A ride to heaven and hell

Birth, violence, sex, death - it all happens in the humble lift. Genevi eve Fox rides high on its miraculous power

The moment the hotel elevator jolts to a standstill in Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen is ready with appropriate symptoms. "I can't breathe," he pants to Diane Keaton, pulling at his collar and launching into a self- therapy chant. "I see open meadows. A stallion. I see grass. I see dirt ..."

The elevator is one of the 20th century's most potent cultural symbols. Like the car, the aeroplane and the skyscraper, the elevator is a miraculous combination of design and technical daring. Locked into our collective consciousness as a metaphor for both power and pleasure, the elevator rolls nightmare and fantasy into one. No other machine has the ability to fill us with anger and awe on a daily basis.

Britain has 160,000 elevators that stop and start 180 times a day. Every three days a number of people equivalent to the earth's entire population travels by lift. People get married in them. Give birth in them. Sell products with them.

Yet not since Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator realised the lift's imaginative potential - like a rocket, it continues up through the roof and into the sky, elevating the passengers above the earth - has there been any celebration or appraisal of this multifarious icon. The publication last week of Vertical: Lift Elevator Paternoster, A Cultural History of Vertical Transportation by Vittorio Lampugnani has changed all that.

The book all lift-lovers have been waiting for, it offers a history and critique of the design, technology and aesthetic significance of the lift, as well as other modes of vertical travel, including the escalator and paternoster. "The lift and film," says Lampugnani, "... have the aspect of movement in common: at times as illusory moment, at others as real-life change."

One illusion the modern, computerised elevator tries to create is that of control. That's what the buttons are for. But if the lift gets stuck you know your only course of action is to press the emergency button. And wait. For the dead body to fall out of the air vent above. For Hannibal Lecter. Better, for Keanu Reeves in Speed. The chances of your dream lover actually materialising are, of course, slim, though elevator sex remains a common urban fantasy. And while the thought of being trapped in a steel box with a gibbering Woody Allen is enough to give anyone an anxiety attack, elevator phobia or EP, as it is known in America, is a very real urban disease.

There are special EP units all over America. One New York clinic alone treats 70 sufferers a week, typically "sensitive, highly imaginative and aged between 20 and 40". In Britain, 4 per cent of the population suffers from specific phobias, including elevator phobia. "Sufferers have a perception of losing control, which makes them panic," says Simon Darnley, a behaviour psychotherapist who treats British sufferers. "They then really do lose control - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Darnley cured one woman in her thirties, so terrified of losing control that she wouldn't even sit in the back of a two-door car, let alone travel in a lift, through graded exposure. She was made to confront her fear by walking in and out of lifts, watching the doors as they partially opened and closed, until they closed completely. Four sessions later, she was cured. One can only hope she never saw Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill in which a lift passenger spots a razor blade-wielding psychopathic transvestite in action during the split-second slit before the elevator doors finally close.

Workers in the industry argue that it is these psycho-thrillers, along with disaster movies such as The Towering Inferno (elevator dangles on outside of burning building; fear of loss of control comes true) and the opening scene of Speed (elevator grindsto a halt; fear of being trapped comes true) that instil fear in the first place, giving vertical transport a bad name. "Those movies are laughable if you know anything about lifts," says John Nickson of Lift Refurbishments, reeling off a baffling catalogue of safety features. "Virtually impossible to plummet down a shaft," he sums up. "More likely to go up than down." "Safer than walking down the stairs," echoes David Fazakerly, director of the National Association of Lift Makers, in a similar lifts-are-fail-safe conversation.

But elevators are dangerous places, as newspaper headlines testify: LIFT PLUNGE DEATH. MAN CRUSHED IN LIFT HORROR. WORKER DECAPITATED BY LIFT. BOYS RELEASED AFTER 21/2-DAY LIFT ORDEAL. So do the figures: 22,100 people were rescued from lifts by the fire brigade in 1987; 158 fires began in London lifts in l992. Women get raped in lifts. For the flip side to the American glitzy, gleaming elevator is the British dimly lit, dank lift of the public car park and the council block.

For John Nickson, removing hatchets and patching up bullet holes in council-block lifts are part of a day's work. After 18 years in the trade, he's hit upon one handy tip, though. "Putting a mirror into a lift car in a council block tends to stop people peeing on the way home from the pub and becoming violent. They feel someone is watching them - even though it's just a reflection of themselves."

For some, however, the thought of being watched while having unseemly, fast, uncomfortable, on-the-hoof sex which may be interrupted at any moment is what makes elevator sex such a thrill. "I'm gonna have a fantasy," sang Aerosmith back in 1989: "Livin'

it up when I'm goin' down/Love in an elevator/Lovin' it up til I hit the ground ..." The urban alternative to the open field, the elevator is ripe for impromptu sex. A phallus in motion within the masculinity of a tower, it just sends the girls crazy. Or

so Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Joan Collins in The Stud would have us believe.

But elevator sex is no urban myth. OUR LIFT LOVE-IN GAVE HIM A HEART ATTACK ran the headline of one story about a couple who decided to have sex when the lift suddenly broke down. "I don't do sex in lifts," says one Kensington-based prostitute, from which one may deduce that she gets the requests but thinks it's not worth the agro. Those wrought-iron lattice lifts are hard to find nowadays, after all.

Several people admit to snogging in an elevator. One thirtysomething friend nearly went the whole way. "I lost my nerve the minute my boyfriend reached for the emergency button. I didn't savour the prospect of a night in jail."

A brief flirt or even just a furtive glance at your fellow passengers may end up being as hot as things really get. For the etiquette of the Underground and the train extends to the elevator. People chat before they get into the elevator, but adopt a stony silence as soon as they've crossed the electronic threshold. Nobody makes eye contact and, rather than ask for their stop to be pressed, will reach instead through forward-facing rows of rigid bodies.

People are less reserved when waiting for a lift to arrive. Lampugnani notes that lifts for workers were introduced at the turn of the century as "an antidote to exhaustion mania" -energy-saving, de-stressing time capsules. So when workers are kept waiting - 90 seconds is the most we can bear, say experts, 30 is ideal - they get angry. They pace the foyer, repeatedly press the button, tut tut and look shiftily at the stairwell.

Otis elevators, the world's largest lift company, want us to be happy, not angry. Using artificial intelligence, they are now programming lifts to respond to traffic patterns. If there is always a rush from the 18th floor up to the 21st for a Danish pastry at 11am, for example, they'll have more empty lifts waiting in anticipation. Stressful delays will soon be history.

Which is how things should be. For travelling by lift is about instant, motionless, effortless transport to new worlds and the suspension of any sense of real time and place. It's about pleasure, anticipation. Think of that old-fashioned department-storeting announcing lingerie on four or back down to perfume on ground. Of the excitement of ascending 1,453 feet in seconds and walking straight out into the World Trade Centre's "Windows on the World" twinkling cocktail bar.

Today's most daring elevators, like the Babylonian towers that preceded them, speak to our dreams, not our nightmares. To travel in a panoramic skyclimber like the one on the outside of the Lloyd's building is a thrill more enduring than lift-surfing, today's deadliest form of joyriding, or a snatched kiss. A kinetic experience, an architectural marvel, a journey to the skies, it is, in Lampugnani's words, "an earth-rooted ascent to the heavens".

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