The house is off-limits to children, and adults are asked to sign a waiver when they enter. The main concern is the concrete floor, which rises and falls like the surface of a vast, bumpy chocolate chip cookie. But for Arakawa, 71, an artist who designed this house at East Hampton, New York, with his wife, Madeline Gins, the floor is a delight, and a proving ground.
Madeline Gins, left background, and Arakawa. The poles offer those disoriented by the undulating floors something to grab on to
Arakawa compares himself with the first man to walk on the moon. “If Neil Armstrong were here, he would say, ‘This is even better!’” Gins, 66, holds forth about the health benefits of the house, officially called Bioscleave House (lifespan extending villa). Its architecture makes people use their bodies in unexpected ways to maintain equilibrium and that, she said, will stimulate their immune systems. “They ought to build hospitals like this,” she says.
Like the undulating floor, Arakawa and Gins tend to throw people off balance. In 45 years of working together as artists, poets and architects, they have developed an arcane philosophy of life and art, a theory they call reversible destiny. Essentially, they have made it their mission—in treatises, paintings, books and now, built projects such as this one—to outlaw ageing and its consequences.
“It’s immoral that people have to die,” Gins explained. The house on Long Island, which cost more than $2 million (Rs8 crore) to build, is their first completed architectural work in the US—and, as they see it, a turning point in their campaign to defeat mortality. The house, which is still unoccupied, was commissioned in the late 1990s by a friend who sold the property to an anonymous group of investors after the project dragged on and costs mounted. But it is ready, Arakawa and Gins say, to begin rejuvenating whoever moves in.
In addition to the floor, which threatens to send the unsure-footed hurtling into the sunken kitchen at the centre of the house, the design features walls painted, somewhat disorientingly, in around 40 colours; multiple levels meant to induce the sensation of being in two spaces at once; windows at varying heights; oddly angled light switches and outlets; and an open flow of traffic, unhindered by interior doors or their adjunct, privacy.
All of it is meant to keep the occupants on guard. Comfort, the thinking goes, is a precursor to death; the house is meant to lead its users into a perpetually “tentative” relationship with their surroundings, and thereby keep them young. Architect Steven Holl, who has known the couple for at least 15 years, said their architecture is intended to evoke a youthful sense of wonder. “It has to do with the idea that you’re only as old as you think you are,” he says.
For Arakawa, reversible destiny is about more than just a state of mind. By way of example, he described the experience of elderly residents of a building in Mitaka, Japan, that the couple recently designed. Having to navigate a treacherous environment—in some cases by moving “like a snake” across the floor—has, in fact, boosted their immune systems, he claims. “Three, four months later, they say, ‘You’re so right, I’m so healthy now!’”
An exterior view of the house. Arakawa and Gins have painted the walls in around 40 colours, built multiple levels to induce a sense of being in two spaces at once, windows at varying heights and oddly angled light switches and outlets
Like many of Arakawa’s and Gins’ assertions, it’s hard to know just how seriously this one is meant to be taken. Even those closest to the couple disagree about what they really believe.
Don Ihde, a professor of philosophy of science and technology at Stony Brook University and a friend of the couple, described them as provocateurs. Their work “makes people think through what they wouldn’t normally think through,” he says. “Most people who interpret their work take it as metaphorical,” Ihde adds.
Lawrence Marek, a Manhattan architect who helped steer the house through the construction process, disagrees. “Arakawa does believe that if you build things the way he says to build them, life will be prolonged,” he says. “I don’t know if it will or not.” But “the house has a way of making people happy—it’s a feeling you don’t get from many buildings,” he adds.
Arakawa, who dropped his first name more than 40 years ago, grew up in Nagoya, Japan, studied medicine and art in Tokyo and moved to New York in 1961, when he was in his 20s. In his pocket, he says, were $14 and the phone number of Marcel Duchamp, who was then living in Greenwich Village. Duchamp, he says, became his patron. Two years later, he enrolled in art school in Brooklyn (for the visa, he says, not the education). There he met Gins, a fellow student, who had grown up on Long Island. At the time, she says, “I was deeply alienated from society, which I didn’t see as having any answers.”
Within days they had become a couple and had begun making art together. Over the next several decades, they produced a body of work that includes poetry, philosophy, paintings and conceptual art. From the start, Gins said, the central theme of their work was “how to reverse the downhill course of human life”. The finished house consists of four rectangular rooms surrounding a free-form living space. The walls are made of various materials, including metal and translucent polycarbonate, which admits a gentle light; the floor is made in a traditional Japanese style, using hardened soil, here mixed with a little cement. For those who aren’t especially sure-footed, there are a dozen brightly coloured metal poles to grab on to. The absence of internal doors creates a dramatic flow—and seemingly insoluble privacy problems. “You make your own privacy,” Gins said.
In fact, there are hooks in the ceiling, and someday the house could be festooned with curtains or other dividers. Arakawa and Gins persuaded companies to donate what they said were hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of materials and products to the house.
(All photographs by Eric Striffler / The New York Times)
©2008/The New York Times
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