Articles & Columns

Adventures Going Up and Down

Exploring the highs and lows of elevators that are increasingly ubiquitous and vital to modern life in France

By ROBERT SARNER, L’Express, Spring 1980*

PARIS — Meet the unsung, unlikely hero of modern urban civilization. Always on duty, it lifts our tired bodies up and down tall buildings. It transports heavy loads of merchandise and personal belongings. It saves us time and money. It brings people together, if only temporarily. It provides a refuge, albeit brief, from the noise and commotion outside. It’s non-polluting and usually reliable. It defies gravity and makes little noise. All this and yet most people take elevators for granted.

Whether you like them or not, elevators are here to stay. Such is their importance that if ever they were all to go on the blink, our lives would be seriously disrupted, much of our working and living space rendered near-inaccessible.

For most people in France, especially those in cities, the elevator is an integral part of their daily itinerary. Yet, despite our familiarity with them – there are 270,000 in France including 100,000 in the Paris region – most of us are not entirely at ease in elevators. People may seem nonchalant in elevators but behind their calm façade, apprehension often lingers. Unless you have the time, energy and inclination to climb stairs, you have little choice but to learn to live with them. Today, elevators are a fact of life, found everywhere. In office towers and apartment buildings, in department stores and hotels, in universities and hospitals, in subway stations and on cruise ships.   For better and worse, the modern look of cities around the world owes much to the elevator. Without it, the Paris skyline would be different. The Montparnasse Tower would be nothing more than a whimsical sketch on some crazy architect’s notepad. The La Defénse quarter wouldn’t exist. Nor the Eiffel Tower or the Front de Seine development. Nor the ghastly high rise apartment towers in the suburbs. If the elevator has helped facilitate modern life, it has also led to projects that would have been better left unbuilt.   Often, the interesting thing about elevators is not so much where they take you but what happens in – and around – them. On a recent Thursday morning, I visited the Montparnasse Tower, home to France’s greatest concentration of elevators under one roof.  At 8:55 a.m., a peak period for the building’s 27 elevators, there’s much activity on the main floor as an endless stream of office workers enter the lobby. Small delegations form in front the elevator entrances.   While waiting, many co-workers engage in small talk. Although the call button is clearly illuminated, several people, impatient and restless, feel compelled to press it themselves, as if that will bring an elevator sooner. After a minute or two, one finally arrives, depositing a load of people. Immediately, the talk diminishes as we march forward like cattle into an enclosed space we share briefly. The doors, like two huge steel jaws, close automatically behind us.   Words are few as we begin our ascent. Most people either stare ahead at the floor numbers above the doors or tilt their heads to study the tips of their shoes. There’s a vague sense of unease as people feel the acceleration in speed in their ears. Sealed in this windowless capsule, you’re aware of being cut off from the outside world. As our ‘cabin’ climbs a mysterious dark shaft filled with steel cables, our only solace is knowing the voyage is brief.   We rely on elevators, some of us quite reluctantly. Indeed, many people hate elevators, fearful of falling, suffocating, being crushed, stuck or even shooting off into the stars. Elevator phobia stems from a range of syndromes such as claustrophobia, acrophobia and agoraphobia (fear of being out in the open among people). Anxiety is rife within the four walls of elevators. In New York, elevator capital of the world, a psychiatrist runs a clinic for elevator-phobes who undergo an eight-week course to treat their fears.   To be sure, for many the elevator is a place to be entered with trepidation, if at all. For others, it’s simply a temporary passage, home to guarded conversations and nervous glances. A purgatory to collect one’s thoughts before reaching one’s destination. Whatever feelings the elevator evokes, it’s not a place where people linger – at least not deliberately.

Although the first elevators in France began appearing in Paris more than a century ago, most people had little regular contact with them until decades later. Whereas Venice grew along its canals and New York spiraled upward around dark elevator shafts, most of Paris until the 1960s evolved around the venerable six or seven-story staircase.

“For many years in France,” says Guy Wagner of the French Federation of Elevator Companies, “the elevator was an objet de luxe (a luxury item) found in few buildings. Now, of course, it’s simply a form of transportation.”

Manufacturers were only too happy to see the cachet de luxe dissipate as the building boom that began after World War II caused a proliferation of elevators.

“Until 30 or 35 years ago,” says Pierre Clément, head of public relations at Ascinter Otis, “buildings were only six or seven floors high and usually without elevators. So, compared to North America, the elevator here is still relatively recent. In France, people have evolved but when it comes to using elevators, their education isn’t complete. For example, many people are still afraid of elevators. Before they were a large majority that is now a small minority. Apart from claustrophobia, people fear the unknown. They’ve heard stories of someone who was trapped in an elevator during an electricity blackout.”

Of course, entering an elevator can prove easier than exiting. It’s estimated that an average of 20 people a day in Paris become trapped in elevators. That figure seems low given that in the Montparnasse Tower alone, one elevator a day gets stuck according to the building’s team of elevator maintenance workers I spoke with. Even the French Elevator Federation acknowledges a higher frequency, estimating that on average elevators stop working or get stuck between floors between four and six times a year. Officially, in 1978, more than 4,300 people had to be rescued from blocked elevators by firemen in the Paris area. The most celebrated case in recent years involved a cleaning lady in Lyon who was trapped for an entire weekend and had to wait for office workers to arrive on Monday morning to free her. (Otis is currently studying a battery system, which in the event of an electricity outage, would have enough power to ensure an elevator could reach its destination.)

The modern elevator – and thus the modern city – was born 126 years ago in New York thanks to the work of an enterprising local mechanic. As part of the World’s Fair, Elisha Otis demonstrated his invention to an amazed public. It was then known as the “safety elevator.” Three years later in 1857, the first permanent passenger elevator was installed in a five-story building in New York. Today, of course, there are millions in operation all over the world.

In France, like in most countries, Otis dominates the elevator industry. In all, four major companies – all subsidiaries of foreign firms – share most of the business. Ascinter-Otis (American) controls about 40% of the French market, Roux Combaluzier-Schindler (Swiss) has about 24%. The other two main companies are Soretex (German) and Koné (Finnish). In recent years, after decades of almost constant growth, the industry has tightened up due to the weakened economy and building slowdown. Still, elevators – their construction, installation and servicing – are big business.

Since its invention, the elevator has undergone a constant metamorphosis. Advances in technology and engineering have led to innovations in design, speed and safety. The original Otis had a capacity of 450 kilos and moved at a speed of 0.2 meters per second, powered, like all early models, by a steam engine. Traffic began accelerating with the appearance in 1880 of hydraulic elevators that ranged in speed from three to four meters per second. Reliability and capacity further improved 10 years later with the introduction of electric elevators in New York in 1890.

As the buildings they served grew taller, elevators became increasingly more sophisticated. Innovations were constant, some better received than others: push-button elevators, self-leveling elevators, elevators without attendants, high-rise observation elevators, double-deck elevators, elevators on the outside of buildings, etc. Coupled with advances in technology, more attention was devoted to décor. Today, no contemporary elevator is complete without music, carpeting, telephone, fluorescent lighting, fan, mirrors and an illuminated digital control panel. And, of course, you’ll reach your destination faster than ever – up to 10 meters per second.

Despite all the improvements, elevators – especially, the modern enclosed ones – bring out the anti-social side of most people. Once inside, we seem to reserve our most humorless, almost solemn faces for our co-passengers in elevators.

Dr. Daniel Cappon is a Canadian psychiatrist and professor of environmental studies in Toronto. He has made elevators his personal specialty, having conducted several studies in both Canada and the United States. According to Cappon, there’s a standard pattern to the way people occupy an elevator. Humans want to be in control of their environment, he explains. So, if the controls are on the left side of the elevator, the first occupant stands in front of them. The next person entering the cabin invariably stands on the right side, the third gravitates to the back on the left side and the fourth at the back on the right side. The middle is the most undesirable location and children are often relegated to it.

“People in elevators feel that their personal space is being invaded,” says Cappon. “As a result, and as a way to avert that invasion, they avoid direct eye contact with others.”

Elevators taboos are easy to test. Once you’re inside, simply face the rear, establish eye contact all around, talk loudly and stand right next to strangers even when there’s room to move over. Your fellow travelers will quickly recoil in horror.

If elevators evoke various phobias, they’re also fertile ground for erotic fantasies – and adventures. It may seem like an unlikely place for romance but the prospect of being stuck in an elevator with an appealing member of the opposite sex has long been part of elevator mythology. At the very least, stolen kisses and furtive caresses add a touch of intimacy to an otherwise impersonal environment. For the more adventurous, modern elevators provide an additional option – the “emergency stop” button – offering a particularly close encounter between floors.

You never know if your next ride on an elevator is courting anguish, triggered by any one of a range of unexpected snafus. Such as an elevator stopping above or below where it’s supposed to open. Doors that get stuck and refusing to budge. An alarm out of order just when you need to activate it for assistance. Likewise with phones malfunctioning or locked behind a metal panel. Illuminated buttons gone dark. Or strange, unsettling noises from an old elevator with a wrought iron sliding door. And then there’s the ultimate trauma of being stuck alone for hours in an heremtically sealed cabin suspended in mid-air in an unseen shaft.

Not surprisingly, industry spokesmen boast that elevators today have an impressive safety record, insisting they are the safest way of getting from one place to another. They say that contrary to the widely-held fear, it’s next to impossible for an elevator to fall. They cite the fact that in France, where elevators move 25 million people every day – 2½ times the total carried by the Paris subway – there are only an average of three deaths a year. In the United States, there are approximately 1,000 elevator injuries annually of which an average of 20 are fatal. Manufacturers argue that most accidents are caused by the victim through foolishness or abuse of equipment.

For all the supposed comforts of modern elevators, few people find them more inviting than their earlier versions. Indeed, now enclosed and without the once ubiquitous attendant, elevators have lost much of their original warmth and charm, becoming more sterile and anonymous in the process.

And yet, elevators are a refuge, albeit temporary, for some people. Amid the agitation of the urban jungle, a ride alone in a quiet elevator can offer a brief respite from the turbulence of one’s day.

“When you stop to consider,” an unnamed psychologist once told a New York newspaper, “there aren’t many times when you’re enclosed in a windowless space not much larger than you are. One such space is the womb, another is the tomb. In between, there’s the elevator.”

Paris Elevator Trivia • The oldest surviving elevator in Paris, dating back to 1902, can be found at 42ter rue Notre Dame des Champs in the sixth arrondissement. • The fastest elevator in Paris is located in the Tour Fiat in the la Défense quarter. It travels at 9 meters per second. • The last liftiers (elevator attendants) still operating in Paris are in the Bon Marché department store at 24 Rue de Sèvres in the seventh arrondissement.

* Formed the basis of subsequent article in French

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