Experience brings about an exquisite mutation of being, revealing something of one’s innermost persona – exposing hidden aspirations and fears, capacities and limitations, but also something of who one potentially is, helping reshape and strengthen one’s identity.
Just as the terrain of the world can empower the body, it also can drain that power away, for its contours are urgently needed to supply opportunities on which we can act. The constructed ground over which we commonly walk – the floors in our homes, the continuous ribbons of sidewalks, the broad pavements of streets and plazas – depletes our power if it fails to respond to our presence and stimulate our faculties, presenting merely a uniform surface stripped of human deeds to perform.
On a floor that is perfectly flat and level there is no chance to interact with its surface, nor bring into play an extraordinary agility inherited from aeons of human evolution. Each contact with the standardized surface is the same, from every dull slap of the feet to every tedious stretch of the legs. Each dreary footfall weans us from a give and take with the ground, diminishing our responsibility and in a very real sense subduing and breaking our animal spirits, killing the spontaneity within us. The levelled floor gradually drills the human body into a kind of robotic motion. Nobody trips or falls on the unbroken plane, nor is anyone slowed when gliding over its vacant texture. But neither does anyone feel alive as a creative force in motion, since the horizontal plane has pacified the body and robbed it of power. By the same token, this floor presents an ideal terrain for machines and for people willing to move like machines, since it is totally divested of any interruption to easy and a priori motion, rewarding only the foot tamed by habit. There is no floor better suited to the routine behaviour of mass culture.
I am not suggesting the elimination of level floors, which provide benefits of practicality, accessibility and safety. Rather, I wish to propose that their omnipresence marks a new kind of danger for human existence. To live out one’s life on a harmless and predictable ground would seem, at first glance, to assist the preservation of life. But, paradoxically, life as we know it is an evolving structure that resists monotonous conservation and demands instead a perpetual renewal by forgoing the comfort of a steady state. A sterile ground puts our agile faculties to sleep and conveys that we are impotent and automatic creatures, diminishing our sense of being animate. To put it more bluntly, the habitual ground that conserves life by eliminating risk is in reality a mechanism that, when universal, depletes and perverts the human spirit.
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Illuminating the idea that inventive motion transcends the benefits of physical exercise, and constitutes a fundamental responsibility of decorating, is Bernard Rudofsky in Streets for People. The primary human value of walking, he suggests, is that it grants us the freedom to stroll without any narrow aim or purpose. Among our exploits on foot, he notes, ‘the act of descending a staircase … represents the highest form of peripatetics’, and for people who are strolling together, ‘discoursing on this stylized slope demands a high discipline of give and take, and more than a touch of stagecraft’.24 Rudofsky finds the apotheosis of creative walking in the urban staircases of Italy – notably Rome, from the divergent inclines to Michelangelo’s Campidoglio and the twelfth-century church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, to the monumental flights of Alessandro Specchi’s demolished Porto di Ripetta and the iconic Scala de Spagna.
Our most resourceful climbs, of course, occur in the natural landscape, where geology and erosion have produced infinitely varied slopes, hills and mountains, tangled with roots or littered with rocks. Where wild terrains have been conserved, they remain as challenging as those on which our species emerged, continuing to summon extraordinary faculties of agility, balance and endurance, crucial to human evolution. While this kind of ground has largely disappeared from the everyday world, it remains a presence and perpetual attraction – as Rudofsky brought to widespread attention in the exhibition ‘Home Design without Architects’, held in 1964 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – in vernacular hilltowns, whose rugged terrain is barely transformed and percolates up through the floor of the settlement.