Do you even lift?

A quick detour from my posts on Facebook to look at this endearing short film from 2001 called Lift (thanks to Jono). Each day over a two month period, filmmaker Mark Isaacs would ride a lift in a London apartment block for 10 hours at a time. What you see documented in the film above are his interactions with the building’s residents, and gradually, the reveal of a vertical community most of us overlook, or aren’t around long enough to connect the dots between.

At first people are rightly suspicious, and Isaacs starts noninvasively enough by asking questions like ‘what’s on your mind today?’, ‘what did you dream about last night?’. However this slowly escalates as the character of his questions become much more intimate, such as ‘have you ever been in love?’ and ‘what’s your favourite childhood memory?’. Over time the lift becomes a sort of confessional booth, and Isaacs its ordained priest.

Which is interesting because the lift is typically a space reserved for silence, a sort of vertiginous pressure cooker where vastly different people are brought into close quarters, sometimes juxtaposed against one another, and whose social interactions are played out intensely but only underneath protocols of silence born out of apathy, a respect for privacy, or the fear of public exposure, in a confined area which blurs the lines between personal and public space.

personal space invaders

In fact, this is one of the key reasons why we act the way we do in lifts. The unintentional invasion of our personal and peri-personal space (the space directly in front of us we can touch with our arms) puts us in a circumstance where we feel instinctively vulnerable. Our brain constantly monitors this peri-personal space, often processing it as a ghostly plastic extension of our body. When breached by a stranger, serotonin and norepinephrine – both neurotransmitters involved in managing the flight-or-fight response, stress and attention – are oozed into the bloodstream by a chain reaction occurring in the dorsal cortical networks stretching from the parietal to frontal lobe of the brain (see Pervic’s The Neurophysiology of 3D Space for more detail). Subsequently, any action which would be social and nonthreatening given a greater distance is suddenly perceived more aggressively, simply because of the proximity of that person to us and their arm’s reach.

Besides putting our guard up, psychologist Robert Sommer suggests another strategy which arises from this process (as the higher brain stifles the threat instinct and responds more appropriately) is to simply dehumanise the intruder, perceiving them only as a mechanical object, not a person. Either way, the net result is that we stand still and stay silent to subconsciously play down the breach.

There are other things which reinforce this behaviour. Lack of visual stimuli discourages conversation, as does the stereotype of what to expect in an elevator. Additionally, the short nature of the trip inclines us to remain reticent, but ironically the amount of time spent in a lift is actually ideal for quick chit-chat, hence why a 30 second spiel of your resume is called an ‘elevator pitch‘. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, most of the time this social opportunity is squandered in favour of silence.

As unnatural but automatic as that silence feels when it imposes itself on us in a peopled lift, breaking it is liberating, as Isaacs’ film demonstrates. When broken, it makes it possible to reread the quasi-privacy of the space in a way which is less introspective and more intersubjective.

I can attest to this too. I’ll always remember being in a lift once, packed like sardines, everyone silent. The lift stopped at a floor and the doors quickly sprung open to reveal a couple of people waiting to get on. But they couldn’t. There was no room. And so they stood there, looking in at the wall of people presented to them, their mouths partially gaped, almost in horror that they’d reached an impasse.

The doors slowly squeaked shut, and then not a second afterward shot open again. The same people had pressed the button before the lift had registered its departure from the floor. Again, no one got on, no one got off – two groups of people stared silently at one another, and again, after another 5 second stalemate, the doors slowly, slowly, squeaked shut once more, closing in on the dumbfounded would-be-boarders’ faces.

The absurdity of the scene triggered something in me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I burst out laughing, then quickly contained myself, then struggled to hold it back (try watching this without doing the same). Some people in the lift glared in my direction trenchantly and wild-eyed. But then as I continued futilely to muffle my snickers in the otherwise silent lift, something happened. Other people joined in. You could see their lips purse and contort into smiles, then you could hear rushes of nosed air violently released like air brakes, followed by quiet laughing and shuddering shoulders.

The whole lift became instantly less suffocating and together we unlocked each other’s behavioural straitjackets. By the fourteenth floor, where I was getting off, most of the lift was in stitches.

Perhaps it’s for moments like this that designers and architects of built and urban environments are increasingly looking at ways to break silences, or currently asocial situations, by inclining them toward pro-social conditions. Social Stairs (above) is a 2012 project by Nupky’s Nadine van Amersvort and co, inspired by a similar experiment done in 2009 under a Volkswagen initiative called The Fun Theory. If you’re into this stuff, I recommend checking out some of the quirky ideas on that site, as well as this version of pedestrian PONG

That said, a big drawback of these sorts of interventions is that most of the time they’re impractical, or are best suited for short bursts. For the rest of the time, there are other, more subtle approaches. Take for example the famed Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry who’s been contracted to design a building in my neck of the woods which encourages people to literally ‘bump into each other’ by making select stairwells and corridors tighter than usual (you can listen to the full interview here). In a similar vein, Pixar Disney’s Ed Catmull comments on the design of their Silicon Valley headquarters as follows:

Most buildings are designed for some technical purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters. At the center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms and mailboxes. As a result everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of a workday.” 

Read more about the design of Pixar’s studios here.

It’s undeniable in discourse that certain social aspects of our modern lives are either deliberately or unintentionally stifled, and the lift is just one case study in a sea of silences. What these confronting, seemingly awkward silences are a symptom of is another question, and a very complex one at that. That’s part of the mission of this blog to dispel, but by far, the most effective remedy would require a change in our perception to be more attentive and responsive to opportunities for connection and community, especially in unexpected spaces.


That’s not for everyone though; for now, there are people looking for creative ways around the social limitations imposed on us by the architecture of last century, and succeeding. So let’s get the ball rolling ourselves, what moments have you had which break the silence and how could we build these moments into our everyday interactions?

More specifically, what ways can you think up to overcome the interactive vertigo we’re clouded by in the lift? How can they be made less edgy and awkward, more calming and socially refreshing? Comment to your heart’s content.

As always thanks for reading. Second part of the Facebook posts coming in a week.