Could post-pandemic distancing bring back the paternoster? No, I’m not talking about the Lord’s Prayer.
One of the (many) daily parts of our lives that may be upended is the elevator because, unless we’re talking about museum freight elevators – or the one in the Starrett Lehigh building that allowed trucks to directly deliver to each floor – it’s pretty much impossible to maintain social distancing in a typical closet-sized elevator. So, we may have to be riding solo.
The paternoster elevator solves this problem by only being large enough to hold one person. Paternosters are a type of elevator that, unlike the Otis elevator system that we are all familiar with, involves a continuous belt with side-by-side shelf-like platforms running up on one side and down on the adjacent side. Sort of a vertical conveyor belt for people. Passengers step onto a small moving platform going up or down, depending on the side, and then step off again as the platform approaches the desired floor. The really interesting, or scary depending on your point of view, part is that there are no doors, you just step on and off, timing it to the continuous movement of the platform. If you were especially brave – I say especially because you had to be a bit brave to use them in the first place – you could ride the platform as it reached the top, ran sideways for a few feet and then started downward.
Of course, there are some safety issues to be considered. Specifically, the fact that they’re unsafe. They were fairly common throughout Europe but are now banned. Everywhere, that is, beside Germany where for some reason they are revered. I rode one once and, yeah, they’re pretty cool. (And I survived.)
Why, you may well ask, is this called a paternoster? The Latin origin means “our father.” One definition of the term, in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, refers to “a muttered prayer or incantation.” One can only assume that riding one requires a crossed-fingers type of tempered fearlessness.
Here’s a working paternoster in Alvar Aalto’s National Pensions Building in Finland
The platforms are just large enough for one or maybe two people: just what we could use for social distancing. Could they be redesigned to be safe from both viruses and gravity? Perhaps, though it’s hard to imagine a redesign that also satisfies ADA requirements and even harder to think of installing one in a litigious society. But tough times demand inventive, maybe even risky, solutions. Just maybe not this one.