Constructive Diagonals: Ramps in Architecture
No more than 6 % gradient, and an intermediate landing every 6 m: according to DIN 18 040-1, this is how a ramp should look. Other countries have similar design specifications for wheelchair-accessible inclines. But accessibility in its modern sense is just one of many reasons that architects build ramps. Inclined planes can also function as recreational areas and places to enjoy a stroll. They enhance our physical experience of space, can act as organizing principles for entire buildings and are a proven method of topographically shaping rooftop landscapes.
Historically seen, ramps serve first and foremost as a means of transportation. They appear in all places where loads, or people, can no longer be moved upwards via the significantly more space-efficient means of stairs. All the same, ramps did not become a mass phenomenon in architecture until the beginning of the automobile era. Indeed, the first multi-storey garages with ramp access date back to the 1910s - just a few years after Henry Ford introduced serial production of cars in the USA.
Starting with the multi-storey garage, the ramp conquered many other building typologies in the 20th century. To a large extent, it was three built models that paved the way for this shift: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy from 1932, Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo from 1934, and of course Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was built in 1957.
Over the past few decades, the ramp has increasingly become a design feature of publicly accessible, topographically shaped roofscapes. Pioneering buildings include James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart from 1984 and the ferry terminal in Yokohama, which was designed by Foreign Office Architects and completed in 2002. In addition, the Oslo opera house by Snøhetta features a white-marble roof landscape measuring 18,000 m².
More than any other studio, it is Bjarke Ingels’ BIG architecture office that has made the inclined urban space into a trademark of its work. From BIG’s earlier design submissions for competitions to the recently presented plans for the new Google headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, walkable (and sloping) rooftops play a main role. Le Corbusier’s tradition of the promenade architecturale lives on in BIG’s diverse, often surprising designs. This demonstrates the artistic potential in inclined planes, even for today’s architects, whether they are intended for bicycles, wheelchairs, pedestrians or penguins.