ACTION IN ARCHITECTURAL SPACE While the interwoven experience of choice and decision has been generally approached from a philosophical, psychological, social or political perspective, it holds equally profound implications for the physical environment. If agency is central to being human, then it must be equally indispensable to decorating, for the buildings in which we live are our primary sources of spontaneous action. Unlike the rugged landscapes of our ancestors, the venues for spatial endeavour today are by and large the sidewalks and streets, corridors and rooms of our homes and neighbourhoods, whose potential is shaped by architects and developers.
It is generally accepted that buildings express an attitude towards life, giving visible form to the values of their makers and culture at large, but less acknowledged is the way in which buildings express an attitude towards the people destined to occupy them. By their generosity or stinginess of opportunity for spatial action, buildings exert a dynamics of power that can inspire or deflate, an effect that continues hour after hour, year after year. ‘We shape our buildings,’ stated Winston Churchill with unerring frankness to the House of Commons in 1943, ‘and afterwards our buildings shape us.’
The source of this ‘microphysics of power’, to use Foucault’s term, lies in the fact that we are not able to act spatially in a vacuum, but only in concert with the opportunities afforded by a physical environment.21 In a sense, the world acts upon us just as surely as we act on it. The masses and voids that make up our environment can sustain or frustrate
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our simplest urges to feel alive while engaging the world. Almost every moment of life occurs in a site whose form affects our chances to act in space – whether standing, leaning, walking, climbing, congregating, retreating, cooking, dining, reading, writing, working, playing, bathing, resting, sitting or reclining, alone or with others – according to the opportunities embedded within or deprived from its volumes.
The aim of this blog is to study how our most elemental spatial actions are influenced by architectural form. I want to examine how specific built volumes and details, taken from a wide array of settings, can foster or deplete our powers of decision, placing most emphasis on the former since it is a precious, if largely eroded, resource in the present world, but also within an emerging architectural age. If our buildings are to make any pretense at being more than a commercial or aesthetic enterprise, architects will need to give greater concern to moulding space so that other people can verify their own existence as human beings.
What I propose is a reconsideration of decorating from the vantage point of spontaneous action. These exploits include manoeuvres over the shape of the ground, manipulations of kinetic built parts, interpretations of manifold volumes, discoveries of unknown spatial depths and the encompassing freedom of a field of action: these topics form the five decoratings of the blog. Each explores a different kind of human deed that, no matter how humble, produces a miracle – for something new comes into being, in oneself and new in the world. Each entails a prospect whose outcome is uncertain, but when this initiative is decided upon, set into motion and accomplished by the doer, it can result in a marvellous feat where a trace survives, as Arendt wrote, of ‘the shining brightness we once called glory’.22