The liberating power of ambiguity bears upon the inherent human urge to be in control of and able to shape one’s own immediate experience and destiny. Freedom is essentially a postulate of action but remains elusive, for it exists only as a possibility, rather than actuality. It cannot be grasped by mental thought or expressed in solid form, but only experienced in the present tense through its own exercise. Freedom may be dangerous to unity, but there is no human dignity without it, and so the risk of increasing and providing freedom must be constantly taken.
But freedom finds its deepest roots and most complete exercise in compound space, where it is immediately sensed long before it is consciously grasped by eye or mind. Autonomy in space assures us that we are not ‘manipulated objects’, a feeling essential not only for people of all ages, notes Bruno Bettelheim, but also for those trying to recover from mental illness. The essential quality Bettelheim sought to instill in the Orthogenic School for autistic children in Chicago was a ‘structureless structure’, where patients could participate in all decisions that affected their lives, including the design of the school and their own rooms. ‘Recovery from insanity is dependent on the patient’s conviction that he or she is an autonomous human being,’ he continues. ‘Everybody is afraid of having his mind read or made up by others; everybody wants to have control over his own mind. The delusion that others can control his mind is common to the mental patient.’76
The architectural roots of autonomy, Bettelheim believed, are forms that avoid the institutional demands and patterns present in bland or redundant spaces, and instead are rich in attractive choices of variable action, including territories patients are able to spontaneously stake out and feel secure in. At every scale of the Orthogenic School, the patient is provided with two or more desirable possibilities in order ‘to make it a real choice’.77 And so the corridors were shaped into spaces for both movement and repose, combining invitations to saunter along them and rest in the sheltering alcoves. The basic aim was to construct options that would be gratifying to different people, and would satisfy the changing needs or desires of each person over time.
Related ideas have long been a staple of philosophical discourse. In Elbow Room, Daniel Dennett negotiates a way through perplexing questions about free will by juxtaposing two situations: those in which people have come under the control of something or someone else, and those in which people have acquired self-control. ‘We want to be in control,’ he writes, ‘and to control both ourselves and our destinies.’78 We lose control in situations marked by extreme order, which deny or restrict our choices, and regain self-control in environments with generous ‘degrees of freedom’. The latter depend on a certain amount of disorder to avoid confining or predictable patterns, and are full of the kind of operations we find rewarding. They are essentially marked by a generous amount of ‘elbow room’, which provides us with the room to manoeuvre. ‘We want a margin for error; we want to keep our options open, so that our chances of maintaining control over our operations, come what may, are enhanced,’ Dennett concludes. ‘This implies that we would also like the world to be a certain way: full of variety, certainly, and with lots of sustenance and delight – but more important in this context: not so savagely demanding (given our needs and abilities) as
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The architectural implications of Dennett’s scenarios are immediately apparent if we compare the cellular structure of a standardized Western building with the interflowing compound space of a traditional Japanese house or villa. Instead of the former’s uniform floors, tightly wrapped walls and flat ceilings, the latter presents floors that are broken into slightly higher and lower levels, and the combination of a few fixed walls with the changing enclosures of movable screens to produce interlocking and incomplete rooms, with ceilings that rise and fall to differentiate spaces below. Other facets appear in window alcoves with low wooden desks (tsukeshoin) and in the contemplative alcove of a tokonoma. Even a small teahouse, such as Shoka-tei at Katsura Imperial Villa (p. 127), is inherently double in its combined zones of refuge and outlook, contrasting adventurous areas with the intimacy of solid corners and complementing the focal point of a clay stove for heating water with ledges covered with tatami mats for sitting on while conversing or looking onto the garden.
An equally stark contrast can be drawn between a stereotypical modern stair, with its efficient channel and repetitive steps, and the indeterminate flight of steps designed by Carlo Scarpa for the Olivetti Showroom (p. 127). Both serve the practical function of climbing, but the former is so tightly formed around a single normative behaviour that it compels a person to climb in a stipulated manner. There is no invitation to pause, or climb in more than one way, a routine now so deeply ingrained it is drilled into our legs. Scarpa’s stair begins from a different premise: to surprise and restore control to the climber and, despite its limited dimensions, offer a host of self-confirming acts. Steps of polished Aurisina marble widen in places to accommodate varying manoeuvres, cantilevering at one point into a shelf, and spreading and folding at the bottom into a bench where people can perch. Instead of confined to compulsory moves, the climber is free to climb in diverse ways and lean or sit in diverse postures.80 This multivalence releases our imaginations and motor impulses to move at will within its framework of gratifying phenomena. The leeway provided does not exist as a physical thing, but a potential that people can only materialize for themselves.