Most Beautiful Floors

The Ledge, Willis Tower, Chicago

Glass floors are rarely less than exciting. Will they bear your weight? Might they trigger vertigo? Here’s one way of finding out, The Ledge, a pair of retractable glass pods projecting from the 103rd floor of Chicago’s Willis Tower, the second tallest building in the western hemisphere. Designed by the 1973 skyscraper’s original architects – SOM (Skidmore Owings Merrill) – the rectangular pods are clad all around in three layers of half-inch glass bonded together. They may be safe and yet it still takes some visitors real courage to step into what appears to be thin air so very high above the Chicago River. Views across four states and down below to city streets make this leap of faith more than worthwhile.

Mayakovskaya Metro station, Moscow
Is this a glimpse of the Soviet workers’ paradise that never was? Possibly. This is, in fact, one of the most striking of the elaborate Moscow Metro stations built in the 1930s. Designed by Alexey Dushkin and opened in 1938, Mayakovskaya station served as a far from Spartan air-raid shelter during World War Two. It was also a command post for anti-aircraft guns and an assembly hall for speeches by Stalin. It is strange to think, in the thick of modern commuting, that the Russian dictator once strode along Dushkin’s floor, an immaculate geometric composition 33-metres below ground, realised in four shades of granite and marble and crowned with decorative panels depicting the Soviet Union’s mastery of the sky.

30 Rockefeller Plaza,
New York
The gleaming, low-lit and highly polished lobby of the RCA Building is an Art Deco masterpiece in its own right. The rest of this 850ft (260m) skyscraper designed by Raymond Hood as the centrepiece of the mountainous and hugely memorable Rockefeller Center is pretty impressive, too. Built in 1933 as the head office of the Radio Corporation of America and now home to NBC television and broadcasting, “30 Rock” is, in part, open to the public who share the walk along this cinematic floor, all black and beige geometry shining ebony and gold under subtle lighting. Here is one of those walks, and one of those Manhattan towers, rushed up in the Great Depression that lifted spirits then as now.

Siena Cathedral
For John Ruskin, the influential Victorian critic so fond of Venetian Gothic, Siena’s black and white 13th Century cathedral was in “every way absurd”, an “over-cut, overstriped piece of costly confectionery and faithless vanity”. The cathedral’s design is certainly a matter of taste, although perhaps its finest moment – its floor – is concealed from view for most of the year. This great carpet of inlaid marble, created by generations of artists and artisans largely between the 14th and 16th Centuries is a gallery of art looked down on rather than walked through. Seen as a whole it tells the story, in many styles, complex geometries and artistic deviations, of sacrifice and salvation. Stunning.

La Galleria Grande, Palazzo Venaria, Turin
Here is the perfect 18th Century chequerboard floor. Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Some while after Napoleon Bonaparte marched into Turin in 1800, this grand floor was uplifted and moved to the city’s Galleria Beaumont, since 1837, the Royal Armoury. What you see today is a 1995 replica of the original floor designed by Michelangelo Garove, architect to the House of Savoy, for the Palazzo Venaria, a palatial hunting lodge completed by Filippo Juvarra on the fringe of Turin. The Grand Gallery – 15 metres high and 80 metres long – once connected the apartments of king and crown prince. A barracks until 1978, the palace is now a museum, its gallery and chequerboard floor a favourite for advertising and publicity shoots.

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Igreja de São Roque, Lisbon
This glorious mid 18th Century Rococo confection designed by the Roman architects Nicola Salvi and Luigi Vanvitelli, was funded by rich seams of gold shipped to Lisbon from Brazil. The church itself had begun life almost modestly in the 16th Century as the first Portuguese headquarters of the Jesuits. By the time the Jesuits were expelled in 1759, it had become an architectural jewel box verging on kitsch. And, yet, such sumptuous elements as the chapel’s mosaic floor crafted by a team led by Enrigo Enuo, to a design by the German painter Ignazio Stern and depicting an armillary sphere – the national symbol of Portugal during its Age of Discovery – continue to delight even as they dazzle the eye.

Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku
Where does a floor end and a wall or ceiling begin? In the voluptuous interiors of the Heydar Aliyev Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects opened in 2012, it can be hard to say. Here is a building designed in one continuous fluid movement. From the plaza it unfurls from, it feels as if it is the work not so much of an architect-sculptor, as Hadid was, as a calligrapher writing in concrete and glass. Of mosques, Hadid wrote: “Continuous calligraphic and ornamental patterns flow from carpets to walls, walls to ceilings, ceilings to domes establishing a seamless relationship and blurring distinctions between architectural elements and the ground they inhabit.” In this same thought, she was describing the Heydar Aliyev Centre.

Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral
Uncovered on Fridays in summer and on the summer solstice, this mesmerising labyrinth, set in contrasting stones and encircled with a halo of Gothic cusps and foils under the crossing of Chartres Cathedral, has intrigued and baffled visitors and worshippers for nearly 800 years. With a diameter of 42.3ft (12.9m), its serpentine path – along some 270 stones – measures 860ft (262m). A copper plate at its centre, removed in 1792 during the French Revolution, depicted Theseus and the Minotaur at the dark heart of the mythical Greek labyrinth. Quite what this puzzle meant to medieval clergy, no one seems quite sure, yet lit up by the solstice sun or by candlelight, it is a magical, haunting and beautiful thing.

Courtyard, Great Mosque of Aleppo
In April 2013, the 11th Century minaret of this venerable mosque was destroyed, a victim of the Syrian civil war. In December 2016, further attacks reduced more of the mosque, founded in 715AD, to rubble. Scarred, the magnificent floor of its arcaded courtyard survives. How many feet have walked across it over the centuries? A carpet of stone laid out in geometric patterns interrupted by a sundial and what are now bullet-riddled fountains, it paves the way to a complexity of interior spaces around the courtyard among them the shrine of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Beneath this historic floor are memories of a Greek agora and the garden of a Byzantine cathedral dedicated to St Helena.

House of the Faun, Pompeii
Like many Ancient Roman houses, the House of the Faun was plain – almost anonymous – when seen from the street, yet magnificent within. Dating from the Second Century BC, it occupied an entire city block. When Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, mosaics adorning walls and floors were smothered in volcanic ash that hid and protected them. This stunning sea-life mosaic depicting an enchantment of dogfish, sea bream, rays and a lobster in the clutches of an octopus was excavated in 1830. On the way to the kitchen, it was a reminder of the wealth of seafood to he had in the Bay of Naples. Too precious to walk on today, it can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

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