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Death-Defying Artist Dies

Will Arakawa's “antiaging” home design ideas live?

Arakawa — the Japanese-born artist who went by his surname only, and who, in lifelong collaboration with his wife, the artist and poet Madeline Gins — strove to overcome aging through architecture, died in a New York City hospital on May 18. He was 73. The cause of death was not reported.

Arakawa’s most celebrated architectural work is the Bioscleave House, a 2,700-square-foot home in East Hampton, N.Y., completed in 2008. Painted in an array of bright colors inside and out, the multilevel structure has no interior walls and features undulating floors pocked with bumps that make footing uncertain. Ladders and poles throughout serve as aids for negotiating the rough terrain.

The basis for the design is what Arakawa and Gins have termed “procedural architecture,” which purposely establishes a somewhat disorienting relationship between occupants and their environment to foster a therapeutic process. An entry on the couple’s website, reversibledestiny.org, explains the intended effect: “These works of procedural architecture steer their residents to examine minutely the actions they take and to reconsider and, as it were, recalibrate their equanimity and self-possession, causing them to doubt themselves long enough to find a way to reinvent themselves.” In other words, if you want to stop the aging process, don’t get too comfortable.

Reversible Destiny’s homepage headline states Arakawa and Gins’ purpose more emphatically: “We have decided not to die!”  In 1998 the couple created a design for a vast housing project that they called the "City of Reversible Destiny,” based on their theories. It won a competition sponsored by the city of Tokyo. The project, formed with clusters of cylinders, cones, spirals and changing levels inside a crater, was never built, but a few apartments derived from the plans were.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, a 43-year-old resident of one of those apartments said that he couldn’t buy furniture for the living room or kitchen because the floors were too uneven. “But I feel a completely different kind of comfort here.” He also said that his wife, who must crawl through a low window to the balcony to hang out laundry, complains of frequently bumping her head. According to Ms. Gins, “That’s one of the exercises.”

In 1996, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp reviewed a room-sized Arakawa-Gins installation at the Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan. He called it “a comic stroke with cosmic intentions.”

Of course, the Arakawa architectural concept flies in the face of more conventional universal design practices, which strive to remove barriers and foster safety for people of all ages and physical abilities. S. Jay Olshansky, a researcher on aging with the University of Illinois, said, “This would be the worst possible house you could build for an older person.”

Arakawa was well known for works other than his architectural efforts. Perhaps most famous: "The Mechanism of Meaning," a series of 84 eight-foot-tall panels, which has been exhibited widely at museums throughout the world. The couple published nine books of art, poetry and doctrine, including Making Dying Illegal, To Not To Die, and Word Rain. Arakawa and Gins also founded the Architectural Body Research Foundation to collaborate with medical researchers and other scientists in pursuit of antiaging solutions.

Although Arakawa has died at a relatively young age, the work is not all for naught. Speaking of Arakawa and Gins, Alexandra Munroe, senior curator at New York’s main Guggenheim Museum, said, “Their supporters don't literally accept the couple's message on immortality but appreciate it in a ‘metaphorical’ way.”

Long live Arakawa!

Michael Chotiner is the Home & Garden channel producer for aarp.org. Formerly a building contractor, he has written and/or edited many books, magazines and much web content about building and remodeling.

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