How the Bioscleave House Works


The Bioscleave House, designed by Arakawa and Gins See more pictures of home design.
Photo courtesy Joke Post/Arakawa + Gins

Benjamin Franklin once said, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." A host of tax evaders have tried to get out of the latter certainty, only to end up in prison. But refusing to die -- that just seems ludicrous, right? Not to Arakawa and Madeline Gins, a husband-and-wife team known for their architecture, art and poetry. When you go to their Web site, you are greeted by the following phrase: "We have decided not to die."

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Well, good for them, you may think as you look at the bold words. The rest of us here in the real world will keep on following the ordained pattern. But what if we didn't have to? Since Arakawa and Gins met in 1963, they have been exploring art as a way to "reverse the downhill course of human life" [source: Bernstein]. They call this pursuit "reversible destiny," which means that death does not have to be inevitable for humans.

Arakawa and Gins believe we can reinvent ourselves as immortal beings by changing and challenging our perceptions. The best way to shake up our beliefs, as presented by Arakawa and Gins, is to change the very nature of how and where we live. That's why these two have designed residences that force the occup­ant to interact with his or her surroundings in a different way. That's the idea behind the Bioscleave House, a home constructed in New York that will have its residents living forever, if the architects are to be believed. No elixir of youth, no cryogenic freezing -- just pay the mortgage and you will not die.

Interested? Well, beyond the price of the house, there's a high price to pay for this kind of immortality: The house is not comfortable, and no real estate agent will try to convince you otherwise. All your previous expectations of a home, such as a flat floor or the occasional door, all go out the oddly placed window at the Bioscleave House. And that's exactly the point. Arakawa and Gins don't want you to be comfortable, because comfortable complacency could lead to death. You'll need to stay on your toes to stay alive.

So can this house really prevent death? What architectural features will keep us alive? We'll peek inside the Bioscleave House on the next page.

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Inside the Bioscleave House

The layout of the Bioscleave House
The layout of the Bioscleave House
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Architects Arakawa and Gins were originally commissioned in the late 1990s to build a small add-on to an existing home in East Hampton, N.Y., that would explore the themes of reversible destiny. The homeowner abandoned the project when costs rose dramatically, but the project was saved by a group of professors who provided the financing to buy the house from its owner and complete the project. It cost more than $2 million to build, even with Arakawa and Gins persuading companies to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars of labor and products [source: Bernstein].

What does $2 million buy you, besides immortality? On first look at the house, it appears it would buy you a lot of paint. Both the exterior and the interior are splashed with vibrant colors with names like pink popsicle, tricycle red and traffic light green. About 40 colors are in the house altogether.

The home contains a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a study. That might sound conventional, but the kitchen is sunken into the center of the house. Bumpy flooring rises around the kitchen in undulating waves. Around the funky flooring are the other rooms, but they lack some of the traditional comforts of home you might expect. For one, none of the rooms have doors, not even the bathroom. Good luck trying to plug in a nightlight, because the outlets are scattered at odd angles. And if you'd hoped for a room with a view to spend immortality, better get used to the windows that are at unconventional heights.

Poles are located throughout the house to help you over the bumpy floor.
Photo courtesy Joke Post/Arakawa + Gins

Those windows have one important effect that starts to get at the heart of what Arakawa and Gins are trying to accomplish. Because they're either very high or low, you can't establish where the horizon is. You don't know what's level and what's not. The roof is not always a fixed distance from the floor. You can't use your normal ways of getting around, which you may not even have to think about at this point; tools like depth perception and distance don't apply.

Arakawa and Gins claim that losing balance and using your body in surprising ways to maintain equilibrium will stimulate the immune system, which will eventually stop aging and death [source: Bernstein]. But there's a mental component as well. Think about a room that has levels that make you feel like you're two places at once. That violates your idea of what a room should be, and by changing your idea of how architecture should work, you may be changing your ideas about how life should work. A rejection of traditional architecture may bring a rejection of traditional norms that include death, if Arakawa and Gins are to be believed.

No one lived in the home as of April 2008, and it's unknown what the financiers of the project have planned. If the rest of us continue the normal march to death, we may never know if an occupant attains immortality. But how do Arakawa and Gins see this house working, in theory? Find out how this house is supposed to prevent death on the next page.

Reversible Destiny: Achieving Immortality with Architecture

Feeling the way over the flooring
Feeling the way over the flooring
Photo courtesy Joke Post/Arakawa + Gins

Architecture has always been designed to prolong life, from the bunkers built to protect soldiers to the caves that sheltered the earliest humans from the elements. But in thinking about prolonging life now, scientists are more apt to study how science and computers can help us. We're told to get off the couch to exercise and eat right, but Arakawa and Gins would likely argue that the complacency and familiarity inherent in being a couch potato is the bigger risk. The architecture that we inhabit shapes us, and Arakawa and Gins think they have developed architecture with a far better effect.

When Arakawa met Madeline Gins, he explained that Helen Keller was the ideal way to think about art. Because she was blind and deaf, she had to re-evaluate the world every time she moved, and just learning about language gave her a new world [source: Delville]. This blank slate may be what Arakawa and Gins are trying to create for occupants of their residences. A blankness may imply that no thoughts have already filled the space, thoughts that may lead you to believe that you have to die. And if you have to work really hard within that blankness, as Helen Keller did, you may forget that you have to die. If Helen Keller had known that she didn't have to die, she may have been a prime candidate for immortality.

Helen Keller was much more aware of her surroundings than a person who can see and hear may be, because the latter person takes their surroundings for granted. Arakawa and Gins force even the most able-bodied among us to be a part of our surroundings, to let them change us and mold us. Indeed, the pair sees our surroundings as a vital part of us; they use the term architectural body to refer to both the person and the person's surroundings. This, to them, is the whole. The Bioscleave House draws its name from the way a body holds, or cleaves, to these surroundings.

This bathroom without a door may change your perception of privacy.
Photo courtesy Joke Post/ Arakawa + Gins

So rather than sitting back and taking in the view from the couch, Arakawa and Gins want you up and climbing over bumpy floors, being thrown off course by an unconventional house. Not only may it have the physical benefit of stimulating the immune system, this process is also reordering your thinking of what a house should be. If architecture is indeed one of our defining relationships to the world, then in turn, we're reordering our theories about how the world should work. We see there's more than one possibility, and more than one way to do things. If you don't have a theory that concludes that you have to die, well, then, maybe you don't. Changing your reality by changing your perception isn't a new idea, as evidenced by countless philosophy tomes and "The Matrix" movies.

Maybe it all sounds a bit kooky, and even some of Arakawa and Gins' friends debate whether the two buy their own lines [source: Bernstein]. It may just be an art project in which the viewer becomes a very large part of the art. Yet their Web site reminds us that it once seemed incomprehensible that humans could fly, and that architecture solved that problem through the design of the airplane.

A neuroscientist at MIT says that as disorienting as the house appears now, it will likely become familiar and counteract the off-putting effect that Arakawa and Gins have tried to develop [source: Simon]. But are there any other examples of the effects of Arakawa and Gins' work? On the next page, we'll take a look at some other reversible destiny projects.

Other Reversible Destiny Projects

Another view of the Bioscleave House kitchen
Another view of the Bioscleave House kitchen
Photo courtesy Margot List/Arakawa + Gins

The Bioscleave House is not the first destiny-altering project to be constructed. In 1995, Arakawa and Gins completed the "Site of Reversible Destiny," a theme park of sorts in Japan. The park is a labyrinth meant to destroy the visitor's sense of stability; the museum guide encourages you to enjoy being off-balance. Still, you can borrow a helmet at the front gate for the spills that may occur as you traverse the steep curving paths and the mazes [source: Howard]. Despite the frequent falls and the occasional broken bone, it's a popular tourist spot [sources: Bernstein, Newsweek].

In 1997, the Guggenheim Museum SoHo presented an exhibit of Arakawa and Gins' work. The first part of the exhibit was an early collection of paintings called "The Mechanism of Meaning." The paintings are little puzzles, with instructions like "Think One Say Two" [source: Smith]. The paintings offer a glimpse of how Arakawa and Gins might have tried to stimulate our brains, change our perception and challenge our thinking of what constitutes art if they hadn't turned to architecture.

The second part of the exhibit, "Reversible Destiny Architecture," was the first glimpse the United States had of this kind of housing. One example was the Critical Resemblances House, which was constructed as part of the Japanese park. In the accompanying text, Arakawa and Gins delighted in the fact that "it could take hours to go from the living room to the kitchen" and that it might "take several days to find everywhere in the house that the dining room turns up" [sources: Smith, Kawash].

In reviewing the exhibit, one critic wrote that it was impossible to tell what it would be like to live in such a landscape. In 2007, Arakawa and Gins constructed a housing project to determine the answer. The Reversible Destiny Lofts are located in a Tokyo suburb and are made up of nine apartment units. The apartments contain many of the same features as the Bioscleave House, including a sunken kitchen and an erratic floor. One glass door is so small you have to crawl out.

Still, the entire project met building code, and people have been paying $763,000 to live there, even though a regular apartment in the same neighborhood costs half as much [source: Newsweek]. Some interested parties reported that the price might be high for an apartment but low for a work of art [source: Knight Ridder]. Each loft comes with a set of directions, and living in one is supposed to help reframe what is possible. Arakawa claims that the elderly residents of the apartment have thanked him, saying that in just three or four months, they feel much healthier [source: Bernstein]. The apartments can also be preassembled, so similar sites could be exported around the world.

If you're interested in homes and death, don't reverse your destiny to go to the next page.

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Sources

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  • "Artist offers apartments with an avant-garde look." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. Oct. 16, 2005.
  • Bernstein, Fred A. "A House Not for Mere Mortals." New York Times. April 3, 2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/garden/03destiny.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all
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