To step into a paternoster lift is to step into the circulatory system of a building, to become a part of its very structure, an element within a perpetually moving machine for living. Riffing on the Latin piety of its name, some passengers will speak of taking a leap of faith. In truth, it is only a step, but it must be well-timed and placed lest you miss the platform of the cabin. Since the paternoster continues with or without you, you may well wish to mutter an ‘Our Father’.
It works quite simply: there are two vertical shafts, joined by arcs at the top and bottom. A chain of cabins moves continuously around the circuit, ascending one shaft and descending the other, looping over the top and under the bottom. The passenger enters and exits at any floor she chooses, but the cabins never pause, moving around the circuit like beads on a rosary.
The lift has analogues: as a vertical conveyor belt for humans, it is like a tram, fixed in route, allowing one to hop on or off. Indeed, like a tram, the lift relies on and dictates a uniformity of organisation: the elevator shaft itself, according to Andreas Bernard – the author of Lifted, a cultural history of the elevator – ‘cut a breach through the levels of a building in the same way the boulevard did through the streets of the city. It eliminated the proliferation of entresols and secondary stairways, setting in motion a vertical Haussmannization.’ As the tram works most effectively as a horizontal conveyance for the gridded city, so does the elevator require and make visible the uniformity of the floors and the between-the-floors of a vertical building.
Like all great twentieth-century technologies, the elevator has its origins in the industrial nineteenth. In the 1820s, an ‘ascending room’ was built inside the architect Decimus Burton’s London Colosseum in Regent’s Park to provide paying members of the public an elevated view of a London panorama design by Thomas Hornor . In 1835, a steam-powered crane designed by industrialist William Strutt for his Belper textile mill was given extra safety mechanisms, renamed the ‘Teagle’ and converted from freight hoist to people carrier. At the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City in 1854, the mechanic Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated an elevator of his own design, hoisting himself into the air and cutting the suspension cable: his safety mechanism caught the cabin before its fall, raising commercial awareness for his invention.
The first working paternoster in the world came some years later, built in Liverpool in 1869. The Architect magazine recorded:
‘A lift has been invented and patented by Mr Peter Ellis, architect, of Liverpool, which we may class as a person lift, but which differs from any other in the fact of its having two shafts instead of one, with several chairs in each shaft, and in moving continuously up one shaft and down the other . . . the passengers entering or leaving without stoppage . . . We consider this invention so important in relation to large sets of offices, hotels, and the adoption of living in flats by the middle-classes, that we give a description of the first completed specimen, which has been in use for some months in Oriel Chambers, a large block of offices erected by Mr Ellis in the busiest part of Liverpool.’
Ellis did not carry his invention forwards. The continuous lift was subsequently revived in 1884 as the Cyclic Elevator by J&E Hall, a British manufacturer. J&E Hall expanded into elevators and escalators in the 1920s and was swallowed up by Elisa Otis’s company Otis, by then the world’s leading manufacturer of lifts, in 1968.
The paternoster pulses into life in the twentieth-century city, and starts to emerge in the cultural imagination of the day. Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis, an expressionist response to Fordism and to the de-individualisation of the subject within the mechanised factory and urban environment, opens with film sequences of machines – gears, pistons, eccentric wheels. Proletarian workers assemble in ranks of six before elevators with open cages. In the screenplay, written by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, the elevators were in perpetual motion: ‘The paternoster – the ceaseless elevator which, like a never-ending series of well-buckets, transected the New Tower of Babel – gathered men up and poured them out again.’ When the workers rebel, they swarm the elevators with their wives, overwhelming the machine that maintains the vertical class and gender division, the symbol of their eternal repression.
The paternoster remains a powerfully evocative piece of engineering, its continuous procession at the heart of its allegorical potential, its endless rise and fall, its time-defying loop. It was favoured for its utilitarian functionalism in the institutions of Germany and Eastern Europe, where many still operate. The Rathaus Schöneberg in Berlin where JFK gave the 1963 speech in which he declared ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, houses a paternoster that also featured in the cult TV series Babylon Berlin. Other Berlin paternosters operate at the offices of the newspapers Neues Deutschland and Bild and at the Academy of Sciences. In Prague, the City Hall paternoster was renovated in 2017.
In Heinrich Böll’s 1955 short story, ‘Dr Murke’s Collection of Silences’, the eponymous Murke is a radio producer in post-war Germany, assigned the task of removing the word ‘God’ from a pre-recorded address and replacing each one with the phrase ‘that Higher Being whom we worship’. Murke is an exciser of tape, a creator of media edits, a reformer of historic utterances. He collects off-cut silences and splices them together.
Every morning, Böll writes:
‘Murke performed an existential gymnastic exercise. He sprang into the lift, pressed the button and went up, but he didn’t stop at the second floor, where his office was, but let himself be carried up past the third, fourth and fifth floors, and every time the lift passed the corridor of the fifth floor, he experienced a thrill of fear as it pushed its way up into the empty room at the top of the building where, amid a tangle of oiled chains, greased rods and grinding ironwork, it shifted across to the place from which it could start its downward journey. Murke gazed in a sort of panic at the only untidy place in Radio House and breathed again as the lift passed safely through the transit gate, righted itself and began to slide slowly down past the fifth, fourth and third floors. Murke knew that he had no grounds for fear. It was obvious that nothing would happen; nothing could happen; and if anything did happen, at the worst it would only mean that he might be imprisoned for an hour or so in the machine loft at the top.’
Murke’s paternoster journey over the top is the journey of student antics of legend: head up and over, emerge in a handstand or a bundle on the floor. His glimpse of the workings of the building, its engineering of ‘greased rods and grinding ironwork’ is a journey into the interior, behind the scenes of the functional, a moment of disruption to the smooth, cyclic passage of rise and fall. The paternoster is a reel of film, or tape, and Murke achieves satisfaction by intervening in it. Just as he is attracted to those silences on the tape, so Murke is attracted to the functional messiness of the between-the-floors: as readers, we are invited into the behind-the-scenes of institutional mechanisation. In the post-war German context, the very floor threatens to give way to untold trauma.
David Lodge, the most celebrated of campus novelists, took inspiration from the paternoster in the Muirhead Tower of Birmingham University for one at the University of Rummidge in his 1975 novel Changing Places in which he too sent his protagonist, Morris Zapp, over the top of the loop:
‘Morris . . . loved the Paternoster. Perhaps it was a throwback to his childhood delight in carousels and suchlike; but he also found it a profoundly poetic machine, especially if one stayed on for the round trip, disappearing into darkness at the top and bottom and rising or dropping into the light again, perpetual motion readily symbolising all systems and cosmologies based on the principle of eternal recurrence, vegetation myths, death and rebirth archetypes, cyclic theories of history, metempsychosis and Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes.’
To this we might add the rota fortunae, the wheel of fate of the medieval imagination, by which some lives are raised and beneath which others are crushed.
In the UK, historically the university campus has been the spiritual home of the paternoster. There were paternosters at Leicester University, Newcastle, Salford, Aston, Essex and Sheffield. In the 1960s, universities were the ‘front line of new architecture’, writes Elain Harwood, author of Space, Hope and Brutalism. ‘With lots of public funding and stable five-year building programmes, [they] became the vanguard for young architects to express new ideas, and towers were hip.’
During that decade, strikingly impressive and functional buildings in the Brutalist idiom, were designed by Sir Basil Spence, Peter and Alison Smithson and Roger Sterling. In his 1965 essay ‘An Architect’s Approach to Architecture’, Sterling wrote of the thinking behind his designs: ‘The planning of spaces and rooms was secondary to the creation of a circulatory system.’ As Harwood explains: ‘lots of students had to get around those buildings, and in teaching buildings like Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham, that meant shifting huge numbers all at once at specific times between lectures. For this the paternoster was ideal as well as a bit trendy as it held more people than a normal lift, and its slowness didn’t matter if you were only going two or three floors.’
When completed in June 1966 the Arts Tower at Sheffield was the tallest university building in the country and the tallest tower in Sheffield. I rode the paternoster there every weekday for two terms as a young student of Japanese in 1991. Keith Lilley, Director of Infrastructure at Sheffield University, has said that that the building does not function correctly when the paternoster is closed for maintenance. My hop took me from the ground to the fifth floor (to my eternal shame, I rarely troubled the library accessible through the first). My first encounter with the lift, arriving too early for the first morning’s teaching of a first term, was momentarily discombobulating. What even was it? It threatened to show me up for what I was: a newbie. I watched several cabins pass before finding the nerve to step into one of my own, maintaining a state of high alert to exit at the correct level. Within a couple of trips I was incorporated into the system, bundling in and out with friends without a thought.
That the university campus is the natural environment of the paternoster in this country emphasises its romantic appeal. It belongs to a moment of possibility in post-war Britain that was monumentalised by the blossoming of European Modernism across the country’s provincial cities. Leicester, Salford, Sheffield and Nottingham – a network of locations that itself sings of the lost future in which those cities might have required the latest and best buildings, in which Norwich might point the way for Kenneth Clarke and Newcastle become the Brasilia of the North. And so does it recall a more carefree period of life for those that remember it. The fact that such buildings might be worth bringing into being for students speaks of a lost conceptualisation of study, academia and of young adulthood.
The requiem for the ghost futures of Modernism has been well rehearsed. The dwindling pulse of the circulatory system of an earlier vision of higher education is its faint and mournful coda. The student protestors of ’68, rebels like the workers in Lang’s film, saw to that, in PR terms at least.
In truth, the causes behind the end of the great age of the paternoster were more mundane than riots. The central funding to expand tertiary education post-war had achieved its aims: with more than 100,000 at university, funding to higher education was halted. The Health and Safety in the Workplace Act of 1974 made the construction of new paternosters prohibitively risky for architects, builders and institutions who would bear the cost of any injuries sustained riding them. Manufacturers stopped producing parts. In Germany, the construction of new paternosters was prohibited and legislative attempts to close existing lifts have been resisted, though more than 200 survive. Accidents do happen: there is always that threat, of a trapped limb or a sensor that fails. In the UK surviving examples have been blocked up and cordoned off, despite campaigns to keep them open in Newcastle and Leicester. These were never wheelchair-accessible technologies; the idea of their democracy greater than its reality.
At Sheffield, the paternoster continues to rise and fall. Performers rode the cars in 2018 to play Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ for audiences on different floors. Repetition contains within itself transcendence. The paternoster has lodged itself in my imagination, to the extent that I’ve now written one into a novel. I yearn for the sensation of entering into that metaphysical chain, to ascend and descend. To step into a paternoster lift is to step into the circulatory system of a building, to become a part of its very structure.
Image © Andreas Dantz