The Oldest Building in Architectural History

Stairs are the oldest forms of construction in architectural history.

You can put it down simply to re-invention or the process of adaptation, but throughout various millennia, stairs have certainly demonstrated a remarkable ability to move with the times.

As one of the oldest forms of construction in architectural history, the stairs have outlasted just about every era – testament to both their importance in terms of human evolution and the talents of those who’ve designed and lovingly crafted them.

Exactly when the first set of stairs was actually made is open to debate. But one thing’s for sure – it was a long time ago – probably around 6000 BC. 

As with the vast majority of inventions, they first emerged as a solution to a problem. The earliest versions were wood trunks fitted together, primarily to help overcome the challenges presented by mountain or valley terrains, but they also helped our ancestors acquire strategic, elevated positions for survival. Whether you had stairs or not could literally be a matter of life or death. 

The first granite staircase was discovered in China, leading to the sacred mountain of Tai Shan. Here, stairs were used for religious purposes, as in other examples such as Jacob’s biblical ladder, the Tower of Babel and the Egyptian pyramids. What they all had in common is that they symbolised the rising light of the sun and the path to the gods. 

Later, spiral stairs came into use, especially for military purposes in castles. Castles were seen as impregnable fortresses and stairs with railings played their part, as sword-wielding soldiers were able to attack and repulse invaders from beneath.   

Putting armed combat to one side, by the early 17th century, spiral staircases were popular in smaller houses – to optimise space – but thereafter, straight flights were increasingly used with the introduction of turned balusters and finials to newel posts.

The end of the 19th century was seen as the halcyon period for stairs. Peter Nicholson, the Scottish architect, mathematician and engineer, developed a mathematical system for stairs and railings. He considered the making of stairs to be an act of precision akin to craftsmen working with wood and metal.

But then fast forward to the 1980s and the Czech born architect and designer, Eva Jiricna. She took their design to a futuristic new level, working in glass and stainless steel. For further information see:

Incidentally, the world’s longest stairway is the 11,674 step service stairway for the Niesenbahn funicular railway near Spiez, Switzerland, rising to a height of 5476 feet. They are open to the public once a year if you fancied an attempt! 

Indeed, what exactly would be a ‘step too far’ for a stair? It’s fascinating to think what innovation and technologies lie in wait to take this bastion of historical architecture onto the next rung of its ever-evolving journey.

At JLA, we have a special affinity with staircases – we just love building them. So if you are looking for ideas for creating a bespoke staircase for your home, check out

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