Tate modern displays gravity-defying sustainable staircase

16 September 2013
By Abi Grogan
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Inspired by artist Escher's endless staircase optical illusion, the American Hardwood Association, Arup and dRMM architects have combined sustainability forces to produce a sculpture showcasing tulipwood as an exemplary building material.

In a panel discussion opened this morning, the installation was hailed as an incredible architectural piece and an engineering triumph.

Built from a three-ply tulipwood timber called CLT, the material was chosen for its equal strength in all directions, achieved by a unique layering during manufacture.

The project was intended to prove the benefits of using plentiful low-grade hardwood as opposed to less sustainable softwood substitutes. Tulipwood is remarkably strong for its weight meaning the panels can be thinner than softwood equivalents.

Ben Evans, Director of London Design Week who were supporting the unveiling, led the panel discussion, saying "We wanted to create something of a different scale in a public place, using one of the world's greatest resources to express ourselves in a unique way. We wanted a vast audience to see this."

The installation, which will run for four weeks from it's pitch in front of the Tate Modern museum, is expected to withstand the footfall of hundreds of visitors per day.

David Venables, European Director of the American Hardwood Export Council,  admitted the project had been 'homeless' after it's original location outside St Pauls Catherdral was scrapped in light of planning issues. He said the newly located project was "a merge of fantastic design, incredible engineering, sustainable materials and the Tate Modern as a venue. We've got a great technical understanding of our material and we want to shout about it. Sometimes the best way to engage is to do something completely out of the ordinary."

Grown in the US, manufactured in Italy and fabricated in Switzerland, the cradle-to-gate approach surprisingly yields a negative carbon footprint when shipped to Europe. It features 187 steps and took ten days to install.

Professor Alex de Rijke, Director of dRMM the architects behind the installation, said that wood was the "new concrete." He rejected the modern notion that concrete and steel structures were the best internal support for new builds. "The nineteenth century was brick, the twentieth century was steel and the twenty first century was concrete. What will this century be? I'm convinced there's hope in timber in the same way we can't prescribe hope to steel and concrete because they're so carbon intensive.

"And why stairs? Because stairs are sculpture's gift to architecture."

The installation will run until 10th October 2013. For more information please visit: http://www.londondesignfestival.com/endless-stair

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