Architectural Photography

The stairs at the Mechanics’ Institute, San Francisco

Architectural Photography

Photographing the spiral staircase

There’s something about the corkscrew-like pattern of the spiral staircase that attracts photographers. Almost every portfolio of architectural photography has at least one.

Last week I photographed one of the best examples I have come across to date in the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco This comparatively modest neoclassical building can be found on Market Street, in the centre of the city’s bustling financial district. Building started in 1909, three years after the great San Francisco earthquake, under the direction of architect Albert Pissis.

We may live in the age of the lift and escalator, but this hasn’t stopped architects using beautiful staircases as a means of adding value to spaces. These creative souls never saw ‘the stairs’ just as humdrum routes up or down but as a vehicle for conveying the character of the areas they grace. And it wasn’t just architects who loved them: French fashion designer Coco Chanel designed her very own and even added mirrored and lacquered walls to surround it.

The stairs at the Vatican Museum

I want to share with you some I have photographed over the last few years. Among my own personal favourites is the beautiful example in the Vatican Museum, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. This staircase, like the original it replaced, is a double helix, having two staircases allowing people to ascend without meeting people descending; as with the original, the main purpose of this design is to allow uninterrupted traffic in each direction.

The Tulip Staircase at the Queen’s House, Greenwich

Another is the Tulip Stairs in Inigo Jones’s beautifully designed Queen’s House in Greenwich This ornate, wrought iron structure was the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain.

The staircase at the Kempinski Hotel, Berlin
Old stairs in the former Jewish Quarter, Budapest

You can see more of my photographs of the built environment at

I feel I must give the last word to Samuel Johnston:
“The world is like a grand staircase. Some are going up and some are going down.”