It is not surprising that the word ‘ambiguity’ has been stigmatized in our positivist culture, but it derives in its original sense from the Latin ambiguus, from ambigere, to be undecided, combining ambi- (both) and -igere (to drive, act or do), thus sharing linguistic roots with the word ‘agency’. In terms of decorating, it is not an amorphous lack of clarity or physical presence that produces spatial ambiguity, but the existence of two or more latent values or renditions whose possibilities intermingle. It is only when these possibilities are desirable enough to stir us to action that decorating is truly responsive to our initiatives and becomes humanly relevant.
Ambiguous space implies a degree of uncertainty and doubt, making room for human deliberation, whereas this disappears in forms that are overwrought or narrowly defined. It also suggests, by its reduction of outward display and exhibitionism, a measure of restraint on the part of its maker. The sad news for architects who care about these matters is that in order to invest buildings with fluctuating chances for improvised action by other people, they must be willing to temper their own presence as a controlling force in the finished work. This does not imply tedious or undistinguished form, as architects from Bernini and Jefferson to Kahn and Scarpa have demonstrated, but it does require that a generous portion of the creative powers instilled in a building are bequeathed to others, rather than fully expressed and used up in the making. When a share of these powers are passed on as an embedded gift to people who will later experience the building, those occupants are elevated to actors able to invent and shape their own dramas, rather than reduced to spectators of someone else’s dramatic form. While being provoked into action by appealing, even wondrous, possibilities, they are free to complete the scenario for themselves.
Multiple ways to sit upon the Seine embankment, Paris; Piazza Grande, Montepulciano, alcoves with stone benches between columns; Michelangelo, Piazza del Campidoglio (1561), Rome, improvisational stairs and benches of the Senatore (top to bottom)
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Taking this thought a step further is architect Peter Prangnell, who has argued that the freedom to act in ambiguous space is maximized when built forms are inherently modest. Where manifold things are characterized by understatement and anonymity, they become ‘friendly objects’, fully accessible to those coming into contact with them, since their forms can be more effectively taken over and absorbed into everyone’s personal world. This power of easily shifting one’s relation to an unpretentious form is immediately evident in the way, Prangnell wrote in an article for the Harvard Educational Review, ‘children at play quickly change a table into a house; a house can become a ship’.
‘It follows that the more explicit an object is in the sense that it has no ambiguity, the more difficult it is to use it imaginatively in any other way,’ he continued. ‘A plain wooden chest may be a seat, a stage, an island or a coffin. If the chest is decorated with pictures or painted signs, it can be easily recognized as a special chest but it will not lend itself so easily for use as a stage or an island. In the same way a bare attic may lend itself to more
In a compound space, where multiple zones of opportunity are contained in one overall volume, people are encouraged to see, but also imagine and contemplate, space through a kind of double-vision. The physical eye and the mind’s eye see many in one, as well as one in many. Instead of being bound to a single rigid and predetermined perspective, people are enabled to grasp and assess space in multiple ways and from many perspectives, to move back and forth between many simultaneous facets and possible actions.