You Won’t Get Anywhere Taking the Stairs, and Other News


On the Shelf

Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, in a rendering by Forbes Massie-Heatherwick Studio.

  • The Paris Review’s offices are in Chelsea, where we attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every day. (What, you thought all those people were here for the High Line?) But now there’s a new attraction in town: stairs. Lots and lots of stairs, beautifully arranged, and going nowhere. It’s part of an ambitious new sculpture that some have dubbed “the social climber”: “Big, bold and basket-shaped, the structure, Vessel, stands fifteen stories, weighs 600 tons and is filled with 2,500 climbable steps. Long under wraps, it is the creation of Thomas Heatherwick, forty-six, an acclaimed and controversial British designer … Mr. Heatherwick said Vessel was partly inspired by Indian stepwells, but he also referred to it as a climbing frame—what Americans would call a jungle gym—as well as ‘a Busby Berkeley musical with a lot of steps.’ ”
  • If you’re not into steps, just visit the city for the pavement. There’s a lot of it—and if you squint a bit or take the right drugs or just give it a good long think, you’ll see how interesting it is. Edwin Heathcote argues that “the pavement is the skin of the city, a membrane that separates the veneer of civilization from the darkness of the earth … The pavement is a paradoxical thing. It begins as a symbol of civilization and liberation but also becomes a kind of final resort, the domain of the homeless, of beggars and of defecating dogs. A city’s attitude to its street surface reveals much about its ideas of civic space, of ownership and generosity … ‘I think that our bodies are in truth naked,’ wrote Virginia Woolf in The Waves. ‘We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.’ ” 

  • Sometimes you hear nationalist-type people talking up their languages: “My language is so unique. There’s no language like my language.” Poppycock. A new study suggests that the same sounds might occur in words for the same concepts across many different languages: “The words for nose, for instance, often involve either an n sound or an oo sound, no matter the language in question … There are several theories. One is that some objects have names whose sounds bring them to mind, a sort of ‘sound symbolism.’ Employing a nasal n sound to name a nose would be one example. Another is that sensory associations play a role. Studies have found that people routinely associate darker colors with lower sounds and lighter colors with higher ones, for instance. Such shared synesthesia might account for some of the similarities. Or the commonalities might be leftovers from some ancient, now-forgotten proto-language.”
  • In which Tomas Unger spends some quality time with Philip Larkin’s photographs: “If these photographs are invaluable for the way they send us back to the poems with new eyes, now and then you alight on a Larkin image that seems to stand as achieved art in its own right. There are some striking crowd-scenes, such as a photo inscribed ‘To the Match’: a procession of football fans trooping toward the grounds, some walking, some on bicycles, their backs turned toward us, any hints of identity subsumed by the suggestion of a common motion, so that the scene takes on the somewhat disquieting energy of dream-vision. For another picture, Larkin got in close to capture the streetside spectators of some public event (kept artfully out of view, indeterminate), their richly varied expressions—exuberance, boredom, anticipation, faint concern—showing the photographer’s sensitivity to the everyday drama of massed individuality.”