Modernity, Rising: ‘Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator’

Lifted is an absorbing exploration into how the introduction of elevators into buildings transformed cities and the experience of living and working in them.

Three elevator doors in corridor of office building image from Shutterstock.com.

The world we live in has been shaped, in deep and profound ways, by technologies we barely think about. Lifted is a fascinating, maddening, idiosyncratic exploration of one of them. It is, as its subtitle suggests, a book about elevators, but not in the sense that Henry Petroski’s The Pencil or John McPhee’s Oranges are books about their titular subjects. Lifted is not a comprehensive history of the elevator as an evolving technology, a manufactured-and-sold product, or a motif in literature and art. Rather, it’s an exploration of how the introduction of elevators into buildings transformed cities, and the experience of living and working in them.

The introduction of passenger elevators into buildings led to the reorganization of their interior spaces. Elevator shafts displaced stairways from the core of multi-story buildings to the periphery, where—like the shafts themselves—they became walled-off, utilitarian spaces. Banks of elevator doors replaced the lower flights and landings of opulent grand staircases as the focal point of ground-floor lobbies. Upper floors, too, were reorganized: corridors straightened and floor plans regularized to make the elevators—now the primary points of entry and exit—easy to locate even for visitors new to the building.

Uniformly spaced, consecutively numbered floors became the norm, first in order to accommodate human operators of hand-controlled elevators who had to anticipate the approach of each floor in order to slow and stop the car at the right moment, and later to accommodate the automated, push-button controls that eventually replaced them. The cumulative effect was to impose a degree of internal order on multi-story buildings unknown in earlier decades, and to suppress the ad hoc additions and rabbit-warren interiors that had once been the norm in multi-story buildings.

Simultaneously, elevators reshaped the ways that residents and visitors interacted with buildings. Upper floors, which had been the province of low-rent offices and stuffy garrets when they were reachable only by trudging up endless flights of stairs, began to command premium prices (and attract elite renters) once the elevator made access to them effortless. Roof gardens became popular.

The ease of vertical travel that elevators introduced also affected renters well below the penthouse and executive suite. Descents to street level—to walk the fresh air, visit friends, or take children to the park—no longer carried the price tag of a long, weary trudge up flight after flight of stairs to return home. The social isolation of the high-rise-building resident thus diminished along with the practical (if not physical) distance between them and the wider world.

Beyond these practical considerations, the elevator also reshaped thought and behavior. Open central staircases with landings on each floor offered residents of building regular (though brief and fleeting) glimpses of floors other than their own. Closed elevators moving in closed shafts, on the other hand, carried residents from their own floor to the ground floor without ever showing them what lay between. One’s own floor ceased to be part of a chain of adjoining floors and became, instead, an island unto itself—as (practically) distant from all the other floors in the building as it was from the ground and the outside world.

Elevator cars, too, were islands of a sort: small spaces shared, for brief periods, with an unpredictable cast of friends, casual acquaintances, and total strangers. They were fundamentally different from other kinds of interior space—quasi-public, like a lobby, but as intimate as a drawing room—and they required new, largely unwritten rules of behavior that had to be negotiated over time.

Andreas Bernard, who holds a PhD in cultural studies as well as the editorship of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, traces these changes as they unfolded in (mostly) Berlin, New York, and Paris between the 1850s and about 1900. He focuses on what we would now think of as mid-rise office and residential buildings, and winds up his narrative just after the turn of the 20th century, as construction of the Woolworth Building ushered in the skyscraper era in earnest.

Lifted thus offers a useful counterpoint to the canonical narrative of the rise of the modern city, in which the significance of the elevator begins and ends with the fact that it made the skyscraper possible. It breaks, casually but decisively, the elevator-skyscraper link, and shows that elevators (and their impact on urban life) were already significant before the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings were gleams in their architects’ eyes.

Lifted is, however, less straightforward, and less linear, than this sketch of its content implies. The introduction and four substantive chapters are organized thematically, rather than chronologically, and so go back and forth over the same ground multiple times from different angles. This serves the material well—Bernard is narrating the story of several sets of changes that unfolded simultaneously—but leaves the challenge of braiding the five threads into a single narrative up to the reader.

An introductory sketch of the elevator’s technological development, marketing, and adoption—or even a timeline of significant dates in an appendix—would have helped, but the book includes neither. The inexplicable absence of an index makes matters worse, forcing readers to rely on their memory (or brute-force page-flipping) to locate salient facts. The reader is left construct their own, either by reshuffling scattered references from different chapters into a chronological sequence, or by relying on a more conventional narrative history of the elevator (such as Jason Goodwin’s Otis: Giving Rise to the Modern City or Alisa Goetz’s Up, Down, Across as a reference.

The flow of Lifted is interrupted, periodically, by discussions of context far in excess of narrative need. Bernard takes care to sketch the cultural background against which the elevator wrought its changes. He notes, for example, the mid-19th-century push to rationalize street plans and number houses, which paralleled (and reinforced) rationalization of buildings’ interior space wrought by elevators. He explains how the elevator served the agenda of public health crusaders, by eradicating garrets and making possible the development of rooftop gardens. And he explores how the garret—decried by some for promoting disease and shortening life spans—served the needs of others, notably artists and authors, who used it to isolate themselves from the rest of society.

That Bernard attends to these things is unquestionably valuable, because it underscores the too-easily-forgotten reality that technologies that transform the world do so in the context of changes already underway. The length at which he does it, however, is likely to try the patience of readers more interested in the history of the elevator than the history of 19th century city life.

The introduction and Chapter 3, “Controls”, are a different manifestation of the same problem. They are fascinating—the introduction briskly demolishes the origin-myth of the modern elevator; the latter traces the technology-driven fall of the elevator operator from skilled workers to uniformed nonentity—but in the context of the book as a whole they feel oddly unmoored.

The rest of Lifted is so resolutely focused on the elevator’s impact on urban space, and the ways people used that space, that those two sections come across as digressions from the already fragmented narrative. They feel as if they wandered in from a different, more technology-centric book on the same subject.

Even when it wanders away from its central themes, however, Lifted remains highly readable, and—despite its complex organization and conceptual sophistication—it remains clear and easy to follow on a sentence-by-sentence level. Michel Foucault and other scholars make occasional appearances in the text, but jargon and technical terminology is wholly absent.

Bernard, though clearly well-versed in urban history, the history of architecture, and the studies of space and place, makes no such assumptions about his readers. His explanations of complex ideas are clear and concise, and David Dollenmayer’s translation from the original German is smooth and idiomatic. Published by New York University Press, Lifted comfortably straddles the line between academic treatise and general-interest non-fiction, simultaneously fulfilling the possibilities of both. Its unobtrusive, unapologetic use of footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography mark it as serious, but its elegant design—an elongated profile suggesting an elevator shaft, wrapped in a dust jacket evocative of 19th century magazine engravings—irresistibly draws the eye and the hand. Readers who allow themselves to be drawn in will be rewarded with a new, deeper understanding of the built environment that now exists in virtually all the world’s major cities.

We take it for granted that buildings will be divided into equal-sized horizontal slices of space called “floors”, each designated by a unique numbers and all equally accessible from elsewhere in the building. We assume, without thinking about it, that floor plans within a given building will be uniform and legible. We take it for granted that, in tall buildings at least, height above the street is a rough proxy for social class. We live, in short, in the world that elevators made, and Lifted—idiosyncrasies and all—is a sharp-eyed, readable exploration of its making.

RATING 7 / 10