Analogously the sinuous channels cutting through a great river city such as New York, London or Budapest, or equally the canals of Venice or Amsterdam, open up expansive fields and fresh paths of opportunity. These liberated zones expose forever the heart of a dense urban mass to a crossfire of courses of action.
Analogous to the dissection and revelation of space along a river is the manmade channel willfully carved through a tightly packed city, as in the dramatic axes of Paris and Rome. Long cuts through the urban fabric bring into view and stimulate our consideration of distant opportunities, inciting us to act on long-range prospects. Plazas and churches, paths and arcades emerge from afar and line up in succession to signal their presence, coaxing us to set off on adventures with plural destinations. These channels may also assert civic authority and control, but for a person strolling through an otherwise congested and disorientating city their revelations are liberating, for they offer chances to probe through miles of otherwise closed space and restore one’s bearings and control of the future.
Among the most entrancing fields constructed in the history of decorating are infinitely porous religious structures (p. 222). Putting aside their spiritual meaning and seeing them purely as deliberative space – a space just as valid for the non-believer as for the worshipper – their interiors supply a tremendous array of latent actions. Among the impressive points in this heritage are the colonnaded temples of Ancient Egypt, the spatial labyrinths of Buddhist and Hindu temples in India and the multitudinous cavities and columns of an Islamic mosque such as Cordoba. In every direction, one’s gaze filters through many receding bays, catching hints of promising features and atmosphere. When setting off on any of the innumerable courses of action, the way remains half-concealed by a matrix of piers, stimulating decisions about how to meander through and among the spatial units. The interiors form, in a sense, huge abstract forests with seemingly endless opportunities that invite and bewilder, turning us into choosers empowered to think ahead and anticipate the world.
Another apex in the field of action was reached in the stone forest of a Romanesque basilica or, above all, a Gothic cathedral. For medieval Christians, the church was a vision of earthly paradise, formed to embody the spiritual mysteries of the Heavenly City, as envisioned in the Home Design of Revelation and later Dante’s Paradiso. But it was also an arena for people in search of enlightenment, a prospect still intact today, even for those unencumbered by faith or simply in search of cultural insight and understanding.
Surrounding the towering nave of a great multi-aisled cathedral, such as Bourges (p. 223), Cologne or Milan, is a tangle of bays, multiplied and mystified by colonnades and further obscured by heavy shadows, producing an unsurpassed scope of opportunities that are simultaneously entrancing and baffling. One can proceed ritually towards the altar or wander about aimlessly and easily get loss around the periphery. Important nodes of spiritual concentration – baptismal fonts, side chapels, the innermost core of the chancel -grip our attention with their rituals and hypnotic pools of light. But other attractions are scattered about, diverse in their lures of light and colour, statuary and glass. Enveloping us at any moment is a universe of beguiling details, all of which woo the eye and foster involvement, making us want to gravitate towards them. Dimness intensifies all these appeals, making the glimmers more magnetic and receding spaces more adventurous, summoning us in every direction, including descent when the floor opens up to the underworld of a crypt.
In certain regards it is but a small step from the forest-like structure of a cathedral to the fictitious prisons of Piranesi – the Carceri d’invenzione (p. 224) – as long as we confine ourselves to the phenomenal structure and ignore Piranesi’s Kafka-esque mood of ominous cables and machinery. What is new in the Piranesian vision is an accessible range of upward freedom. A fantastic array of receding space along diagonal increments, up stair after stair, some angling, others spiralling, passing or intersecting bridges, and all continuing into the distance, fading from view through a lattice of stone archways and piers. The closest Gothic approximation of the Carceri’s upward power is the large gallery of a cathedral such as Noyon (p. 225) and, though divorced from its interior, the open-air stonework atop Milan’s Duomo (p. 225). While routes along the latter’s roofs are highly controlled for safety, the terraced levels amid a tangle of arches and buttresses suggest a tremendous scope of freedom. Virtual and actual trails weave through and around thousands of slender marble spires, which foliate into screens and filigrees, catching and absorbing our vision, slowing us down but giving us choices on how we might scramble over the rooftops. As we negotiate our way through this multilevel lattice, one broken vista leads to another, with every step revealing spaces populated by visitors who are also walking or resting, climbing stairs or scaling slopes. Repeated to infinity are bay after bay, with columns against which to lean, banisters on which to rest arms, ledges of varying heights for sitting and tiers of balconies from which to gaze down onto the city below.