Why are wonky steps on the Great Wall of China ?

Posted: 29 May 2021

I love buildings, I’m fascinated by them and the people and stories that make up a building. I’m lucky enough to have travelled to quite a few places where I’ve visited and experienced some really interesting buildings in my opinion. One building worth a mention is the Great Wall of China that I visited in 2012. Technically, on one hand it’s not really a building, it’s a huge wall but on another hand, it is definitely a building or collection of buildings. The wall is located in northern China running west-to-east and is approximately 13, 171 miles long ! That’s one big wall. The wall was started in the Qin Dynasty [221-206 BC] and although upgraded, extended and adjusted over hundreds of years it is still standing today. The main purpose of the wall was to act as a barrier to enemies. In 1987 the wall was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, why are there wonky steps on the Great Wall of China ?

There are a lot of stairs on the wall that follow the profile of the land that the wall is built on. While walking along the wall I noticed the steps are generally uneven, some steps slope side to side, some have different risers [vertical bits], and some have different goings [horizontal foot treads bits]. This made it really hard to walk and focus on the surroundings until I got to a flat bit. I thought that was really bad design as it made it dangerous and difficult to navigate, these definitely don’t comply with the latest stair regs!

However, only upon asking locals [who spoke English] it became clear the steps were actually designed and built this way on purpose. Reason being that if invading enemies managed to make it onto the wall the uneven steps would make them harder to walk on, they would be off balance and they had to look down to work out where to place their next foot. This meant they couldn’t look up or focus on their surroundings which gave the soldiers protecting the wall a superior advantage without having to do much themselves.

This made me understand more fully that small changes to a building design can have a big effect on the building users. Well thought through, good designs can make the user experience so much more pleasant and the building easy to use; this can also affect the mood and concentration of people if going deeper. This is how we try to approach our building designs.

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