The Staircase has existed since the dawn of time for one very specific purpose; to surmount gaps between different levels. For a long time staircases did nothing more than fulfil this aim and so their form was directly determined by their location. But new functions emerged as different civilisations evolved and the specific requirements of certain types of buildings started to influence the form of staircases.
However, the form of the staircase is not dependent on different historical styles – their influence barely extends beyond the decorative elements – but it does often embody a set of values or an aspiration towards technical perfection. These concepts became one of the driving forces behind the architectural and estetic evolution of the staircase and gave rise to extraordinary works of art in evrey culture, without ever forsaking the staircase's primary purpose of connecting different levels.
When it came to displaying status, the selection of materials was just as important as the function, as a staircase's cost or technical sophistication symbolised not only the wealth of the person responsible for its construction, but also his social and intellectual standing.
A more rational use of building materials – often used in combination – gave rise to a new formal diversity. Staircases lost their rigidity with the arrival of spiraled silhouettes, decorative forms and curves, but textures, lighting and the distriubtion of space all have a role to play as well.
It could be said that the staircase has been de-materalised in order to preserve its basic character, its essential lines and its innate function – that of going up and down – although the imagination has sometimes managed to dream up impossible staircases, such as those of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.