‘Yellow Sphere, how are you today?’ Reversing Destiny with Arakawa and Gins.

Author: Renske Maria van Dam

 

With their juxtaposed architectural elements, intersecting wall configurations  and bright colors the buildings by Shusaku Arakawa and Madeleine Gins (hereafter A+G) overturn the concept of architecture to date. A+G  hang doors on the ceiling, tilt floors to play with your perception of scale and randomly place columns as to create an indoor forest. Free of established design rules their architectural pataphysics even suggest to defy gravity.  In October 2018 I was invited by the Arakawa + Gins Tokyo Office (Coordinologist, Inc.) to reside in the Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka- In memory of Helen Keller. It is my turn to experience how their architecture innovates and changes the world.

Situated in the suburbs of Tokyo The Mitaka Lofts are easy to recognize upon arrival. The colorful volumes and patch-work windows stimulate the senses and show some resemblance to the children’s playground across the road. The composition of stacked spheres, cylinders and cubes form three little towers. The towers are connected by a flourishing and well-kept garden on the ground floor and balustrades on the upper levels.  If you take the challenge to climb up to the rooftop terrace you enter another communal garden from which you can see Mt. Fuji.

In total the compound consists of nine individual lofts. Each loft is organized around an central area. This central area is characterized by a bumpy, slightly tiled, floor and a sunken kitchen. Scattered throughout the central area you may find playful elements like, for example, a ladder-shaped metal pillar, power sockets hanging from the ceiling or a hammock. A cylindrical bathroom, a spherical room and one or two cubical rooms intersect the central area. This results in an irregular floorplan, so inhabitants can freely choose their preferred place for sleeping, relaxing and, most importantly, playing.

 

Procedural architecture

The Mitaka Lofts are as much a philosophical work as a spatial intervention that celebrates a playful life. Upon entering my loft I learn that reading the discussion on crisis ethics in  Architectural Body1 is required for (temporary) inhabitants. A + G see architecture not merely as passive, shelter providing or monumental structures, but as active participant in life and death matters. They believe that when fully associating yourself with your  architectural surrounds you can succeed in outliving your death sentences. Therefore, moving beyond an ideology of time, A+G introduce to you an architectural life in which dying is illegal.

To further their philosophical implication’s and its impact on human life they designed architecture as so called procedural tools for daily research. Their system of design is based on observational, transformational and reconfigurative procedurals to construct life, rather than to design architecture. Procedural architecture offersprocess-oriented speculations to the way our moving bodies and environment mutually form and extend each other. A functional tool, whether it be a hammer, a telephone, or a telescope, extends the senses, but procedural architecture examines and reorders the sensorium’1. In 1994 A+G developed their first architectural methods and explore the very process of inhabitation itself.  The basis of each procedural is a, conceptually or bodily, throwing off balance in such a way that the relations between body and environment wax unfamiliar. During their career a diversity of architectural procedurals emerged from this initial practice, for example the ‘scale-juggling procedure’, the ‘tentativeness cradling procedure’, ‘disperse to contrast procedure’, ‘x for y substituting procedure’ and the earlier referred to ‘mistake on purpose procedure’.

 

Yellow Sphere, how are you today?

A couple of months before my visit to The Mitaka Lofts I spent ten consecutive days in the Bioscleave House, Life Span expanding Villa in East Hampton, New York. While residing there I already became familiar with some of the habitual changes A+G’s procedural architecture offers. I learned how to hang my clothes on the ceiling or how to navigate the bumpy floor while going to the toilet during dark nights. The Bioscleave Villa has a different character than The Mitaka Lofts, nonetheless I quickly adjust to the experimental A+G lifestyle.

The sphere rooms, a unique attractor of The Mitaka Lofts, offer a completely new world to explore. Each loft has one sphere room. With a diameter of, a little less than, three meters the rooms provide enough space for you to stand up straight without bumping your head. The sphere rooms are connected to the central area of the loft by a door-size opening and also have a rectangular window facing the surrounding neighborhood.  The sphere rooms come in different colors (yellow, blue, orange etc.) and are used in different ways. For example the yellow one in my apartment is completely empty leaving open different possibilities of use, but the orange sphere in one of the other apartments is filled with pillows, a swing and mainly used for reading.

Spending several hours within one of the yellow spheres I start to become attentive to all the tiny perceptions that influence my spatiotemporal experience. Moving beyond initial questions such as What does the color or form do to my body? I start to notice the little changes in light and sound. The interference between natural and artificial light merges the edges of the sphere in such a way that they almost disappear. Every sound I make is amplified but all the environmental sounds, both outside on the streets and in other parts of the loft, drift to the background. Looking from the sphere towards other parts of the loft my perspective starts to change. Instead of standing on the earth’s surface, I suddenly find myself within. 

Inhabitation of the lofts comes together with a list of playful and sensorium extending ‘instructions for use’. Deepening my understanding of A+G’s work I decide to take their instructions seriously.  Inspired by #10 and #19 of the instructions, respectively, ‘In addition to treating your floor a keyboard, from time to time enter into conversation with it (for example: “hello’ ‘What is going on with you’ etc.. )’ and ‘Every month move through your loft as a different animal (snake, deer, tortoise, elephant, giraffe, penguin, etc.) ‘ I use both words and my body to start a conversation with the sphere.

While talking and moving with(in) the sphere, experimenting freely while being highly attentive to what I am doing, a new level of awareness arises.  Within this spherical construction gravity brings you back to the lowest point quite quickly. Turning up my voice means more echo and (self-)reflection. When trying to trick the spherical system a playful game emerges in which I imagine myself moving to the right whilst actually I am moving into the opposite direction. While bouncing back-and-forth a duet between my potential and actual body comes into existence. Both in moving and in talking my pivot point is hovering somewhere in- between, or even beyond, sphere and body. A surprisingly new relation between me and the sphere arises. Though I theoretically know how I am influencing my sensory system in the inner ear that maintains my sense of balance, the experience that emerges from this experiment goes beyond spatial disorientation. New levels of care arise in this process of moving and talking with(in) the sphere.

In a later conversation, one of the permanent users of The Mitaka Lofts explains to me that she is wondering how the spheres are doing when she is away from home for a few days.

 

Reversing Destiny

As architects we can asks ourselves if we want to live in an apartment that can help you to understand the nature and extent of interactions between us and the universe and if we actually want to learn ‘how not to die’. Moreover, an architectural intervention coming together with a philosophical text and instructions for use leaves the critic with some questions. Why not just read the book? Is the design of this architectural badinage not good enough to stand by itself and vice versa?

The Mitaka Lofts, including their philosophy, provide a form of tacit knowledge that is, especially in contemporary urban landscape, an utmost valuable learning school for every architect. Also if you have no intent to change the world or propose a reversed destiny.  Activating an architectural procedural means to make tacit knowledge explicit. The double operation of thinking and (counter) experiencing makes it possible to understand what situated body awareness  means conceptually as well as experientially. New meaning and actual habitual changes emerge from which alternative experiences inevitably form. There is still much more to learn from A+G’s approach to architecture. Therefore I suggest to keep on talking to and moving with their architectural surrounds beyond precast destinies.  

 

 

Renske Maria van Dam is independent architect and practice based researcher. She is part of the Radical Materiality Research Group at KU Leuven in Brussels (BE) and is lecturer at the ArtScience interfaculty at the Royal Academy of Arts and Royal Conservatoire in the Hague (NL). www.renskemaria.com

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