Architecture: Opening doors on the urban psyche: A liberating marvel of technology or a panic-inducing box? Edward Fox reveals the ups and downs of the lift

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The Independent Culture
In 1885 the American novelist William Dean Howells published a play called The Elevator, about a smart dinner party that is thrown into disarray when most of the guests get caught in the lift on their way up to their hosts' apartment in a Boston hotel. It is perhaps the first appearance in literature of this important and marvellous device, which long ago became an essential feature of the modern urban environment, yet which has never lost its power to inspire fear and anxiety, and provoke awkward situations.

Twenty-eight years before Howells play was published, the first safety elevator was installed in a commercial building, a department store at the corner of Broadway and Broome Street in New York. The Otis safety elevator, invented in 1853 by Elisha G Otis made possible the building of skyscrapers, and the growth of the world's great mercantile metropolises, beginning with New York and Chicago. The Otis safety elevator freed developers from the constraint of high land prices in booming cities by allowing construction vertically as well as horizontally.

What made the Otis safety elevator superior to previous lifts was a device that prevented the car from falling down the shaft: when the ropes holding the car were broken or cut, a spring released pegs that caught on ratchets on the inner wall of the shaft, immobilising it. It conquered people's principal fear of lifts: that the car would fall while you were in it. Otis still dominates the lift industry world-wide, with a marketing strategy that continues to emphasise safety, addressing people's perennial unease about travelling passively up and down in a small windowless box.

For despite the triumph of the safety elevator, people are still twitchy about lifts. (What is worse than a long, tensely silent lift journey with your boss?) In the British mind they are associated with an unpopular modern urbanism epitomised by the high-rise council block with a broken lift at its core. In sharp contrast, the United States made the elevator the focal point of a building, its proudest element, a first instalment of the technological utopia to come, an idea that has been renewed in the current fashion for transparent 'panoramic' elevators. The earliest skyscrapers were defined as temples of commerce by their lobbies, which were dominated by banks of elevators: democratic, practical, yet grand, delivering the white collar worker to his desk, yet exalting him at the same time.

Richard Rogers put the lifts of the Lloyd's building in London on the outside for soundly practical reasons (he wanted the building to last 300 years; elevators only last for 30; having the lifts on the outside allows easy replacement), yet the aesthetic effect is to turn into a spectacle the movement of people in and out of the building to do business.

The further you go from the heartland of the lift - the United States - the less variety there is in lift design. Britain occupies a place halfway along this curve, with southern Europe as the outer limit of the knowable universe of vertical transportation, a desert of small, mass-produced lifts of uninspired, uniform design. Mass-produced lifts are cheaper, of course, but they have no character. Otis has sought to overcome this problem by introducing this month a new range of standardised, mass-produced lifts with the same design identity as a distinctive marque of car.

Its distinguishing feature is the control panel: a vertical column against the right-hand wall, with fluorescent tubes around it. It is intended to recall the lift-operator of yore: its buttons look like those on a uniform. It even has a 'face' with the intercom speaker as the mouth. The ceiling is high and curved to give an illusion of spaciousness.

Lift designers and engineers are constantly struggling to make the technology fit human psychology and behaviour. Otis's 'lift operator' design is meant to provide passengers with a psychologically reassuring presence inside the car. But the most important human factor is time. People become impatient if they have to wait more than 30 seconds for a lift in a commercial building, 60 seconds in a residential building or hotel. Once inside the lift, 100 seconds is the individual's limit of tolerance for a journey in which the car is making several stops, but where only one person gets on or off. This increases to 150 seconds when the individual sees more than one person getting on and off at a time.

Working on the assumption that people will feel more comfortable with lifts that behave predictably, consultants Lerch Bates & Associates are working on systems that will provide a lift within a fixed period of time after the pushing of the call button, by speeding up the lifts but also slowing them down.

Human psychology and behaviour can be accommodated, but only up to a point. The problem with lifts is the people who use them. Most fatalities involving lifts happen to people who force open the doors and fall down the shaft. In 1943, the late Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, fell 40ft down a lift shaft while on a visit to her chiropodist. The sexual adventures for which she was famous are attributed to a 'glandular disturbance' she suffered as a result of this accident. During the last general election campaign, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, and a colleague were trapped in a lift in a London hotel. They escaped when Mr Ashdown forced open the doors.

There is something about being in a small enclosed space unobserved that encourages irrational behaviour. 'Being trapped in a lift' with someone is the equivalent in urban folklore of being marooned on a desert island. The erotic potential of this is particularly strong. Who has not day-dreamed of being stuck in a lift with Sean Connery/Daryl Hannah/the Queen/the Pope, or for that matter, the Duchess of Argyll or Paddy Ashdown? The extreme responses to lifts are vandalism and lift-phobia. In America, there are specialist units in lift-phobia at four hospitals, all in the New York area.

A lift is a box in a shaft in a building, in which one travels without being able to tell where one is going (elevator engineers seek to minimise the sensation of movement), or being able to control it. The hero of Kafka's Amerika, Karl, at one point employed as a 'lift-boy' in a New York hotel, notes with dismay, 'that a lift-boy had nothing to do with the machinery of the lift but to set it in motion by simply pressing a button'.

From the point of view of the designers of lifts, this is precisely the point: 'Calling an elevator is nothing more than placing a command,' says Adrian Godwin of Lerch Bates & Associates. 'All decision-making is out of the passengers' hands.' Yet people still press the call button very hard or many times in case the lift cannot 'hear' the call, or to make it appreciate the urgency of the command.

The anxiety of lack of control is not going to go away, particularly as lift-operating systems - the electronic systems for controlling how elevator cars work together to carry the greatest number of passengers in the least possible time - increase in sophistication. At the cutting edge of operating systems is the use of 'fuzzy logic', a type of artificial intelligence, to 'decide' which car in a bank of lifts will respond to which call. You would never be able to figure it out without consulting an elevator engineer. And Hannibal Lecter is up there too, lying on the roof of the car.

(Photograph omitted)