The Escherian Stairwell: Real or Fake?

Waffle cookies built to mimic an impossible set of penrose stairs

fermate / Getty Images


The term "Escherian" refers to the optical illusions characteristic of the works of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, whose prints and drawings often included impossible objects and paradoxical architectural features such as infinitely looped stairways (also known as Penrose stairs).

Real Life Penrose Stairs

  • Description: Viral video / Hoax
  • Circulating since:  April 30, 2013
  • Status: Fake
  • View full video on YouTube: The Escherian Stairwell

Text example:
As shared on Facebook, May 30, 2013:

Amazing Escherian Stairwell at R.I.T.
This Escherian Stairwell at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York has an endless staircase that has amazed students and baffled those who've tried to figure it out. These Penrose stairs, designed by a Filipino architect Rafael Nelson Aboganda, with a nod to M.C. Escher, is making everybody to scratch their brains out. What sorcery is this?

Text example:
As shared on Facebook, June 3, 2013:

Magic Stairwell
There are no video tricks going on here. These stairs baffle everyone who walks on them. Anybody know what's going on here?


Chand Baori Stepwell in village of Abhaneri
Diy13 / Getty Images

Michael Lacanilao, the Rochester Institute of Technology graduate student who made "The Escherian Stairwell," achieves optical illusion through the clever use of camera angles, editing, and special effects (credit is also due the actors, whose very convincing expressions of astonishment at the phenomenon they're pretending to experience help sell the illusion).

At first glance, the stair-climbing sequences may seem to have been shot in continuous takes, but in fact, the "magic" is to be found in carefully concealed cuts and edits. Separate shots were blended using split-screen effects, a botched example of which can be seen about 3:45 into the video, when the left arm of a young boy descending the stairs inexplicably vanishes for a half-a-second (a defect that was corrected in a re-edited version).

"Help Us Build the Myth"

Digital manipulation of the magnificent interiors of the Benedictine Monastery of “San Nicolò in Italy creates impossible architecture

Busà Photography / Getty Images

That the "Escherian Stairwell" video is a carefully planned and executed hoax, as admitted by its creator when soliciting funding for the project:

What's the project?
The most powerful aspects of myths are their ability to incite wonder and excitement. We're creating a myth that does these things while also challenging audiences to think.
The myth is that located in Rochester, NY, is the Escherian Stairwell, an architectural marvel that seems to violate the laws of physics and basic logic by looping back into itself. In order to lend credence to this myth, we're creating an episode for a family-friendly science show that demonstrates the staircase in action, various clips from a 1997 documentary with prominent thinkers grappling with the existence of this apparent contradiction and pontificating on its implications, and a whole slew of supplemental online materials for today's internet savvy audience to stumble across while trying to see if this thing is real (websites, scholarly articles, fan-pages, blogs, etc.). Help us build the myth!

The total amount pledged by donors ultimately fell far short of Lacanilao's proposed $12,000 budget, and many peripheral features of the project apparently had to be abandoned. Still, the video remains a stand-alone success which indeed invites wonder and excitement, and indeed challenges the viewing audience—if not to think, at least to Google.

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