Stairs may not be as synonymous with French culture as wine, cheese and baguettes. However, stairs are a huge part of life in France. In the U.S., we often overlook these architectural accessories or hold irrational grudges against them for leaving us breathless after climbing only three floors. The French on the other hand, respect stairs as pieces of art that represent much more than simply a way to get from A to B.
France is a country that places great importance on beauty. French architecture not only honors stairs as a functional part of a building but also lavishes the same amount of detail and attention onto them as what goes into constructing masterpieces like the Louvre Museum and Versailles. After all, this country invented the monumental staircase.
Stairs are ubiquitous. There are more steps everywhere in France than I have ever seen in the U.S. or in New Zealand. People have to climb them in métro stations, in their apartment buildings, in grocery stores and even in bathrooms.
I suspect that they are a feature of daily life in France because most of the buildings are old. Elevators did not exist a few hundred years ago when these buildings were constructed.
In the U.S., most buildings are new. Even the rare house that still stands at over 100 years old cannot compare with the few 100-year-old hôtels particuliers (the grand private houses of former aristocrats and rich merchants) or churches such as Notre Dame de Paris. And I can assure you, even today, these hôtels particuliers and churches do not have elevators!
Besides, Americans do not have a habit of walking up stairs. My friend and I were shocked recently when we saw a girl wait more than three minutes to take an elevator up ONE floor when she could have taken the stairs and saved herself two minutes.
Back home in New Zealand, we rarely see decorative stairs. Most houses stand at one or two stories high. In addition, placing a magnificent staircase in an ordinary abode would look out of place. Although office buildings often contain more than 15 floors, any stairs in the building would be hidden behind a fire exit sign. Besides, taking an elevator makes sense if you are climbing 15 levels. In terms of architecture, few of our buildings exhibit such grandeur that they would require an elaborate set of stairs to match.
In a city like Paris where real estate is scarce and expensive, stairs allow buildings to rise vertically. The added benefit is more space, a worthy tradeoff for the little added effort it takes to climb those steps.
Additionally, the French use their artistic culture to creatively incorporate a staircase that blends well into or even highlights the aesthetics of a building, rather than hiding it away like an ugly secret.
Unfortunately, stairs are usually plain and homely in the U.S. They are functional but they do not awaken our visual senses or beckon us towards them. Worse, buildings often lock them away for fire escapes routes and ban workers and residents from using them. "Use the elevator," they say, "that's what it's there for."
Perhaps the mundane character of stairs in the U.S. also explains why it is less appealing for Americans to choose them over elevators and escalators.
Health experts recommend climbing stairs as a way to increase activity and stay active for maintain weight.
How can we expect more Americans to climb stairs when they have to go out of their way just to find them?
Europeans seem to have an answer. Make stairs fun.
For example, Volkswagen set up a great experiment where they replaced the stairs in a train station with piano stairs in Sweden. When pedestrians stepped on a stair, it would play music like a piano key. They found 66 percent more people than normal took the stairs instead of the escalator.
Mireille Guiliano, author of "French Women Don't Get Fat," will attest to the power of stairs. French men and women use them as part of their daily activity -- a mindless but effective way to keep moving and burn calories.
The next time you see stairs as a functional nuisance, I challenge to you to take a step towards healthy living by seeing the beauty in the function. Make stairs fun to climb -- it's the easiest way to add extra movement throughout the day.
In case you need more convincing, here is a collection of the most beautiful staircases I observed while traveling around France.