notes on an inclined plane

A ramp is a machine.



It might seem counterintuitive—it doesn’t even move, after all—but its very structure affords an operative effect of force, allowing you to elevate and transfer an object you can’t lift with brute strength. It’s an elegance of physics.

In mechanical engineering, a ramp is an inclined plane, a flat surface that sits at an angle for raising and lowering a load. The inclined plane joins the pulley, the wheel-and-axle, the lever, the wedge, and the screw to create the historical pantheon of simple machines; they’re the core structures that give mechanical advantage. They transform energy, which is why they’re the building blocks of compound machines, of all sophisticated engineering.

galileo simple machines galileo simple machines jpg

[image via]

Ramps in architecture precede the codification of simple machines, of course. They’re thought to have been used in China prior to recorded history, and they’re the best explanation for otherwise inconceivable engineering feats (think the pyramids at Giza, Macchu Picchu). Their practical use as leverage has long been understood.

In the rocky desert of Masada, Israel, an ancient mountain-top fortress is only reachable (and would have been built using) a long, winding ramp.

[A side view of the long ramp leading to the mountaintop fortress at Masada, Israel.]

But the inclined plane, as a static form, wasn’t included in classical mechanics (Archimedes and, later, Heron). Other machines appeared to set objects in motion, to create energy—think of the seemingly magic work of a lever. But the ancients only understood statics: the balance of forces at play with these tools when their properties or motion were constant. So the ramp was useful, commonplace, but an enigma.

Not until the Renaissance were simple machines understood for their distinct and describable mechanics. Building on Flemish scientist Simon Stevin‘s work identifying the true dynamics of the inclined plane, Galileo was the first to show each of these six machines—now including the inclined plane—don’t generate force; they alter it according to measurable relationships.

Ultimately, Galileo’s classification theory linked these machine elements together to show how they each make work easier. And by making work easier in quantifiable ways, these tools could accelerate and lighten the load of human productive tasks.

This merging of technoscience and early market structures would change labor forever, of course. The ubiquity of simple machines is now so complete that they’ve become familiar, and therefore invisible:


[top image.]

But the simplicity of these machines is beguiling: together they make a poetic alphabet, or a grammar of force in the environment. Combined in infinitely complex ways, they form the evolving language of machinery everywhere.

And the inclined plane is more beguiling still. It’s ubiquitous—ubiquitous and strange. We move across it, but it also moves us. An ease of ascension to another height, an alternate vantage.


[Coastal viewing platform/ramp on the island of Senja, Norway. image via]

Moreover, the particularly ubiquity of the inclined plane also obscures its political reach: the contemporary ramped environment. Curb cuts, ramped entrances, sloping cement.


These physics make a built world more accessible to more bodies and the things they carry.

In places where the ramped environment creates seamless movement for people and wheels in all forms, they’re now taken for granted. But the legally-mandated infrastructure they represent is historically radical. On a global scale, ramps are more typically built by communities in an informal way. This project is a search for ramps of all kinds, but especially those outside the grid—built by the local communities who use them.

Ramps as infrastructure and the civil rights policies they embody are chronicled here too; but this project primarily seeks out places where ramp access—of all kinds, in multiple contexts—now stands in for the absence of guaranteed rights, or where infrastructure has thus far been elusive. I want to see how ramps take shape in the megacities of the world, in informal settlements, in difficult terrain of all sorts, and in places where you’d least expect them.


Ramps as useful architecture; as political, economic, social access and mobility; as elevations of all kinds, made visible — Slope : Intercept collects and creates design research where the questions are paramount. Not only: What is already being done? But what else might be done? When design research takes on tactical strategies, what other conversations can emerge?

Top two images: [Cornelia Oberstrander’s “stramp” in Robson Square, Vancouver], image via and unknown ramp, image via.

**I owe big thanks to Matthew Battles, a true polymath, for some key suggestions along the way about the inclined plane.