Still symmetric but less controlled are the huge urban staircases of Alessandro Specchi’s Porto di Ripetta and the Scala di Spagna. While presenting a manifold whole, each is endowed with many discretionary acts that people are able to choose and perform. Available roles built into the Porto di Ripetta can still be gleaned from eighteenth-century engravings: alternate speeds and routes of stairs, contrasting ledges for accessing water or unloading boats and varied ways to simply sit or sprawl on steps with differing sightlines onto the Tiber. The skewed cascade of the Scala di Spagna is even richer in its intersecting courses of action. Flights continually divide and converge along the incline with differently angled and shaped steps, their flow interrupted by periodic landings including two broad terraces that serve as belvederes from which to gaze onto the streetlife and fountain below. Further differentiating flights are narrow tiers of rectilinear travertine blocks with pedestals for lamps, offering ledges for sitting or reclining, perhaps leaning back with legs dangling off the side, and extemporaneous lodging points that recur in the bordering parapets and balustrades – all of which give the stair a simultaneity of diverse routes and points of repose.
The most compelling composite space is the city square. It is not the size, however, nor the utility or beauty of this outdoor room that nurtures human action. Rather, it is a powerfully sculpted yet multiform and ambiguous shape, analogous to Jefferson’s campus or Bernini’s portico, which provides infinite chances for human decision about qualities we truly desire. The resources for vast numbers of people to be individually autonomous in the same overall space are especially evident in the urban cavities of historic Italian cities and towns.
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The finest and most famous of these – the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, the Piazza del Campo in Siena, the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano (p. 134), the small Piazza Pio II by Bernardo Rossellino in Pienza (p. 134), the Piazza della Cisterna in San Gimignano and the Piazza San Marco in Venice – possess voids that are vivid and memorable, as well as abundant with diverse features and contrary edges where freedom develops. These piazzas are unified and disparate, centred and decentred, authoritative and subversive. As a result, they can nurture the urban identity of huge crowds at civic events but also offer small groups and individuals the power to manoeuvre among many attractive possibilities, containing a wide margin for both error and improvisation. The ‘intermingling of appearances’ and ‘scope for action’ turn each cavity into ‘an arena of free interplay’, qualities Erikson considers essential to wellbeing and survival, for they offer a ‘leeway of mastery’ to hundreds, if not thousands, of people at once.84
In any of Italy’s iconic piazzas, the strongly defined character of the container is immediately felt to loosen up along the floor and around the perimeter. Instead of rigid geometry, warping, creasing and bending occur at the foot of a remarkable enclosure.
Walls relax as they alternately advance and recede, pressing into corners and niches around the edge, mingling various spatial choices. Other sites for action appear in the hollows of porticos and arcades in which to shelter, withdraw from the crowd or merely lean against a column. Where solid fagades touch the ground they open to a variety of decisions
Leading the way at the outset of the twentieth century in associating decorating with freedom through a polymorphous shaping of rooms was Frank Lloyd Wright. The essence of Wright’s composite language is most ingenious in his houses, and above all in the generous room to manoeuvre of the living rooms. Even at the heart of his modest Usonian houses, such as the Tracy House overlooking Puget Sound, near Seattle, Washington, is an overlap of many small zones within one large room. The diminutive living/dining room of the Pope-Leighey House, relocated to the grounds of Woodlawn plantation, in Arlington,