Sunday 17 November 2019


The Architest Puzzle.
Despite having been off work this week, almost no puzzling has been achieved! Sob! She keeps making me do DIY! This time it was the main bathroom - aka "hers". It needed de-grouting, re-grouting and then silicone sealing plus other numerous household things that never get done except when I am off work! Hours of puzzling...NONE! The PuzzleMad foreign correspondent didn't know how much I would need him yet as always he came to my rescue at the end of last week with yet another wonderful guest post. He always seems to pick puzzles that I wouldn't choose for myself or have not managed to solve and produces something wonderful to keep you entertained for yet another week. I am most grateful to Mike Desilets for yet another fascinating post...

Aloha Kākou Puzzlers,

As you may have noticed, my recent series of guest posts have leaned rather heavily on Hanayama releases. Although this is great for driving up the page hits, its probably time we returned to the lesser-known, out-of-production puzzles that I also love. If your sources of puzzle information are restricted to the major blogs and YouTube, then you may be under the mistaken impression that all cool, creative, and desirable puzzles have been made by high-end craftspersons in the last few decades. That just isn't so. There is a much bigger puzzle world out there to be explored. I can’t remotely do it justice, but some of my past posts should at least give a hint at what is available.  (Ed - and I am extremely grateful to you for broadening my horizons!)

We won’t actually be going very far back in time today, as it happens. Sorry if I got you all worked up. Today we will look at a puzzle from the late 1980s - Architest, The Spiral Stair Puzzle.

The cover.
And contents.
Architest is the invention of architect Tim Leefeldt who registered a trademark for the name in 1987.  It appears the trademark has since expired. If you Google “Architest”, the vast majority of your hits will be for a modern edition of the classic six nail stacking puzzle, currently sold under that name.

The new Architest puzzle - not reviewed here.
Judging from the packaging language, Mr Leefeldt intended Architest to be a series of architectural puzzles, of which The Spiral Stair Puzzle was the first. I’ve looked around quite a bit and unfortunately can find no other Architest puzzles from Leefeldt. Rob Stegman’s compendious site contains only the Spiral Stair Puzzle, which is a strong indicator that there are no other Architests.

The objective of The Spiral Stair Puzzle is stated succinctly on the box: “Construct a spiral stair of radial blocks around the post.” Very straightforward (Ed - I'm not so convinced!). The completed helical stairway will have 14 courses, each of which is comprised of three quarter-circle blocks. The challenge is to overcome the sagging and deflection that will occur if the blocks are improperly placed. The miniature edifice is meant to be a running series of cantilevers. and it is thus critical to form tight, properly supported running bonds. In order to build the stairway, it is (ostensibly) necessary to utilize a “key block” which fits into a slot about midway up the centre post, better known to architects as a newel post. Utilizing the key block properly is the crux of the puzzle - that and choosing a proper cantilever between the courses. 

It is not especially difficult to get the stacking correct. The average puzzler will need no more than about three tries. It is a very pleasant experience though. This is one of those puzzles where the difficulty is not the main point. Rather, it is to learn (by doing) about form, force, and structure. The puzzle aspect comes into play because, like all puzzles, there are a limited number of ways to achieve the solved state and a much larger number of ways that will result only in catastrophic failure. 

The spiral stair built;
Architest passed.
Architest is a fairly unique puzzle and I have not come across anything quite like it in my puzzle journey (Ed - me neither). As the name suggests, it is an “architectural” puzzle, which might put it in the stacking/balancing category. Master puzzle collector and compiler Rob Stegman slots it into the dexterity category, but even he would probably admit that this is a bit of a kludge.

Dexterity is not essential for solving the puzzle, its mostly just basic physical manipulation (stacking). I think it could just as easily be called a “put-together” puzzle, with gravity telling you when you have not done that properly. But I am not huge on classification (Ed - I am absolutely fascinated by it and visit Rob's site frequently). I probably would be more so if I had to keep track of thousands of puzzles like a real collector (Ed - Don't say that! Whack! Ouch! Too late!). But that’s not a problem for me presently (YET.....).
The cantilevered side really seems to levitate.
Close-up. It needs a lego person for scale.
Once you have built your beautiful spiral, there remain other interesting challenges. These puzzling opportunities, not included in the instructions, greatly enhance the value of this puzzle. The first and most obvious question is, can the stair be built without the newel post? This means the loss of the critical mid-post support wedge, incidentally. Since I made up this challenge, and since 99% of you will not ever have a copy of The Spiral Stair Puzzle, I feel at liberty to dispense spoilers. If you intend to hunt down a copy, then perhaps reconsider continuing with this post.

(Ed - I have inserted a few lines of a gap here - don't scroll down if you don't want any spoilers)

My first attempt at a three-block, self-supporting spiral came apart at the seam
Excessive deflection due to weak running bond. This stairway is a deathtrap.

It can be done—the free-standing spiral stair with 14 courses.
Dexterity comes into play for this challenge, a steady hand at the very least.
The answer is yes, it can be done, but definitely not with the same cantilever used in the main solution. The steps must be quite a bit narrower so as to increase the vertical downforce and prevent lateral sagging. This, however, means that you have increasingly weaker bonds since there is less overlap between courses. So it is a tricky trade-off, but one that can work for the 14 courses available. It is extremely unstable at the last course and I think 14 may be the limit. Other Architests can be conducted, such as trying to build the tallest possible single and double block spirals. The following images show how far I was able to get: 8 courses for single and 12 for double. Decreasing the step length might allow one to squeeze on another course. At this point, however, although it would be a spiral, it would not make a reasonable stairway.

Single block spiral. Watch your step.
Two block spiral. Significantly higher, but still perilous.
The Architest Spiral Stair Puzzle is a very enjoyable diversion. If you are lucky enough to come across a copy, I recommend snapping it up. It will give you an hour or two of stimulating play and may just expand your architectural horizons. As a bonus, you will probably end up spending hours looking at images of spiral staircases online. Many are so strikingly beautiful they will bring a tear to your eye (even your jaded sleepless eye, boss) SOB! I won’t bog down this article with examples, but I do think this endless stairway, designed as outdoor sculpture by artist Olafur Eliasson, is worth including. I don’t know if you can build this with blocks, but maybe there is a way. It would be a true architest.

Double helix staircase sculpture “Umschreibung” by Olafur Eliasson. It's at the KPMG building in Munich.
If you are like me - don’t worry, only my editor is like me (Ed - hahaha! It's true!) - this puzzle may also inspire you to research the spiral form more generally. That was a big part of the inventor’s intention with this puzzle. There is a virtually inexhaustible literature on all aspects of spirals ranging from the mathematical to the artistic. We here at the Puzzlemad Hawaii Branch Office (Ed - one day I'd love to visit that branch) are committed to providing a full-service blog, so I’m including a PDF copy of one of my favourite works on the topic here. This is a 1903 book entitled Spirals in Nature and Art. It was authored by Kevin’s fellow countryman Sir Theodore Andrea Cook, a gentleman and a scholar in the truest sense. It is a great read and I highly recommend you take the time. The book is no less than: “A study of spiral formations based on the manuscripts of Leonardo Da Vinci, with special reference to the architecture of the open staircase at Blois, in Touraine...“. Even that much-abbreviated abstract should be highly motivating for the genuine puzzler.

Other-than-spiral uses for Architest blocks; pillbox-style apertures supported by strong running bonds.
Other spiral construction puzzles have been released in recent times including the Quadstair by Oskar:
Oskar’s Quadstair, a tight quadruple-helix stairway.

Ed - I have a gorgeous hex version of this made by my good friend Neil.

In conclusion, I have little else to say. It is my deepest regret that Mr Leefeldt was (apparently) not able to continue adding puzzles to the Architest line. Certainly, there is tremendous potential in the concept and my guess is that arches, vaults, and flying buttresses would have been the subject of later issues. As with real architecture, the initial challenge for these puzzles would be understanding the balance of forces, and the second figuring out how to construct an object which is only stable once complete. There is no reason some puzzle-loving architect or architecture-loving puzzler cannot take up Mr Leefeldt’s torch and run with it. The puzzle pieces are just little wooden blocks, after all. We certainly have no shortage of craftsmen in the community who are very very good at fashioning little wooden blocks. With that, I return you to Kevin for the weekly farewell address...

Thank you so much, my friend! As always, you have come to my rescue at the perfect time with something absolutely fascinating on a subject I would never have learned about had it not been for you. I always look forward to your posts for the added value that you bring to my otherwise boring old blog - you keep it fresh and interesting and I am sure that a lot of puzzlers visit more for your knowledge sharing than my old drivel.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this I am the maker of the Spiral stair and Architest Puzzles.The nail puzzles still can be purchased.
    tim Leefeldt