Book Review

by Geraldine McKenzie


Architectural Body
Madeline Gins and Arakawa
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
Contemporary Poetics Series
(eds. Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer), 2002


Recently I happened to watch Libertarias, a Spanish film about the civil war, and was reminded of the optimism that characterized Marxism and anarchism in the early stages of development. This may well be a characteristic shared by all revolutions/revolutionary ideologies in their initial phases, there’s a very moving quotation from an old woman from the Congo upon hearing the good news that God was a loving god: “There now! I was certain in my heart that there is a God like that.” [1] And it struck me that one of the most impressive qualities of Architectural Body is optimism, the delight, even, with which Gins and Arakawa articulate a vision that, like Marxism and Christianity, offers a version of Utopia: “In architecture we have the means to construct awareness on a new basis. (56) It is “the greatest tool available to our species, both for figuring itself out and for constructing itself differently.” (xxi) Gins and Arakawa write with the conviction that humans can achieve a version of heaven and, like the Marxists, they locate it here on earth. In “Architecture as Hypothesis,” a vision of this new world is presented in an imagined tour conducted by the writers; their guests, Roger and Angela, move beyond their initial skepticism to pleasure, understanding, ease, even expressing ideas that extend their guides’ perceptions.

Interestingly, the last lines of Libertarias express a vision of the earth renamed Freedom, the exploiters are cast out and there will be an end to death (this is spoken over the dying figure of a feminist/anarchist). Offers of immortality are ubiquitous in religion, less common with ideologies and positively rare in architectural theory. Some readers may choose to see the immortality promised by Gins and Arakawa as metaphorical but this seems to ignore the integral position of “reversible destiny” in the text. This concept is grounded in the importance of preserving life: “That human life is expendable… is antithetical to any ethics putting the highest value of all on the preserving of life.” (xvii) My difficulty with this is that I’m not sure the preservation of life is or should be “highest” in value. I see ethics as a constant negotiation of the claims of a number of values that will not always unanimously point us in one direction. Anything less seems an unwarranted simplification. But this is a qualification, rather than an invalidation, of what Gins and Arakawa have to say, which is much more complex and nuanced; not so much a program for achieving immortality as a treatise exploring fresh and stimulating concepts of philosophy, perception, identity, contingency and some pertinent hints as to what we should be spending our money on.

Of course, Gins and Arakawa realize how radical their notion of “reversible destiny” is and suggest a less confronting way to understand it — “an open challenge to our species to reinvent itself and to desist from foreclosing on any possibility, even those our contemporaries judge to be impossible.” (xviii) Their optimism comes without the blinkered certainty of the progress paradigm or the trade-offs some religions extort. They joyously and consciously approach their project, which to the average skeptical reader seems impossible; in fact impossibility is not such an obstacle as the (apparently) sheer absurdity of suggesting we could live forever and one asks — can they be serious? They are: serious and joking/laughing — this work/play simultaneous as a child. They invoke the Don, tilting at windmills: “why not indeed build the whole of the world in which those windmills tilt…”. Acknowledging that their “contemporaries look at the two of us as if we were Don Quixotes,” they relish the comparison: “And indeed we tip our hats to a comparable indomitableness, even as we rush to contrast our impossibilities with his. For our part, we never approach anything impossible unless the setup is right.” (xix)

There is, however, an odd, and potentially problematic conjunction of ideas running through the text. Gins and Arakawa approach identity and perception in a way that could almost be described as common sense, if only it were common. They acknowledge the contingency of personality in their explication of perception and the “organism that persons,” a term used “because it portrays persons as being intermittent and transitory outcomes of co-ordinated forming rather than honest-to-goodness entities.” (2) Humans are no longer to be considered in brooding separation from life: “the body needs to be defined together with that within which it moves… the surroundings need to be defined together with bodies moving within them.” (xx) “Isolating persons from their architectural surrounds leads to a dualism no less pernicious than that of mind and body.” (44) These claims have that rightness that is both old and new; like the best of visionaries, Gins and Arakawa reveal to us what we realize we always knew.

Their account of perception is subtle and compelling in its conclusions: “Each of us becomes an everywhere evenly distributed agent, dropping the centralizing habit that members of our species have had for such a terribly long time.” (35) As for those who wish to argue that we cannot trust the validity of sensory perception, an argument I’ve always found not only specious but irrelevant — whether or not this chair exists, I still intend to sit on it — Gins and Arakawa are equally disbelieving: “It would also be ridiculous for someone using a flashlight to find the path out of a labyrinthine cave and bumping up against uneven walls and low overhangs or tripping upon rocks and stalagmites and then sliding into and splashing through shallow puddles to wonder if indeed this might be a hollowed-out figment of her imagination.” (42) This practicality also manifests itself in an attack on abstraction and “thinking taken as a single course of action… an outrageously reductive definition.” (53) Appealing again to that bedrock of knowledge that lies somewhere beneath the accretions of society and culture, they ask: “Does anyone really believe that a person could ever be figured out as such in the abstract?” (6) And again, “Questions about the nature and purpose of our species cannot be answered through reflection alone.” (xiv). The world is a “mass of chaos, this massive mix of order and chaos… people are forced to abstract in order to proceed, but any abstracting requires that not as much be taken into consideration as ought to be. A person can never get to the bottom of her own alertness.” (52)

Gins and Arakawa seek to restore life to us, in its complexity and difference: “A ruling concern is that nothing conceivably belonging in the picture… be left out of it. This emphasis on an all-inclusiveness, an inclination to attend to everything, naturally leads to more specificity, a searching out of exact placements of, and uses for, the elements and features of architectural environments.” (xix) And simultaneously to restore us to our liveliness which has been dissipated by our consciousness of mortality, we live in a “crisis condition which gets routinely covered up… Much of the liveliness on this planet registers numb… All intellectual efforts thus far, in East and West alike, have been largely stopgap measures.” (xxv)

However, sensible as much of this is, how practical is a plan to prolong life indefinitely? Might not the preservation of individual life be in conflict with preservation of the species and, of course, the planet? Equally, while one admires the offhand way in which economic considerations are dismissed, how practical or feasible is this? To pose a question that is both banal and yet relevant — where does the money come from? The world’s defence budgets would be ideal as a beginning, of course, but how do we reach the point where that becomes likely? Further, when the need for money for food/health/education is so pressing, can we justify spending “enormous amounts” on developing an architecture that may help some humans resolve their (our) existential problems?

And yet, what the writers propose is quite different to spending money on, for example, the sort of medical research whose benefits, at best, might eventually trickle down to the lower strata of the world community. If the U.S., say, was to adopt this principle — “[e]conomic priority should be given to the resolving of existential puzzles: What is this species in the first place? What lives and what dies?” (xxi) — it would surely benefit not only millions of Americans, but a multitude of others, inspired anew by the resurgence of revolutionary America. In such a world, food/health/education would be taken care of, people would be taken care of, for can anyone doubt that the importance of this would at last be fully and completely acknowledged?

As I indicated at this beginning of this piece, Architectural Body is a visionary and revolutionary work. It inspires one to believe that much more is possible than we’ve allowed for, that we can move beyond the small adjustments and consolations of our current existence to a new Eden “where people work and play at figuring out what in the world they could possibly be.” (62) In a spirit of attentiveness and inclusiveness, and acknowledging, as religion and ideology rarely do, our uncertainty and tentativeness, Gins and Arakawa announce the possibility of transcendence: “If we overflow with a sentient tentativeness (read awareness), then transcendence is here and now and can and should be constructively and crisis-ethically reworked — the spiritual and the critical become one.” (81)

I have quoted extensively from Architectural Body because one of the great pleasures of this text is the way language is used. Poem/treatise/dialogue/manifesto — Architectural Body is all of these. As manifesto, it sounds a note that seems to have been absent too long — “Let our species cease being stunned into silence and passivity, into defeatism, by an architecture that seems so accomplished but that leads nowhere.” (39) Rousing stuff and yet was ever a manifesto so good-humoured as this, so satisfactory in its combination of idealism and practicality, the profound and the obvious (which, being so, is frequently neglected). (I note in passing, this is one manifesto with no hit list.) Read it, read it again and, if you are in a position to supply the authors with the funding they require, do it for all of us.

[1] Eli Sagan, At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression and the State (New York, Vintage Books: 1986)


BIO: Geraldine McKenzie is a poet who lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia. Her first book of poetry, Duty, was published in 2001 by Paper Bark Press/ Craftsman House.

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