Messages from the 29th Floor

David Trotter

According to elevator legend, it all began with a stunt. In the summer of 1854, at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, an engineer called Elisha Graves Otis gave regular demonstrations of his new safety device. Otis had himself hoisted into the air on a platform secured on either side by guide-rails and – at a suitably dramatic height – cut the cable. Instead of plummeting to the ground fifty feet below, the platform stopped dead after a couple of inches. ‘All safe, gentlemen, all safe,’ Otis would bellow at the expectant crowd. The device was simple enough: a flat-leaf cart spring above the platform splayed out to its full extent as soon as the cable was cut, engaging notches in the guide-rails. Has any mode of transport ever been safer? After 1854, malfunctioning (or non-existent) doors were the only direct risk still attached to travelling by lift. Safety first was not so much a motto as a premise. No wonder that the closest high-end TV drama has come to Sartrean nausea is the moment in Mad Men when a pair of elevator doors mysteriously parts in front of troubled genius Don Draper, who is left peering in astonishment down into a mechanical abyss. The cables coiling and uncoiling in the shaft stand in for the root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree.

Andreas Bernard is properly sceptical of myths of origin. It didn’t all begin in 1854, in fact. From Archimedes and Vitruvius onwards, descriptions survive of devices for the vertical transport of goods, primarily, but also of people. The English diplomat Charles Greville, writing in 1830, recalled with admiration a lift in the Genoese palace of the Sardinian royal couple: ‘For the comfort of their bodies he has a machine made like a car, which is drawn up by a chain from the bottom to the top of the house; it holds about six people, who can be at pleasure elevated to any storey, and at each landing place there is a contrivance to let them in and out.’ In June 1853, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported the imminent introduction of steam-powered elevators into private homes in New York, by means of which an ‘indolent, or fatigued, or aristocratic person’ could reach the upper floors. Confusingly, there was another engineering Otis around, Otis Tufts, who in 1859 patented an apparatus known as the Vertical Railway or Vertical Screw Elevator. The Vertical Railway, driven by a twenty-inch-wide iron screw running through its centre, was the first such device to boast an enclosed cab. It proved extremely reliable, but slow and costly.

How, then, did Otis’s stunt achieve the status of a myth of origin? It was theatrical, for a start. More important, it exploited what Bernard calls the 19th-century ‘trauma of the cable’. From the late Middle Ages, when mineshafts in Europe first reached depths greater than a few yards, some means had to be developed to bring the ore up to the surface. For centuries, cable winches powered in various ways allowed the vertical transport of raw materials and freight. By 1850, when elevators first began to appear in buildings, the depth of the mineshafts in the upper Harz and Ruhr regions had reached more than two thousand feet. So high was the risk of an accident caused by a cable breaking that until 1859 German mining regulations forbade the transport of miners in the rail-guided baskets that brought the ore up to the surface (they had to use ladders). Bernard’s emphasis on the history of mining usefully embeds the history of the elevator in the history not just of transport in general, but of the transport accident: itself about to give rise, courtesy of rail-guided transport of the horizontal kind, to trauma as a diagnostic category. Some of the most memorable lift scenes occur in the great mining films of the early 1940s (Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley).

Bernard soon leaves the mineshafts behind. His main interest lies in the ways in which the advent of the elevator transformed the design, construction and experience of high-rise buildings, and thus of modern urban life in general (the focus remains on Germany and the United States throughout). From the 1870s onwards, all new multi-storey buildings in major American cities were constructed around an elevator shaft. The ‘perfection of elevator work’, as one commentator put it in 1891, had become the skyscraper’s ‘fundamental condition’. That, and steel frame construction. Bernard seems reluctant to get into a dispute as to which came first, or mattered more, but he maintains that the elevator was a ‘prerequisite’ for vertical growth. In the 1890s, the highest building in the world was the twenty-storey Masonic Temple in Chicago; the Woolworth Building in New York, completed in 1913, stood at 55 storeys. In Europe, the pace of change was a good deal slower, since the emphasis remained as much on adaptation as on innovative design.

Bernard is a cultural historian, and ultimately it’s not so much what buildings are and do that matters to him, as what they mean. He argues that the lasting symbolic consequence of the perfection of elevator work was the ‘recodification of verticality’ it brought about. During the final decade of the 19th century (an ‘epochal watershed’), the best rooms in the largest buildings ‘migrated’ from low to high in a decisive reversal of ‘hierarchic order’, while the worst went in the opposite direction. In Europe’s grand hotels, for example, the worst rooms had traditionally been at the top, since only poor people and hotel staff could be expected to climb all those flights of stairs. Lifts, however, ‘freed the upper storeys from the stigma of inaccessibility and lent them an unheard-of glamour’. A roughly comparable migration occurred at the other end of the social scale. Statistics for rental prices in Berlin in the period from the founding of the Reich in 1871 to the outbreak of the First World War demonstrate that the most expensive apartments were invariably on the first floor (the bel étage), the less expensive on the ground, second and third floors, and the cheapest at attic or basement level. The last two levels consistently attracted the stigma of ‘abnormality’. It was here, at the top and bottom of the building, that the urban underclass festered. By the end of the 19th century, sanitary reform had pretty much done for the basement as a dwelling-place. It took a while longer, as Bernard shows, for the elevator to domesticate the upper floors of the standard tenement block by rendering them easily accessible.

The bel étage wasn’t just on the way up. It entered, or rather had built for it, a separate symbolic dimension. Rich people realised that the stuff they’d always enjoyed doing at ground level was even more enjoyable when done on the top floor; and that being able to do it there at all was a useful display of the power wealth brings. In 1930s New York, the twin towers of the new Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which rose from the 29th to the 43rd storey, constituted its unique appeal. ‘Below the demarcation line of the 29th storey, the Waldorf-Astoria, although expensive, was accessible to everyone; above the line began an exclusive region of suites of as many as twelve rooms with private butler service.’ The upper floors of tall buildings, once given over to staff dormitories, had become what Bernard calls an ‘enclave of the elite’. The Waldorf-Astoria’s express elevators, travelling direct to the 29th floor, were as much barrier as conduit. Such discrimination between elevators, or between elevator speeds, played a significant part in the design of those ultimate enclaves of the managerial elite, the penthouse apartment and the executive suite. In 1965, the penthouse still had enough ‘unheard-of glamour’ to lend its name to a new men’s magazine.

There’s a great deal to admire in Bernard’s integration of evidence of various sorts, from building regulations and operator manuals to high literature, into a shrewd and versatile account of the transformative effect of the elevator’s irresistible rise on the social psychology of life in the modern metropolis from the 1870s to the 1930s. The focus remains on urban experience in a long concluding chapter concerned with the ‘atmosphere in the cab’. Seen through the lens of canonical urban theory, a ride in a lift looks like the perfect opportunity for those jarring random encounters with people you don’t know that are said to characterise life in the big city. As Bernard puts it, ‘the elevator cab – in the days of Poe and Baudelaire just beginning to be installed in the grand hotels, by the time of Simmel and Benjamin a permanent part of urban architecture – is the contingent locale par excellence.’ For Bernard, the elevator is a Benjaminian street brought indoors and rotated on its axis: during the few seconds of ascent or descent, the perpetual ‘anaesthetising of attention’ allegedly required of the city-dweller becomes an acute anxiety. Bernard invokes Erving Goffman’s ethnomethodological analysis of the positions passengers customarily take up on entering a lift: the first beside the controls, the second in the corner diagonally opposite, the third somewhere along the rear wall, the fourth in the empty centre and so on; all of them at once turning to face the front, as though on parade. He terms the resulting intricate array of mutual aversions a ‘sociogram’. He’s right, of course. There is something about the way people behave in lifts which requires explanation. But does urban theory hold the key to that behaviour? Crossing the road is not at all the same as riding between floors.

The invention of the elevator belongs as securely to the history of mechanised transport as it does to the history of urban planning. After all, the trains which first obliged passengers to sit or stand in close proximity to one another for hours on end without exchanging a word ran between rather than across the great conurbations. Considered as a people-mover, the elevator ranks with those other epochal Fin-de-Siècle inventions, the motor car and the aeroplane. Like them, it combines high speed with a high degree of insulation from the outside world. It’s a vertical bullet train, a space rocket forever stuck in its silo – at least until the moment in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Willie Wonka presses the button marked ‘Up and Out’. An elevator exceeds a car or a plane in the claustrophobic extremity of its insulation from the outside world. It’s the collective endurance of protracted viewlessness, rather than urban ennui, that activates Bernard’s sociogram.

The clue to the elevator’s significance lies in the buttons that adorn its interior and exterior. Its automation, at the beginning of the 20th century, created a system of electronic signalling which brought the entire operation under the control of the individual user. In no other mode of transport could a vehicle be hailed, directed and dismissed entirely without assistance, and by a touch so slight it barely amounts to an expenditure of energy. The machine appears to work by information alone. Elevators, Bernard says, reprogrammed the high-rise building. It might be truer to say that they reprogrammed the people who made use of them, in buildings of any kind. Approaching the elevator bank, we alert the system to where we are and the direction we want to travel in. Pressing the button in the lift, we signal our precise destination and our confidence that the apparatus will come to a halt and the doors open when we get there. The closer we come to sending ourselves as a message, in competition or alliance with the messages sent by others, the more likely we are to arrive speedily, and intact.

For centuries, the term ‘communication’ referred equally to the movement of people and goods and to the movement of information. The second meaning gradually displaced the first. As early as 1849, Ruskin was complaining in The Seven Lamps of Architecture that the railway ‘is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel.’ Don’t ask the occupant of a carriage to admire the view: ‘You might as well ask the wind. Carry him safely, dismiss him soon: he will thank you for nothing else.’ By the end of the century, a further refinement was in prospect. It would be much better, from the system’s point of view, and possibly even from the passenger’s, if the ‘living parcel’ were to be transmuted into a living message, a bundle of data: easy to sort, easy to store, easy to deliver. The steady expansion of electronic media since the beginning of the 21st century has hugely enhanced the capacity of transport networks to communicate in both senses of the term. Airlines and governments signal us warily from departure to arrival by means of passenger tracking and e-borders technology. Corporations sell us connectivity. In 2012, the Czech car manufacturer Skoda marketed its latest model, the Citigo, as a ‘communication tool’ replete with apps. It seemed pretty much beside the point that the ultimate purpose of this social medium posing as a vehicle was to transport you physically to a place where you could ‘meet your friends in real life’. But the elevator outdoes them all, train, plane and automobile. There’s a touchscreen smoothness to the way its living messages send themselves.

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You can only send yourself as a message successfully if you remain intact – that is, fully encrypted – during transmission. That’s what elevator protocol is for. Or so we might gather from the very large number of scenes set in lifts in movies from the 1930s onwards. The vast majority of these scenes involve breaches of protocol in which the breach is of far greater interest than the protocol. Desire erupts, or violence, shattering the sociogram’s frigid array. Or the lift, stopped in its tracks, ceases to be a lift. It becomes something else altogether: a prison cell to squeeze your way out of, or (Bernard suggests) a confessional. The eruptions are sometimes entertaining, sometimes not. But since they pay little or no attention to the protocols which have consistently defined the ‘atmosphere in the cab’, they often date badly. The student of elevator scenes in James Bond movies, for example, will discover only that while Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace (2008) instantly unleashes a crisply definitive, neoliberal backwards head-butt, Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) has to absorb a good deal of heavy punishment before he’s able to apply the unarmed combat manoeuvre du jour: an Edward Heath of a flailing, two-handed downwards chop at the kidneys.

Rarer, and far more illuminating, are scenes in which the lift remains a lift, and the protocols, consequently, of greater interest than their potential or actual breach. These scenes are a gift to the cultural historian, and it’s unfortunate that Bernard’s allegiances to urban theory and to literature (especially to the literature of an earlier period) should have persuaded him to ignore them. The shrewdest representations are those which understand that the elevator is a place where messages meet, rather than people. In white-collar epics from King Vidor’s seminal The Crowd through Robert Wise’s highly inventive Executive Suite and the exuberant Jerry Lewis vehicle The Errand Boy to The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen brothers’ screwball version of Frank Capra, what separates the upper floors from the lower is access to information. The express elevator, bypassing those floors on which actual business is done, constitutes a prototypical information superhighway ripe for abuse by finance capitalism. The Hudsucker Proxy, in particular, would have been grist to Bernard’s mill. It features a sweaty basement mailroom as well as cool expanses of executive suite. Its miniature New York set included a model of the Woolworth Building. But the film is about information rather than urban contingency. It’s only when gormless errand boy Tim Robbins, ordered to deliver a top-secret ‘Blue Letter’ (the year is 1959) to the top floor via express elevator, himself becomes in effect the message, that evil capitalist Paul Newman can see his way to the ingenious stock scam which drives the plot on towards last-minute angelic intervention.

The arrangement by phalanx required by lift protocol has the great virtue of precluding conversation. Cinema’s best elevator scenes delight in maintaining that such rules should not be broken, whether by head-butt or injudicious self-revelation. When two thugs intent on kidnap at the very least follow advertising executive Roger Thornhill into a packed lift in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, his mother, who knows what he’s afraid of, but considers him a fantasist, asks them if they’re really trying to kill her son. Cary Grant does an excellent job of seeming more put out by the laughter which greets her sally than by the threat of kidnap. His disgust draws attention to the necessity, in a form of transport directed as much by the flow of data as by the flow of energy, of codes of conduct. It is a kind of meta-commentary. Something comparable happens in another of the many elevator scenes in Mad Men. Don Draper occupies one corner, a couple of insurance salesmen another. The one with his hat on is not to be deflected from his rancid sexual boasting by the entrance at the next floor of a woman whose only option is to stand directly in front of him. Draper tells the man to take his hat off; and when he doesn’t, removes it from his head and shoves it gently into his chest. That’s it. No head-butts, no expressions of feeling. If one code of conduct is to apply, in the earnest business of being parcelled up for delivery, they must all apply, all the time. Perhaps Draper has been to see Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon shows Shirley MacLaine he’s a true gent by remembering to take his hat off in the lift. These scenes comment not so much on specific codes as on codedness in general, in a world increasingly subsumed into information. For such a staid apparatus, the elevator has generated some pretty compelling stories.