Architecture of American fire escapes

admin June 22, 2018

Revisiting varying levels for architecture that create captivating results


Fire escapes have been an integral part of American society for a long time. Though most of the earlier ones were added as an afterthought and considered external solutions to offer people safe exits, many believe they have lost their glory days and are now just white elephants of the urban cityscape. But a closer look at these structures’ architecture would have a lot to tell anyone who cares to listen. They are truly America’s Gargoyles.


In the early days of their existence, fire escapes did not serve a design purpose, but a function added to the building by the owners after occupancy. Some were added new, only because of increasing requirements by the local codes. They were, however, there in case of emergencies. They do depict a type of architectural accouterment that makes them multifunctional elements. Seen from either above or below, fire escapes offer an intricate loop of stairs.

While across the road or from another building, they are like zigzags connecting several segments of a structure. And depending on the time of day, they cast exceptional shadows against the stucco, brick or stone walls they are attached to. What started out as a governmental Band-Aid (to safeguard lives with an external solution), the fire escape has become a quintessential form in the American urban environment, whether it is safe or not. Mostly because we have aggrandized them to that station in our collective consciousness about their silent existence.


In The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, the fire escape stands for the symbol of an escape from the fires of rage and frustration burning in the hearts of Williams’s personages. It also acts as a path of exit for the father, and finally, Tom.

The fire escape also helps shed light on the play’s various characters’ personalities. Whether they use it as an entrance more than exit or spend a lot of time on the fire escape brings their personalities and even some of their trapped emotions to the forefront. This makes them analogous to humans as they have the quiet soul of the introverted hero complex superhero.


Architecture started addressing pluralism from the early 20th century when the philosopher-statesman like Jefferson and Madison began facilitating individuality in infinite variation as opposed to the collective. The belief of the existence of multiplicities and that infinite influences create infinite differences in beings affected architecture as well.

No wonder fire escape designs and architecture, too, started depicting variation in styles, while focusing more on the end user’s benefits. Architecture as the high art is inhabited sculpture and must sustain functional safety as well as aesthetic beauty, the pinnacle double functioning element.

The digital turn in different levels for architecture has been affected significantly by pluralism. While some architects have started designing along the lines of pluralism and even achieved success in their quest for differentiation, some others have returned to the rigid architectural designs of non-significance.

With the technology of 3-D data manipulation available these days, those who have transitioned to the digital age successfully can now play with various elements to create their own designs and check various aspects virtually before implementing the project in real life. There is a movement in Building Intelligent Modeling, or BIM, that involves 2D, 3D, 4D, 5D, and 6D.

We know the X and the Y and then Z, but the 4D is moving the 3D over time rated information as in animations or construction sequence photo documentation. 5D is the addition of construction management and cost reporting data in the A/E industry. 6D relates to facility management after design. In today’s sophisticated design process, a proposal to use the fire escape, (if allowed by code), might be value engineered out due to life-cycle cost estimates. These types of costing exercises consider the maintenance cost over time as a factor to the overall cost which includes initial construction dollars.

Not only has our country expanded pluralism and tolerance, we have expanded our concept of architectural pluralism by using ever more technologically sophisticated processes.

What do you think of shadows, symbolism, and pluralism in American architecture? Let me know in the comments section below. You can also connect with me on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads. Don’t forget to check my book The Fire Escape.



Olko, Aaron. “Pluralism in Architecture.” Fall 2012.

MWestwood. “What is the symbolism of the fire escape? The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.” Homework Help. Accessed April 9, 2018.

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Peter J. Lagomarsino

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Peter J. Lagomarsino is the author of Confessions in a Crown Vic where he discussed the last century’s development and offered his take on the “American Dream.” He’s the creative dire . . . read more

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