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The Most Interesting Staircase in Chicago

It's a daring claim, but it might be true.

I took these photos at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Josef Paul Kleihues. Among his achievements, Kleihues is known for his theory of “poetic rationalism,” which sought to add grace and humanism to the sometimes austere geometries of modern architecture.

The staircase is a great example of this theory in action. At first glance, the building is indeed rather boxy and geometric, even sparse. (This is hardly a failing, however: there is actually a lot going on with the exterior, and the interior is deliberately spare, the better to highlight the art on display.)

But even to the casual observer, things really change when you get to this staircase. It is a unique design that has been variously described as “ovular,” “ellipsoid,” or “fish-eye.” It’s striking, by whatever name. The lines combine curves and angles in a way that sometimes feels flowing and natural, and at other times can feel abrupt, or even jarring. Perhaps this is a deliberate effect, considering that the museum houses rotating displays of contemporary art. Much of the work on display is deliberately challenging and even confrontational. The same could could be said of the staircase, as well, despite its underlying grace.

What is certain, though, is that the staircase adds a certain warmth and interest to the regularities of the rest of the structure. I haven't found any of Kleihues's own commentary on the design, but it seems that it could have been meant as the poetic heart of a generally rationalist building.

One of the interesting things about the staircase is how varied it can look, depending on the angle of view. From certain perspectives it mimics a variety of natural shapes. It can be:

An eye:

A fish:

A heart, or perhaps a flower:

It can also be viewed as a set of abstract forms, which is how I’ve photographed it in the two lead images above. After spending time with it, I came to prefer the abstract interpretation to the mimetic one, simply because it seems more fitting to take the design on its own terms than to try to compare it to anything else.

There’s a lot more to be said about the building, and for a detailed review, you can read the architectural brochure on the Museum's website, found here. The staircase alone is well worth the time if you're in Chicago.

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