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Book Review, Andreas Bernard, Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator

June 4, 2014

Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator (published February 14, 2014) is a fascinating look at the history of the elevator and how it transformed how Westerners conceived of vertical space, much like the railroad transformed horizontal space during the nineteenth century. The book begins with a discussion of how the story of Elisha Graves Otis’ demonstration of the safety catch on an elevator in 1854 became the starting point for the architectural history of the device, although Bernard points out that not only had freight elevators been around for years, it was the Otis Company’s domination of the elevator market that allowed them to write their own history, so to speak.

For the most part, because this book was originally written in German for a German audience, the history focuses primarily on the elevator in that country, but draws several interesting comparisons with other European nations and the United States. The Americans were, for the most part, early adopters of elevator technology and innovations. Bernard notes that this innovation came in the form of electric-powered elevators, steel frame construction that allowed for taller buildings, and safety features. Building design itself changed, moving the elevator to the very center of buildings, and leading to the construction of standardized floor design with clean and open corridors (Bernard finds that this “alignment” paralleled similar developments with street layouts during the mid-to-late nineteenth century). The elevator also performed an important cultural function, changing the value assigned to floors in a building (the upper floors used to be far less desirable, or were for staff).

And while I felt Bernard perhaps spent too much time on segues into the cultural history of spaces like “the garret” and on the elevator-as-confessional, Lifted is a readable and interesting account of how technology can alter both space and culture. (Also, I have one very minor quibble which is probably the result of a translation error: Parker Posey played Tom Hanks’ girlfriend, not his wife, in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.”)

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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