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The Reversible Destiny:
Architecture of Arakawa & Madeline Gins
by Jeff Byles
There, smack in a neighborhood called the Neutralized and Neutralizing Delta, you will enter a space engineered expressly to raise questions about how life’s architectural event-fabric shapes our bodies into ourselves. So take a left on Nonetheless Street, where you will experience the novelty of being of two minds. Veer right on Momentum Street (keep moving, or else), and continue down to Rinsed Perception Street, where you’ll delight in the spatio-temporal equivalent of a wash-and-wax for the frontal lobe. Now you will have traversed, in miniature, the journey at the heart of architectural collaborators Arakawa and Madeline Gins’ Reversible Destiny project, a collection of built and unbuilt environments designed to blow the doors off perception and make life worth living again.
Arakawa, known for his work as a painter, and Gins, a poet, have spent their careers nurturing a metaphysics of what it means to be a body in space, and despite what may appear to be winking place-names in their Japanese park, they’re serious. Deadly serious, to be precise. As they have made clear in what remains their most provocative statement: “We have decided not to die.” Indeed, over the last thirty-odd years the New York-based architect-artists have declared war on mortality, suggesting that if we remake our physical environment to the point where we remap our minds, we might discover that dying itself is defunct. That’s what it means to reverse destiny. “Death,” the artists explain, “is old-fashioned.”
The streets mentioned above are just part of the carefully detailed cartography at Yoro park, which is Arakawa and Gins’ major urban-scale work to date. Officially known as Site of Reversible Destiny—Yoro, the park opened in 1995 and continues to draw thousands of paying visitors per week. These pioneers of teetering, sutured space-time roam the 200,000 square feet of tilted earth and pavement, which is traversed by trenches and meandering pathways, dotted with sod-covered mounds, most of it swirled into a steep-sloped depression known as the Elliptical Field: a corral for tomorrow’s archo-nauts. The town of Yoro, which is situated in Gifu Prefecture, between Tokyo and Kyoto, spent some $16 million on the project, a sort of theme park for the “architectural body,” as Arakawa and Gins refer to the human being folded into its architectural envelope. Large-scale maps of various cities are etched into the park’s high-walled rim, such that you can wander from Times Square into midtown Beijing, lose a heel in Cairo, and do a backspin in Bangkok—all within a few somersaults of Moscow. It’s a kind of disorientation by design: “Instead of being fearful of losing your balance,” the artists advise, “look forward to it.”
For a glimpse of how Arakawa and Gins have evolved radically new constructs of space, visit the nearby Critical Resemblances House, a warren
of multiple entrances, distorted interiors, and domestic spaces cleaved by veering pathways, all sliced through by more of the artists’ trademark curved, labyrinthine spans. Imagine a mobile home jackknifed in the middle of a Dali painting. Bits of kitchen can be found in the living room; bits of living room turn up in the bathroom; all of it is installed mirror-like on the ceiling. The artists call it “an identity crisis of a house,” and why not?
It takes the notion of home and literally turns it inside out, attempting to upset our sense of being in the world by dragging a wall through the middle of a bathtub, or routing passageways through armchairs. The aim of such decor is to confront the visitor with “fructifying moments of overwhelming indecision.” Architecture takes on the quality of a zen koan or acid trip. “It may take five hours,” the artists write of one of their interiors, “to get from one side of the room to the other.”
Critical Resemblances House (constructed 1994). The initial member in a series of houses designed to function as tactically posed surrounds, this house of many entrances (20 in all) consists of a steel rectilinear labyrinth atop a poured-concrete and steel-girded curvilinear one. Composed of welded-together labyrinths that, in proffering angular paths above curving ones, often invite the body to move simultaneously in opposing and absurdly divisive ways, requiring incompatible sets of directed action, the house turns its visitors into jagged and jumbled question marks on the move. In addition to the two seven-room houses incorporated into each labyrinth, two other full complements of rooms exist at the basement level, visible through patches of weight-supporting glass built here and there into the ground floor, setting the stage for the conducting of an investigation into how and why one instance of existing as a person within a house resembles another. Sitting at the far end of a park named Site of Reversible Destiny (Gifu, Japan), Critical Resemblances House doubles as a master plan for nine pavilions scattered throughout the park’s 500-foot diameter Elliptical Bowl.