What’s the deal with angled steps?

Angled StepsIt’s a simple question, really, to any readers with experience in urban planning and specifying architectural features: what is the reasoning behind positioning steps at an angle such as this set (left and below) leading down to the Queen’s Walk near London Bridge station?

Obviously one reason is to connect two walkways that are offset slightly where there is no space to have a perpendicular set of steps, but are they ever used strategically? They’re much more difficult to run down or up than conventionally perpendicular steps, which would seem like it might help constrain escaping thieves, or make it less likely that people will be able to run from one walkway to another without slowing down and watching their step.

Like the configuration of spiral staircases in mediaeval castles to favour a defender running down the steps anticlockwise, holding a sword in his right hand, over the attacker running up to meet him (e.g. as described here), the way that town marketplaces were often built with pinch points at each end to make it more difficult for animals (or thieves) to escape, or even the ‘enforced reverence’ effect of the very steep steps at Ta Keo in Cambodia, are angled steps and staircases ever specified deliberately with this intent?

Angled Steps

The first time I thought of this was confronting these steps (below) leading from the shopping centre next to Waverley Station in Edinburgh a couple of years ago: they seemed purpose-built to slow fleeing shoplifters, but I did consider that it might just be my tendency to see everything with a ‘Design with Intent’ bias – a kind of conspiracy bias, ascribing to design intent that which is perhaps more likely to be due to situational factors (a kind of fundamental attribution error for design), or inferring the intention behind a design by looking at its results!

What’s your angle on the steps?

Angled Steps


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  2. B.W. Lilly

    There’s a similar set of steps in the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. The building was designed by Peter Eisenmann, and it seems to have been purposely built to be as dysfunctional as possible. An atrocious building, but predictably, one that the architecture professors love. I’ve seen many older folks clinging to the banister as they try to navigate the steps, and more than once, I’ve come close to falling myself.

    As far as ‘design with intent’, I personally think the intent is to inflict the architect’s ego on an unwilling public.

  3. Somnambulian Pirates

    [quote]The slope is not as steep if you go at an angle.[/quote]

    If they intended to decrease the slope of the steps, they could simply build them out so that they are still orthogonal to their incline. you would turn slightly before climbing them, but that’s easier and probably less of a bottleneck than picking your way up steps that are not at right angles to your feet.

  4. Dan

    A correspondent writes:

    I absolutely can’t stand those steps on the South Bank. My feet just don’t know what to do. Steps should not require conscious thought to use. I tend to attack them at an angle so that I have a more normal ascent. Although that does mean I might have to reset (typewriter carriage return) my position once or twice.

  5. Nital Patel

    I totally agree with you Dan. “Steps should not require concious thought to use”. Wembley station have similar steps and they are very annoying to walk up and down on.

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  7. I definitely think the architect’s ego could be a legitimate motivation. More often, though, I’m prone to believe that thoughtlessness and laziness are the true culprits.

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