Kyoto or the scissor-like sequence of boards at Koraku-en Garden in Okayama. These narrow gangways set over water overlap as they shift to the side, and continue to deviate back and forth in a series of fresh angles in space. For a brief spell one walks in a line along one tack, only to then simultaneously twist and step diagonally while countering centrifugal forces and transitioning to a new vector in space. Brief periods of linear motion while dangling above water alternate with lateral moves and a realignment of the torso, heightening the experience of perpetually losing and regaining balance in a graceful interplay of muscle, tendon and joint.
The intensity of freedom on an open bridge exemplified in the Japanese garden illustrates another kinesthetic feat that would be deflated by parapets or railings. When nearing either hazardous edge, a fear of falling pushes up into the conscious mind. The roots of this terror include the sensation of being unprotected and of easily toppling off the side, plunging to uncertain perils below – feelings that make one tremble, even if only in the innermost part of the psyche. A faint vertigo further threatens balance, bringing added attention to each footfall, while tapping into reserves of willpower to assess and overcome the threat. It is precisely the repeated and successful experience of this kind of challenging operation, while triumphing over fear and risk, which underlies, as Erikson writes in his essay ‘Play and Actuality’, the ‘restoration and creation of a leeway of mastery\34 It is no wonder, he continues, ‘that man’s play takes place on the border of dangerous alternatives and is always beset both with burdening conflicts and with liberating choices’.35
A more elusive if nonetheless deeply felt power that is also roused on the unrestrained bridge is a virtual experience of levitation, originating in what Bachelard calls the ‘aerial psyche’.36 We do not merely walk across but soar over the bridge and what lies beneath, enacting a primal urge of mankind: the ineffable happiness of flight. We take pleasure in briefly leaving the earth and escaping its terrestrial bonds, to loft over the world below, seeming to hover momentarily in air. We overcome the hold of gravity when adventuring in the heights, a height that can be felt but not measured, lingering awhile in this state immune from the laws of nature, before gliding back to terra firma.
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A related component in traditional Japanese decorating that exploits these tensions and triumphs over danger is the open veranda, its wooden floor devoid of rails and hovering precariously over a lush and pristine garden. People can sit or stroll, congregate or meditate along these edges of possibility brought into communion with nature. There is no barrier to disturb the view, but neither is there any safeguard to prevent tumbling off the side. A slight misstep or loss of balance could easily result in slipping off the wooden platform. While the actual height above ground is slight, the perceptual and psychological height is enormous, for the exquisite landscape below is meant not to use but to behold and inspire, a place closed to touch but open to dreams. Peril intensifies this reverie, strengthening the awareness of having been brought right up to the boundary of two different worlds.
Magnifying the freedom of vertigo and human ventures into air, while protecting all but the suicidal, are small mountaintop cities in Europe, crowded at times up to the very edge of a cliff: Bonifacio at the tip of Corsica; Saorge and La Roquette-sur-Siagne in the Alpes-Maritimes and Rocamadour and St-Cirq-Lapopie along the Lot in France; the Andalusian villages of Montefrio and Alhama de Granada in Spain; Marvao and Monsaraz in Portugal; and the Italian hilltowns of Vernazza (p. 54) and Civita di Bagnoregio. These lofty villages are piled above and seem to hang over river valleys or rocky coastline, originally for defense but now giving daily life an exalted sense of being on high or, as Bachelard described it in Air and Dreams, the grandeur of living in an ‘aerial state’, in a world endowed with ‘aerial dynamism’.37
Vernazza, Italy; Thera, Santorini, Greece; cascading roof terraces and houses, Foinikia, Santorini; staired descent to cliffside house, Thera (clockwise from top left)
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