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 the house with his wife, Madeline Gins, the floor is a delight, as well as a proving ground.
As he scampered across it with youthful enthusiasm on a Friday evening in March, he compared himself to the first man to walk on the moon. “If Neil Armstrong were here, he would say, ‘This is even better!’ ”
Then Ms. Gins, 66, began holding 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 said.
A reporter, who thinks they should never, ever build hospitals like this, tried to go with the flow. Like the undulating floor, Arakawa and Gins, as they are known professionally, 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 like this one — to outlaw aging and its consequences.
“It’s immoral that people have to die,” Ms. Gins explained.
The house on Long Island, which cost more than $2 million to build, is their first completed architectural work in the United States — 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 Ms. Gins said, to begin rejuvenating whoever moves in.
In addition to the floor, which threatens to send the un-sure-footed hurtling into the sunken kitchen at the center of the house, the design features walls painted, somewhat disorientingly, in about 40 colors; 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.
The 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 said.
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 claimed. “Three, four months later, they say, ‘You’re so right, I’m so healthy now!’ ”
Like many of Arakawa and Gins’s 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 the 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 said.
(As if to prove that point, Professor Ihde has written a paper speculating about how his cat would feel in the Bioscleave House, which he will present on Saturday at the Second International Arakawa + Gins Architecture + Philosophy Conference in Philadelphia, subtitled “Declaration of the Right Not to Die” and sponsored in part by the English department at the University of Pennsylvania.)
“Most people who interpret their work take it as metaphorical,” Professor Ihde added.
Lawrence Marek, a Manhattan architect who helped steer the house through the construction process, disagreed. “Arakawa does believe that if you build things the way he says to build them, life will be prolonged,” he said. “I don’t know if it will or not.” But, he added, “the house has a way of making people happy — it’s a feeling you don’t get from many buildings — and we should be studying how that happens.”
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 said, were $14 and the phone number of Marcel Duchamp, who was then living in Greenwich Village. Duchamp, he said, became his patron.
Arakawa + Gins Architecture
Happy Friday everyone! I’ve been working hard putting together a series of posts for next week concerning recent intersections between architecture and the fine arts. So I hope you will all come back on Monday. Should be an exciting week!
But in the meantime, the NYT has a fantastic piece on the philosophy of Architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins. The images below are their most recent work, the Bioscleave House in East Hampton.
They believe that their architecture can actually extend life by helping us “cradle tentativeness.” The concept is quite abstract, but from what I understand, the objective is to challenge the conventional notion of home = comfort. For example, the artists explain that in this house you can see a different horizon everywhere you stand, thereby not allowing you to become comfortable. Comfort does not last forever, and is therefore linked to anxiety. By learning to live in such an environment, you are actually “practicing how not to die.”
I was intrigued… I highly recommend watching the feature (it’s only a few minutes long).