The subtle infusion of voluntary options without making forms overly explicit reverses the now-common physics of power between buildings and people, redirecting control to the latter. In this regard, Hertzberger draws a correlation between decorating and a musical instrument. A piano or flute ‘essentially contains as many possibilities of usage as uses to which it is put – an instrument must be played’, he wrote. ‘Within the limits of the instrument, it is up to the player to draw what he can from it, within the limits of his own ability. Thus instrument and player reveal to each other their respective abilities to complement and fulfill one another. Form as an instrument offers the scope for each person to do what he has most at heart, and above all to do it in his own way.’89 Analogous to the construction of a violin, Hertzberger sought to broaden and deepen the instrumental range of each built component, including its most easily stereotyped parts, often by simply folding an edge to insert a place for people to sit. Foundations of walls crease into ledges, structural columns flower into tiny balconies with curved benches, concrete footings rise from the earth to provide shallow cylindrical seats, floor edges are slightly raised to offer footrests, metal balustrades are pleated into shallow benches and ledges and solid walls are indented with alcoves lined with warm woodwork and places to settle. from architectural history and the unnoticed details of many celebrated buildings, including the stone seats at the foot of columns in a portico and concave miradores of the upper roadway at GaudPs Parc Guell, and the two facing window seats hollowed from a brick wall in the conference room of Sigurd Lewerentz’s church of St Peter in Klippan, Sweden. Edging a path below the rampart of Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum is a low wall that turns from a parapet into a high seat, then a low ledge and finally, within the wall itself, a footrest for a window seat overlooking the river. In a similar vein, the wood-framed glazing around the perimeter of Louis I. Kahn’s Phillips Exeter Academy Library (all p. 144) expands into back-to-back window desks, whose surface is bent into an ‘L’ for diverse ways of working, complemented by a sliding shutter to control light, outlook and introspection.
But unique to Hertzberger’s nourishment of free will is the infusion of intensely plain materials with a tremendous scope of opportunity, shifting the focus of financial resources from appearance to action. An early masterpiece is the Montessori School in Delft, a humble construction of grey concrete and dark wood whose every part was conceived as a catalyst for the decisions of young children. The entry does not present a fagade but an intermediary zone, full of possibilities – a sheltering recess near the door and a bay projecting into the landscape, its low parapet sized to the child and volunteering an ad-hoc bench or table while waiting for parents. This empathetic language of form, where deliberative wealth is fashioned out of inexpensive materials, extends into the dual levels of classrooms. Combined within an encompassing ‘L’, so as to stimulate interpretation at every scale, is a lower ‘L’ that is inwardly focused and intimate, and an upper ‘L’ that is outwardly gazing and adventurous. As at the entry, the threshold to each classroom is not a dividing line but an in-between place conducive to choice. Akin to the porch or stoop of a house, this domain is a slightly protected alcove where children can work between the control of the teacher and freedom of the hallway.
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Most marvellous is the winding hallway linking classrooms. As opposed to the linear corridor common in schools, whose chillingly barren axis is easily supervised and hurries children efficiently from class to class, Hertzberger’s corridor is a zig-zag volume that widens and narrows along its length. Children are able to both slowly meander and move more directly from one end of the school to the other, echoing the spontaneity of life itself. Along the way children can pause in a number of welcoming alcoves outside the stream of circulation, to work on their own or with others, or congregate at a spot in the floor where a cluster of seats can be removed and grouped about the pit they reveal. The transformation of a normally coercive corridor into a place of self-controlled movement and rest reminds us of Erikson’s plea to ‘take time’, for ‘in trifling, in dallying, we lazily thumb our noses at this, our slave-driver. Where every minute counts, playfulness vanishes.’90
Hertzberger continued to adapt the theme of polyvalence to buildings widely varied in type and size, from schools and apartments to office and institutional buildings, while carefully attuning the choices in each to the limits and interests of each population. In doing so, the deeper significance of freedom of choice has remained a conscious pursuit. ‘A thing exclusively made for one purpose’, he wrote in the Harvard Educational Review, ‘suppresses the individual because it tells him exactly how it is to be used. If the object provokes a person to determine in what way he wants to use it, it will strengthen his selfidentity … Therefore a form must be interpretable – in the sense that it must be conditioned to play a changing role.’91
In the Massachusetts houses of Maurice Smith, compound space is totally freed of dominant centres and closed cells. Among these few but exceptionally generous works are a residence in Groton and an oceanside retreat in Manchester-by-the-Sea, both for the Blackman family, and his own experimental house in the town of Harvard. Each room in these deliberately unpretentious dwellings accommodates and is loosened around its explicit function, stimulating many ways of performing the same general action, as well as impromptu acts in the same space – a latitude Smith describes as ‘slack’ and ‘spatial tolerance’.
The awareness at the Groton residence of being back in control of one’s future begins on arrival, from the multiple attractions of wall and portico, to a winding path that keeps splitting and uniting along its journey to several doorways into the house. Incentives and routes open up with new margins of opportunity: columns appear within the flow to stimulate decisions and loosely guide turns; alcoves recede to accommodate pauses or liberalize motion; and at several points the route divides into plural streams with contrasting enclosure or view, allowing each person to chart his own course from more than one appealing way to reach the same destination.
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