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2017 Advent Calendar of Fascinating Websites – Day 15 – Escherian Stairwell


Ascending Descending by M.C.EscherWhen I think of Escher, it is the impossible artworks that spring to mind first. The first artwork I ever saw by him was “Ascending and Descending” and it remains one of my favourite optical illusions today. I imagine those monks walking round and round in a neverending stairwell of meditative tranquility – or nightmare depending on how you dream it.  Escher’s impossible works can be seen on the official Escher website http://www.mcescher.com/ 


Penrose TriangleThe impossible staircase is also known as the Penrose Staircase. Seen in our header video by icklepix.com it shows a staircase where a man is ever ascending. In 1954, mathematical physicist Roger Penrose was introduced to Escher’s “impossible” works at a conference in Amsterdam.

Inspired by Escher, Roger and his father Lionel created the Penrose triangle – an optical illusion of their own – and variants, including the Penrose staircase – a two-dimensional depiction of a staircase where the stairs make four 90-degree turns but form a continuous loop.

Following publication of their work in 1958, they sent a copy of the article to Escher, in acknowledgement of his inspiration. He in turn was inspired by the sketch of the Penrose staircase. In a letter to the Penroses in 1960 he wrote “Your figures 3 and 4, the ‘continuous flight of steps’, were entirely new to me, and I was so taken by the idea that they recently inspired me to produce a new picture”; that picture was “Ascending and Descending”.

The impossible staircase has inspired many people since then. It appears as part of a series of Lego creations of Escher’s works by Andrew Lipson http://www.andrewlipson.com/escher/ascending.html and this video looks at the creation of the Penrose staircase for the film Inception.


Lego Ascending Descending by Andrew Lipson


At the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, they have gone one stage further and built a working staircase. “The Escherian Stairwell”, uses unusual geometry and optical illusions to trick those walking on it into believing that they are walking up and down a continuous flight of stairs, while in reality bending back around and in on itself. Designed in 1968 by Filipino architect Rafael Nelson Aboganda, based on the drawings of M.C. Escher, he wanted to create a “memorable and inspiring experience” for future students of the university.

Or Did He? Look away now if you don’t want to know the answer!

The Escherian Stairwell is, of course, a myth – a great and fun exercise in how to create a myth in modern society with modern technology, which went viral in 2013. Find out more about why and how they did it in this video by Michael Lacanilao


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