Karen Mac Cormack


Reversible Destiny


Working Note

This brief statement is not an essay, rather it contextualizes my thinking through the oeuvre of Gins and Arakawa and  is  intended as an accompaniment to my poems written as a response to Reversible Destiny.

The architectural projects of Madeline Gins and Arakawa served as my introduction to innovative architectural practice in the late 1990s, and just as their work isn’t without precedents the endeavours of other architects should further contextualize their realized and proposed projects.

One of these is Claude Parent whose proposal (with Paul Virillio) in the 1960s of “inclined planes,” or the oblique, meant that “The foundation of life was not neutral any longer but active, and the disruption caused by the inclined plane could not be misunderstood since it was addressed to obvious human attitudes like balance and imbalance (stability, instability, shift of references) It used indisputable means of direct information such as tactility. The non-coded ‘foot’ and the non-coded ‘hand’ also became foremost and unquestionable information sources and superseded the eye and the logical intelligence, which are considered usual filters of the understanding of space.”[1]

Parent goes on to state that he “. . . continually reasserted that the oblique was not an architecture proposing a new language, but rather a tool. This approach always prompts fresh issues to be raised, leading to the discovery of new solutions and relations to the space, and finally creation of new spaces which would have been unimaginable through traditional methods of creation.”[2] In the 1990s Gins and Arakawa similarly assert: “Architecture is a tool that can be used as writing has been, except that it can have a far more extensive range of application.”[3] For them, “The task of architecture is to mete out the world in such a way that it might be reflected on body-wide. And what does thinking — global body-wide thinking — need? Thinking surely needs perseverance in the matter at hand, the continual pursuing of that which perplexes, a coming at it and to it from all sides.”[4]

In his Digital Dreams (2000) Neil Spiller takes us literally within and beyond the body-as-tool in architecture:

“Recent tissue engineering successes with growing bone cultures could quite easily cause bone to become one of the new structural materials. The murky blanket of the body is being understood, unwrapped and rewrapped. This reconditioning of the body influences architecture, as it is this wet and leaking blanket that is our sensitive channel through which we ‘receive’ architecture.”[5]

Spiller asserts that in the future architects “will have nanoengineering at their disposal . . . The mechanical and the organic will be reconciled by the transformation of the prima materia of architecture and alchemy: space. Subtle manipulations of space at an atomic level will produce astounding changes at higher scales. This will influence human perception itself.”[6]

While Gins and Arakawa design architectural surrounds that will ostensibly transform human perception, Spiller’s claim is for nanotechnology to enact such transformative capabilities. Spiller is acutely aware of the ethical implications of the ideas he puts forward:

“Amazing advances in biotechnology have revealed an intricate world of proteins and genes the manipulation of which is fraught with ethical quandaries.”[7] and again, “With such a power we immediately have to negotiate a series of ethical positions that were previously academic. For example, how smart does a building have to get before it has rights and moral obligations? Or, what is the philosophical status of objects sculptured and cultured in flesh?”[8]

To my knowledge Gins and Arakawa have not addressed such concerns in their published work.

Certainly innovative architects propose welcome antidotes to much of the existent architecture comprising our experience. The fact that there are degrees of innovation is one we should never lose sight of and  it is important to recognize that Gins and Arakawa’s proposals are part of a collective provocation that continues to unfold in varying degrees of radicality throughout the 20th century, from Matta Echaurren to Constant through Claude Parent to Neil Spiller, now into the 21st century.[9] Every aspect of this collective challenge is accompanied by individual levels and issues of unease. It is our ongoing responsibility to ensure that ethical considerations are part of the determining process, and it’s not only in architecture that we must question the proposed innovations we might choose to live within.


[1] Claude Parent, “The Oblique Function Meets Electronic Media”, Hyperspace Architecture I, London: Architectural Design, 1998, p 75.
[2] Ibid, pp 75–76.
[3] Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Reversible Destiny.  New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997, p 12.
[4] Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Architectural Body, 2000, manuscript (since published by the University of Alabama Press, 2002), hereafter referred to as AB, p 10.
[5] Neil Spiller, Maverick Deviations.  In Architectural Works 1985–1998, Architectural Monograph No. 53.  Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2000, p 100.
[6] Ibid, p 84.
[7] Ibid, p 100.
[8] Ibid, p 101.
[9] Some of these would include Constant’s “labyrinth houses”  . . . “consisting of a large number of rooms of irregular form, stairs at angles, lost corners, open spaces, culs-de-sac . . . provide places of adventure.” (Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Cambridge: MIT, 1992, p 213), hereafter referred to as AU.  There is also Matta Echaurren’s “intrauterine” design for an apartment dedicated to the senses, published in Minotaure 11, in 1938, which was a deliberate attack on the commonplaces of the bourgeois home. The perspective view shows materials and forms that merge nature and the inorganic, the mathematical and the tactile. It was, Matta noted, “a space that will bring into consciousness human verticality.” A true vertigo machine, composed of “different levels, a stair without a handrail to overcome the void,” it was also a space of psychological interaction. Its columns were “psychological Ionic”; its furnishings “supple, pneumatic.” Matta specified inflatable rubber, cork, paper, and plaster for the soft areas, all for better contrast, framed in an “armature of rational architecture.” (Matta Echaurren, “Mathématique sensible—Architecture du temps”, adaptation by Georges Hugnet, Minotaure 11, 1938, p 43.  Also Vidler, AU, p. 153).  Other examples are Reyner Banham and François Dallegret’s “The Environment Bubble” (Art in America, no. 53, April 1965. and in Simon Sadler, The Situationist City, Cambridge: MIT, 1998, p 39), hereafter referred to as SC; Michael Webb’s “Cuschicle” for Archigram 1966–1967, a “complete nomadic unit” (Sadler, SC, p 136); and a helicoidal house noted by Guy-Ernest Debord in “Théorie de la dérive,” (Les lèvres nues, no. 9, Brussels, p 156), who admired its flexibility, and which was “presumably based in turn on Bruce Goff’s extraordinary Bavinger House, Norman, Oklahoma, 1950–1955. The building combined the baroque, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish form beloved by the situationists with a daring suspended structural system of the type adopted by New Babylon’s Hanging Sector, amplifying aspects of the work of Buckminster Fuller, such as his Dymaxion House, 1927.” (Sadler, SC, fn. p 103, p 193).  “Constant embraced the idea, envisaging a system of movable partitions within a fixed framework.” (Sadler, SC, p 132, cf. Gins’ & Arakawa’s Ponge-inspired snail house in AB pp 33–46).

Reversible Destiny



Bio: Karen MacCormack is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, most recently Vanity Release (Zasterle Press, Canary Islands, December 2003). Her trans-historic polybiographical work Implexures (Volume 1) was co-published by Chax Press (USA) and West House Books (UK) in October 2003. She lives in Toronto.

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