We continue today to explore the “cruel designs” that collects each piece of architecture or objects that have been specifically designed to assess a hurtful power upon the body.
Many people know the main characteristics of the Mayan Pyramids as the steepness of their steps. Such a steepness is proper to religious architecture in the symbolical effortful approach to transcendence. However, it also had very “down to earth” killing function in times of peace and war. The sacrificial pyramids’ steps were used as a mean to “finish off” the sacrificed bodies by throwing them from the top of the stair to the bottom of the pyramid. The steepness in that case insured that the body would indeed roll all the way down. In times of war, the stairs could become a veritable defensive apparatus. The Mayans would take refuge on the top of the pyramids and have soldiers, attached to the top by ropes around their bodies, fighting on the stairs pushing the assailants down the steps who were likely to be severely wounded if not killed by the fall.
What I find fascinating in these stories (which would probably deserve to be more detailed by a legitimate expert of the Mayan civilization), is the fact that the killing apparatus invented by the Mayans is nothing else than the stair that we have in almost every building built by humans. The steepness here is merely a way to sharpen the weapon like one sharpen a knife. What does that mean for architecture that an “innocent” stair can become such a violent device? Was the stair even innocent in the first place? Considered abstractly this quasi-inevitable element of the architectural tool set is rather strange. After all, it is nothing else than a series of small pieces of floor that are assembled in such a way that it successively reach a certain height. Many elderlies and disabled persons are very aware of this essential reading of the stairs; they know that it requires a certain degree of energy and fitness to bring a body to go from one of those pieces of floor to another. The stair, in its essence, has already a clear impact on the body.
I usually tend to insist on the wall as the paradigmatic architectural element of a weaponized architecture; nevertheless, such a potentiality for an element to become a weapon (intentionally or not) is proper to any of them that impact the body through its inherent characteristics. None of them is innocent absolutely and the idea of domesticity only depends on the political context that it is understood. Such a context is subjected to change and an “innocent” stair can have a tremendous impact in the potential antagonism that can emerge from a political crisis in a given society. For example, the building’s stairs of many cities, built “innocently” during a time of peace carry some vital consequences during a time of civil war. If the stair “goes up” clockwise, it would tend to give a certain advantage to the defenders in societies (most of them?) where a majority of people are right-handed. If it “goes up” anticlockwise on the other hand, the right-handed assailants will be advantaged.
Such design decisions used to be primordial in a world that tended to be more often at war than at peace and the notion of domesticity had to emerge adapting to these decisions. The role of design has been forgotten in that matter for “domestic environments” but the Syrian civil war, the combats in the Palestinian refugee camps, the siege on the Red Shirts in Thailand etc. remind us that the statu quo, just like the end of history is only a human illusion based on his/her understanding of his/her scale of time. No design is innocent, not even a stair.