While buildings constitute only one realm in which we are able to exercise action, they serve a fundamental role in allowing us, throughout our lives, to participate in the world around us without eliminating our individuality. What matters above all in this dialectic is that the possibilities offered to us are sufficiently appealing that their selection can be undertaken as a personal act, one that is fully appropriated by each person as an agent able to take charge of and sway one’s own fate, and through this moment of spontaneity experience genuine vitality and joy.
Among those who have helped deepen our understanding of action and throw light on its spatial implications is Jean-Paul Sartre. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre moves beyond the tired conflict between determinists and the proponents of free will by identifying action as the essence of freedom, arguing that ‘it is the act that decides its ends and motives, and the act is the expression of freedom’.15 Moreover, it is through the unfixed nature of an act – which may be partly shaped but is never determined by conditions or motives – that freedom is experienced. One who truly exists must ‘learn his freedom through his acts’, and by the same token can lose that freedom when unable or unwilling to act, so that freedom is always in a precarious state that must be continually renewed. Freedom is not something we inherit or possess, but comes into being only at the moment it is acted upon and experienced. ‘Thus my freedom’, he says, ‘is perpetually in question.’16
Related ideas are put forth by Hannah Arendt, whose writings focus on the nature of power. In The Human Condition, she contends that agency is a unique and irreducible feature of humanity, for ‘to act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin … to set something into motion.’17 She goes on to identify action as the way people begin themselves, rather than begin things, and through these actions ‘show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world’.18 To act in this sense is to bring about a two-fold creation: the innovation of a deed, as well as the innovation of oneself, a disclosure of who one is and of what one is capable. Created more generally but fundamentally is a sensation and evidence that one is, that one exists as something more than protoplasm or machinery.
The human necessity of agency, despite its inherent challenge and anxiety, lies in the fact that it is only in action that existence attains concreteness and fullness. Through actions people become aware of their capacity to project their individual selves. ‘For in every action’, as Dante purported in De Monarchia, ‘what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. So it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessary follows … Thus, nothing acts unless (by acting) it makes patent its latent self.’19
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Certainly the conventional routines we follow throughout the day, and cultural demands for norms of behaviour, are vital for maintaining societal harmony and reducing our personal anxiety at feeling uncertain and alone in the world, but these are essentially periods of passive, if productive, behaviour. Without the wisdom of these crucial patterns of compliance we could not function individually nor could we live and work together, and they offer a wide assortment of daily benefits: conserving our energy; involving us in a give and take with others; bringing us stimulation and pleasure. These well-tried and universal conformities allow us to survive collectively and avoid anarchy, as well as feel more comfortable, untroubled and gratified. But while we cannot live without resort to this state, neither can we be content to live only in this state.
It is during breaks from submission to routine that we are able to confirm our capacity to be the originators and performers of acts, no matter how simple or trivial these acts might appear to others. Indeed, their outer appearance is irrelevant, for deeds cannot be externally observed, but only internally experienced as people project and realize themselves. Through these recurring endeavours we express ourselves, but also make ourselves. It is due to this dynamism of being human that philosopher Gabriel Marcel describes man as Homo viator, rather than Homo sapiens.20 Each moment of decision for man the wayfarer stirs unease, as well as elation, for what is chosen through this process are facets of oneself and it is out of these decisions that the self emerges and grows. Much the same thought of life as a journey towards self-actualization was expressed by theologian Paul Tillich in his well-known statement: ‘Man becomes really human only at the time of decision.’