Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
In the latest issue of Cabinet, archictectural historian Thomas van Leeuwen tells the story of fire escapes. Originally designed as mobile fire ladders in the nineteenth century, rescue workers soon found that affixing the structures directly to buildings made safer exits. Built out of iron to survive the heat, they became a feature of American urban architecture by the end of the nineteenth century, although their effectiveness remains uncertain.
Graphic designer Saul Bass made the fire escape iconic when he designed the poster for the film of West Side Story, where the simple Z’s of open stairway cling to the blunt brickish type like a set of extra iron serifs, jutting out into the abyss of young love. Bass’s grid instantly communicates the inner city environment while reminding us of Juliet’s balcony.
New York’s remaining fire escapes continue to be used as balconies and porches — transitional spaces for the controlled burn of the cigarette, the illicit barbecue, and the French kiss.
Van Leeuwen writes, “Fire escapes invite photography, just as masts of sailing boats invited painters.” His point is proved in The Fireladders of Soho, where artist Greg Martin documents this urban life form in both photos and drawings keyed to a SoHo map.
— Julia Lupton · 2009-02-25