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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006

WEEK 3

BARRIER-FULL BUILDING

Home sweet 'death-defying' condo homes


Staff writer

Scandal continues to swirl around erroneous -- and potentially lethal -- structural assessments of hotels and condominiums by former architect Hidetsugu Aneha. Few, however, would detract from the universally accessible, "barrier-free" design of most modern Japanese condos. Few except Shusaku Arakawa, that is.

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An external view of the "Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka in Memory of Helen Keller"

An internationally acclaimed, award-winning painter-turned-architectural-designer, Arakawa brands typical modern Japan dwellings as lifeless and inhuman -- not to mention harmful. This is, he insists, partly because they feature too many straight lines and flat planes that do not exist in nature.

By contrast, Arakawa, who now bases himself in New York, advocates "architecture that defies death." How? By incorporating inconveniences and obstacles in his designs in order to bring people's sensory perception back to life -- or by helping them "externalize" themselves, as the 69-year-old artist describes it.

A case in point is Arakawa's latest work, "Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka in Memory of Helen Keller," in Mitaka, Tokyo. His work on a nine-unit condo there in the capital's western outskirts symbolizes what he terms his mission to create "an apparatus through which we bring our life closer to eternity."

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Interior shot from the study looking into the living-room

"Imagine going to a restaurant with your mother," Arakawa said on the phone from New York this month as he embarked on an attempt to explain more about his mission. "The moment you open the door to the restaurant, you feel bad vibes from the place, and you head out immediately. What causes those vibes? It is something created by you that is an extension of yourself. Those vibes, which are often referred to as 'an atmosphere,' are alive but invisible. . . . So far, no one has studied such things. That's why I thought of creating an apparatus like this."

Ball-shaped rooms

Apparatus indeed, because from the outside the three-story Mitaka building beside a busy, six-lane road looks nothing like a condo, what with its cube- and ball-shaped rooms in 14 different colors sticking out here and there in a seeming jumble. According to Arakawa, the color combination was meticulously selected by himself and collaborating artist Madeline Gins. That's no doubt so -- but the result could be mistaken for an alternative kindergarten or an off-the-wall museum.

Then there are the interiors. Each unit is round, with a kitchen/dining space in the middle. It has three or four doorless rooms (study, bedroom, bathroom, etc.) sticking out in various directions. The studies, though, are like no others, being bright yellow or green in color with no space for an ordinary desk because they hardly have any flat surface inside.

"You won't feel alone in this space; you can even hear your voice echo," said Momoyo Homma, president of Architectural Body Research Foundation, Arakawa's representative office in Japan, as she showed me around the building.

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The ceiling hooks "wardrobe" system

I sat in the ball-like room, or at least tried to. I kept slipping, as if I were inside a balloon -- but sure enough, when I shrieked I did hear my voice echo. The room had a power point and television and phone jacks, I noticed -- but where to put a TV or computer? Then, wishing to put on a light, I found the switch was positioned at ankle height. Even the wall-mounted door intercom was canted at 45 degrees -- all the better, perhaps, to exercise your muscles as you risk a crick in the neck while tilting your head to greet guests.

Under foot, meanwhile, the floor looked and felt like the surface of the moon. Sloping at a 20-degree angle from one end to the other, it was also full of bumps just waiting to trip anyone foolhardy enough to walk without great caution (and/or a walking frame).

Um . . . and not to seem too picky, but where ought one put one's . . . stuff? By now it's almost not surprising to find there's next to no room anywhere for a closet or drawers. But Homma said (reassuringly pointing out myriad hooks in the ceiling) that this can help residents exercise their minds -- and come up with unique and creative storage ideas.

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A view from the center of a condominium, looking over the kitchen table and into the bathroom with its time-travel-like shower

Thanks in part to its novelty, the condo has attracted visits from some 100 prospective buyers so far. But it's a tough sell -- not least for financial reasons.

Because virtually all parts of the condo are hand-made, and because they are sturdily built with "as many reinforcing bars as you can possibly have," Homma explains that prices for the roughly 60-sq.-meter units range from 89 million yen to 100 million yen -- twice the neighborhood's average.

Dream spaces

In fact, while most condos in Japan are sold even before construction, not one of Arakawa's dream spaces has yet attracted a buyer three months after completion -- except for one unit snapped up by a group of sponsors who have backed the project from the beginning.

Nevertheless, Arakawa is determined to continue his pursuit of "barrier-full" housing. Right now, he is looking for a sponsor to help him build a "death-defying" hotel.

"Preferably, I would like to build it right above a station on the JR Yamamote or Chuo lines, so anyone can stay overnight whenever they feel like it," Arakawa said. And now that he has his prototype completed at Mitaka, building costs would be much less next time, he added.

Perhaps, as he proudly predicts, the day might yet come when "Reversible Destiny" will be this country's Next Big Thing . . .



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