IN MITAKA, JAPAN, on a busy street crammed with squat beige buildings, a strange apartment complex jolts the skyline. From the outside, the nine-unit residence resembles a set of child’s blocks, with the same kaleidoscopic jumble of shapes and colors—a green cylinder stacked atop a purple cube, a blue cube resting on a yellow cylinder. Inside, the building is an architectural acid trip. Every one of the nine lofts has a circular living room, with a kitchen plopped right in its center. The bedrooms are square, the bathrooms are barrel-shaped, and the studies are complete spheres. Each unit is painted more than a dozen different colors, none of them subtle. (Apartment 302, for instance, has a blue and lime-green kitchen, a lemon-yellow study, and a forest-green bathroom.) Ladders in the living room lead to nowhere. The concrete floors are studded with grapefruit-sized bumps. The building looks less like a home than an oversized carnival fun house. But for all its apparent whimsy, it was designed with a serious purpose: to cheat death.
The Mitaka lofts were created by Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, married artists who devoted their careers to an idea they called “reversible destiny.” Death, they believed, was “old-fashioned,” “immoral,” and not at all preordained. “That mortality has been the prevailing condition throughout the ages does not mean it will always have to be,” Arakawa and Gins wrote in their 2002 manifesto. “Any resistance mounted thus far against mortality, that ineluctable asphyxiator, has been conducted in too piecemeal a fashion … The effort to counter mortality must be constant, persistent, and total.”
In this effort, they argued, architecture was our most powerful weapon. To resist death, we had to radically reinvent our environments, creating spaces that challenged us both physically and mentally. Living in a place like the Mitaka lofts would keep people off balance, shake them out of their habits and routines, shift their perceptions and perspectives, stimulate their immune systems, and, yes, make them immortal. “We believe that people closely and complexly allied with their architectural surrounds can succeed in outliving their (seemingly inevitable) death sentences!” they wrote.
When I first read about Arakawa and Gins, I assumed it was all an elaborate metaphor, an artistic provocation. But when I visited the Manhattan headquarters of the Reversible Destiny Foundation in the fall of 2018, I learned that they meant it literally. “I think they actually believed that if we achieved this, we could extend our life span,” said Miwako Tezuka, the consulting curator of the foundation, which Arakawa and Gins founded in 2010. “They were really, really, really passionate about their belief.”
They put this belief into practice, building half a dozen projects on both sides of the Pacific. In Yoro, Japan, they designed a 195,000-square-foot public park so destabilizing that visitors are provided with helmets. In East Hampton, New York, they created the Bioscleave House, a single-family home even more extreme than the Mitaka lofts, featuring some forty eye-popping paint colors, windows placed seemingly at random, and steep, bumpy floors surrounding a sunken kitchen. “You’re going to twist your ankle,” warned Stephen Hepworth, director of collections at the Reversible Destiny Foundation. “You may well fall into the kitchen if you’re not careful. Don’t rush to go to the bathroom.”
Although each of their constructions is unique, they’re all designed to disorient, with collisions of shapes, colors, and surfaces and sudden shifts in orientation and scale. (In fact, their spaces are so counterintuitive that they come with instructions.) Exiting one of their buildings, Hepworth said, is “like getting off a roller coaster. You’re a bit off kilter.”
Arakawa and Gins had even bigger dreams, for entire reversible destiny developments, neighborhoods, and towns, or what they described as “cities without graveyards.” They wanted to wage a full-scale, all-out architectural war on mortality. But if they discovered the secret to eternal life, they failed to avail themselves of it. Arakawa passed away in 2010 (Gins refused to reveal the cause of death: “This mortality thing is bad news,” she told The New York Times), and Gins died of cancer four years later.
Their body of work, however, lives on. Those who wish to defy death can rent one of the Mitaka lofts through Airbnb.
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THE NOTION THAT ARCHITECTURE can help us live forever is clearly science fiction. But the promise of improving our health and extending our life spans, even just a little, without ever leaving the house? Well, I found that idea irresistible. After all, I am unapologetically indoorsy. It’s not that I don’t like nature; I think nature is lovely. I’ve been camping numerous times—and enjoyed it! It’s just that I’m anxiety-prone and risk-averse, and the world inside my apartment is warm and cozy and safe. Lots of journalists file dispatches from far-flung places—reporting on wildlife in the Serengeti, floods in the Mekong Delta, and ice cores in Antarctica—but I’ve always felt most comfortable plying my craft from deep inside my living room.
Though I might be at the extreme end of the spectrum, I am not alone; modern humans are essentially an indoor species. North Americans and Europeans spend roughly 90 percent of their time inside, and the indoor environment dwarfs the outdoor one in some major cities. The island of Manhattan is only twenty-three square miles in size but has three times that much indoor floor space. And unlike the outdoor world, the indoor world is expanding. Over the next forty years, the United Nations estimates, the total amount of indoor square footage will roughly double worldwide. “Those additions are equivalent to building the current floor area of Japan every single year from now until 2060,” the organization reported in 2017.
To my delight, more and more scientists have begun to view the indoor environment as worthy of investigation. Researchers in a wide range of fields are now surveying the indoor world, mapping its contours and uncovering its secrets. Microbiologists are charting the bacteria that bloom in our buildings, and chemists are tracking the gases that waft through our homes. Neuroscientists are learning how our brains respond to different building styles, and nutritionists are investigating how cafeteria design affects our food choices. Anthropologists are observing how office design influences the productivity, engagement, and job satisfaction of employees around the globe. Psychologists are probing the connections between windows and mental health, lighting and creativity, and furniture and social interaction.
Their findings suggest that the indoor environment shapes our lives in far-reaching and sometimes surprising ways. To name just a few: Women who give birth in sprawling hospital wards are more likely to undergo cesarean sections than those who labor in more compact ones. Warm, dim lighting makes schoolkids less fidgety and aggressive. Fresh, well-ventilated air boosts office workers’ cognitive function.
And the physical location of our homes can have all sorts of ripple effects on our lives. In a 2016 study, a group of Canadian doctors reported that living on the upper floors of a skyscraper can literally be deadly. The doctors examined the medical records of nearly eight thousand adults who’d suffered from cardiac arrests in private homes. The higher up people were when they collapsed, the longer it took paramedics to reach them and the lower their odds of survival; 4.2 percent of patients below the third floor survived their ordeals, compared to less than 1 percent of people above the sixteenth floor. Above the twenty-fifth floor, there were no survivors.
But the first floor’s no panacea either. In one study, scientists discovered that elementary school children who lived on the top floors of several Manhattan skyscrapers were better readers than those who lived closer to the ground. What could possibly explain the connection? As it happens, the buildings were situated on a bridge that ran across a major highway, and the constant din of traffic made the units close to the ground significantly noisier than those on higher floors. This noise might have made it more difficult for young children to hear the subtle differences in the small units of sound that make up words, a skill that is critical for reading. Indeed, the children living on the bottom floors scored lower on tests of auditory discrimination, and subsequent research has confirmed that noisy environments can derail language learning.
Even Arakawa and Gins’s ideas aren’t quite as far-fetched as they seem. We know, for a scientific fact, that the right kinds of challenges can strengthen our bodies and minds. (Start lifting weights and your muscles will swell. Learn to speak a new language and your brain will sprout new connections.) There’s no reason that those challenges can’t come from our homes. Scientists have known for decades that housing lab animals in stimulating spaces—in the company of other animals and in cages stocked with tunnels, toys, mazes, ladders, and running wheels—is better for their health than confining them to spare, solitary cages. This kind of environmental enrichment can boost animals’ immune systems, slow the growth of tumors, make neurons more resistant to injury, and stave off the cognitive decline associated with aging.
There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that engaging environments are good for humans, too. Researchers have found that rates of dementia tend to be lower in cities than in rural areas, for instance. It’s hard to say exactly why, but one theory is that urban living is more stimulating and complex, and thus protects the brain. “I think spaces that engage us in multiple ways are probably the ones that we will age healthier in,” said Laura Malinin, a cognitive scientist and architect at Colorado State University. In her own research, Malinin has collected some preliminary data suggesting that visually complex rooms may boost the cognitive performance of seniors.*
So Arakawa and Gins weren’t completely off track. “I’m not sure about ‘reversing’ destiny, because I think we shape our own destinies throughout our lives, but I do believe that they’re tapping into something,” Malinin said. “Which is that the physical environment has a strong—and up till now relatively untapped—potential to help keep us healthy.”
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I DECIDED TO MOUNT an expedition into the great indoors, to reckon with this world that is entirely of our own making. What is the shape of the indoor universe, and how powerful is its influence? What ecosystems does it contain, and how do we fit into them? How do these interior landscapes shape our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; our social interactions and relationships; our health, happiness, and well-being?
Finding answers to these questions would require me to venture beyond the walls of my home—at least temporarily. In the chapters that follow, we’ll tour an operating room designed to minimize medical errors, an elementary school designed to nudge kids into being more active, and a prison designed to support inmates’ psychological needs. We’ll learn how scientists are using brain-wave-measuring headsets, biometric wristbands, environmental sensors, digital mapping, machine learning, and virtual reality to study the built environment and track how people respond to it. And we’ll consider how buildings will shape our future, from smart homes that monitor our health to amphibious floating houses that could help us survive climate change. We’ll even take a brief, long-distance look at the ice-covered domes we might find ourselves erecting on Mars.
It’s time we give the indoor world its due. For too long, we’ve neglected indoor environments; they’ve become so familiar to us that we’ve overlooked their power and complexity. That’s finally changing, and the more we discover about our interior landscapes, the more opportunities we have to transform them. Through thoughtful and careful design, we can improve nearly every aspect of our lives. We are products of our environments, but we don’t have to be victims of them.
Even small design changes can have dramatic effects. Consider what happened after the Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island unveiled a new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Traditionally, premature infants born at the hospital had been cared for in big, open wards. These wards were chaotic, crowded, and noisy, filled with beeping machines and constant conversation. On any given day, a dozen infants, many in incubators, were lined up against the walls, and there was little space for parents who wanted to spend time with their babies.
In 2009, however, the hospital opened the new NICU, which did away with the open-bay model; instead, each preemie was assigned to a spacious single-family room equipped with a sleeper sofa where parents could crash for the night. This one change—from communal open wards to private rooms—made a big difference in the babies’ development. Infants who spent the first weeks of their lives in the new rooms gained weight more quickly and weighed more at discharge than those who’d been treated in the open bays. They were also less likely to develop sepsis, required fewer medical procedures, and displayed fewer signs of stress and pain.
Architecture isn’t the solution to all of our problems. The effects of design interventions are often subtle and complex, and built environment studies can be difficult to conduct and interpret. Moreover, the challenges that the experts in this book are trying to tackle, from preventing chronic disease to making correctional systems more humane, will require much more than infrastructure upgrades. Take that remarkable NICU study. The physical space likely had some direct benefits for the infants; studies suggest, for instance, that noise can derail the development of preemies, increasing their heart rate and blood pressure and decreasing the oxygen saturation of their blood. These physiological responses may partly explain why infants fared better in quiet, private rooms. But the benefits of single rooms can’t be attributed to architecture alone. Part of what made the redesign so powerful was that the single-family rooms made it easier for parents to spend time with their infants and be involved in their care.
This is what good design does—it expands what’s possible. It nudges us in the right direction, supports cultural and organizational change, and allows us to express our values. Good architecture can help us lead healthier, happier, more productive lives; create more just, humane societies; and increase our odds of survival in a precarious world. It can be the infrastructure on which we build a better future. Even if it doesn’t make us immortal.
Copyright © 2020 by Emily Anthes