Long before any of these images of looseness are grasped in the mind, they are immediately felt in our muscles, those body parts acutely sensitive to freedom of motion and carrying, perhaps, a distant memory of our animal origins. We breathe more easily and our bodies instantly limber up where some leeway appears in the paths we traverse and the rooms in which we settle down, a margin of superfluous space whose residue has not been pressed into service and returns control to us over where and how to be in space. Only when not tightly packaged around a single, preordained use can space offer a range of undetermined actions that reflect our own changing needs. ‘[The philosopher David] Hume speaks of “a certain looseness” we want to exist in the world,’ observes Daniel Dennett. ‘This is the looseness that prevents the possible from shrinking tightly around the actual, the looseness presupposed by our use of the word “can”.’70
By the same token, we instantly sense an absence of looseness and loss of control over events when entering a space that permits only one mode of moving or settling, making us feel constrained and unable to wander freely. There is no escaping the experience set before us, no matter how productive, pleasing or entertaining it might be. Such sites of human submission are an ever-present feature of the modern world: the uniform sidewalk; the monotonous plaza; the narrow corridor; paths devoid of sidings in which to retreat or pause; the room reduced to a single platonic geometry or the cell defined by a single function.
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Less obvious but equally authoritarian in their denial and ultimate debasement of the human capacity to act in space are large empty volumes valued for extreme flexibility, which allow people to move about and rearrange furniture as they please. Analogous to flat ground that is open to many different versions of the same stereotypical movement, vacant flexibility is stripped of any real alternatives or contrasting qualities that people might desire and choose, for every ‘choice’ is virtually the same. Gone are any opportunities we might actually care about and that could empower us to act upon and with the environment. All that is left is a neutral and barren kind of container, its ‘free plan’ appearing to allow anything but inviting, sustaining and rewarding nothing.
Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia (1826), perimeter alcoves in the library
More disingenuous is the space controlled within or without an architectural spectacle, whose flamboyant, ostentatious forms help one forget the loss of leeway in the spot where one stands. The formal display and decorative skin provide a kind of sugar-coated pill to make the indignities of docile space more palatable. As the pageantry intensifies, it seems to have a sedative effect on the human urge to search for, must less notice, the shrivelled and illusory choices in space. A related observation is made by the artist Robert Irwin: ‘When performance goes up, the quality of the questions usually tends to go down.’71
The construction of environments rich in options for human decision is not merely dependent on ‘weak’ versus ‘strong’ form, since vagueness alone does not provide the projects and deeds worthy of people’s consideration (see p. 122). Alternate courses of action imply that set before us are the intensely appealing and real opportunities we long for. But they also imply not one option but many, so that we are able to see them fluctuate in a variable structure. As soon as space includes two or more interpretations, it becomes ambiguous. It moves back and forth between different possibilities. In terms of perception, its gestalts are multifarious, simultaneous, polyphonic and irresolute, rather than singular, separate, monotonous and absolute.