possible intimacy of contact.” Bernard goes on: “The utter randomness of encounters there, reinforced by the absence of class differences and schedules, collides with the complete enclosure that inevitably produces proximity and togetherness.” Numerous cases of physical and emotional exhaustion, identified as “elevator sickness,” were recorded as the elevator became an unremarkable part of daily life.
Elevators created a number of places of “indeterminate status” in which “the greatest possible anonymity is conjoined with the greatest possible intimacy of contact. The utter randomness of encounters there, reinforced by the absence of class differences and schedules, collides with the complete enclosure that inevitably produces proximity and togetherness.” Numerous cases of physical and emotional exhaustion, identified as “elevator sickness,” were recorded as the elevator became an unremarkable part of daily life.
And because everyone takes elevators, because they resist our best efforts to maintain our distances from others, elevators have played a key role in our destinies. For this reason they are favorite settings for films and literature that want to isolate or facilitate the unexpected, revealing, or awkward encounter. “A close circumscription of space,”writes Edgar Allan Poe, “is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture.” Bernard’s book is replete with examples from both film and literature in which elevators play a pivotal role. Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel, Mary, are just a few of the titles Bernard discusses. Inevitably, more titles come to mind — Lost in Translation and The Departed are only two that crossed this reader’s mind, emphasizing Bernard’s point about the elevator’s effectiveness as a setting.
As much as their physical dimensions make them appropriate environments for drama, their up-and-down trajectories make them evocative of more symbolic forms of ascent and descent. In Colson Whitehead’s lauded allegorical 1999 novel The Intuitionist, the elevator becomes a metaphor for racial ascension: set in a pre-Civil Rights era, this is a universe in which elevators are as important as Bernard would have us believe they are. Elevator inspectors and executives are often in the public eye, and there are entire universities devoted to different schools of elevator philosophies; Whitehead’s protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the unnamed city’s first black female elevator inspector. Fulton, the founder of a form of elevator inspection based on intuition and a black man who passes for white, lives on through the elusiveness of his design for the perfect elevator that will “deliver us from the cities we suffer now.” “If Otis’s first elevation delivered us from medieval five- and six-story construction,” says Lila Mae, “the next elevator, it is believed, will grant us the sky, unreckoned towers: the second elevation.” By the end of the novel we are left waiting for the proverbial elevator that will lift people to freedom and equality.
Questlove, in a well-known response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, writes about how, as a “primitive, exotic-looking” man with an “uncivilized Afro,” he shies away from elevators because elevators are precisely the types of spaces — small, enclosed — in which people find him most frightening, no matter how famous or wealthy he is. He vividly recounts encountering an attractive woman in an elevator within his own building, a building “you’ve got to go through hell and high water just to get accepted to live here, like it’s Dartmouth or UPenn.” Because it’s easier to ask fellow passengers what floors they want rather than inputting one’s own key card, he asks for hers: she says nothing. “Then it hit me,” he writes. “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed. “It was a ‘pie in the face’ moment.” As Questlove describes it in this essay, the idea of “racial ascension” remains just that — an idea. No matter how high he ascends, he will always remain at the same level.
The connections that so interest Bernard, and that constitute the elevator’s strange luster, might be changing. Current elevator innovations reflect other technical trends that seek to minimize opportunities for the unexpected and increase efficiency. According to Leon Neyfakh, a writer for The Boston Globe, “destination dispatch,” an elevator technology that groups those going to similar destinations together, has begun to be implemented in various office towers. The prospect of losing another opportunity to experience what we cannot control for casts elevators in a nostalgic haze, recalling the value Jane Jacobs placed on sidewalks for the way in which they brought together people of various backgrounds and classes for no specific reason; we might soon recall elevators in the same way. That we do not seek out contact with these people but are nevertheless thrust into proximity with them contributes to what Jacobs identifies as “a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust.”
The disappearance of the elevator as we know it was an impetus for Patrick Carrajat, a former elevator executive and now expert witness, to establish the country’s first elevator museum in 2011. Located in a former classroom used to train cab drivers in an industrial section of Queens, the elevator museum is a mere 700 square feet. Notwithstanding its small size, the museum contains roughly 4,000 items related to the elevator industry, including control panels, manufacturing manuals, hand brakes, and push buttons, as well as various other elevator paraphernalia. Carrajat is a lively raconteur, and has written his own version of a cultural history of the elevator, which he distributes as a PDF to anyone who is interested.
Bernard’s book goes a long way toward rectifying the lack of scholarship about elevators. During and since reading Lifted I have ridden in elevators perhaps 40 or 50 times. Have I transformed, confessed, been in some way incited to action, either inwardly or outwardly? Bernard’s book encourages us to ask these questions and to consider the elevator as vital a piece of architecture as any of the more rarified structures we inhabit.
Reflecting on Bernard’s book is strange for me, as someone who lives in Los Angeles. In this city, in which elevators have effectively ceded territory to the automobile, we live with different breaches of modernity than the one Bernard describes. Nevertheless, Los Angeles is home to some remarkable elevators, including the four glass “gondolas” in the Bonaventure Hotel. Positioned at different compass points, each shoots passengers up the interior of the building for nine floors before “breaking through” the roof and scaling the exterior of the hotel’s walls for the remaining 26 floors. While the much-noted “teleportation” qualities of elevators (standing in one place and mysteriously, magically, arriving in another) are lost in the glass cases, something else is gained. Each provides a different vantage point on Los Angeles, which floats chimerically, silently outside the glass walls. Riding in them is an exhilarating experience, one of the rare occasions in which the reality is as glorious as the idea.