(My friend Amy – one of the smartest, most creative people I’ve ever met – has started a newsletter! Already it’s amazing: Ridiculous Ideas to Stave Off Death.)
1. Perpetual dancers
Paul Virilio went into the protest with a homemade flag: a carefully cut rectangle of clear plastic, a transparent banner with no content. He believed, more or less exclusively, in the immediate experience of the human body and the friction of the world – the heat of the brake, the ache in the muscles, the looming weight of the blank wall. He was obsessed with the mute stubbornness of the long-abandoned bunkers of Fortress Europa, massive blunt shapes tilting and shifting in the dunes of the beaches. (He wrote the concrete monoliths an extraordinary love letter in 1976’s Bunker Archaeology, the record of a decade on-and-off spent looking out at the line of the blank horizon under the low ceiling of many feet of reinforced concrete overhead, in buildings sinking under their own weight where you couldn’t tell where the floor ended and the wall began.) He wanted buildings that made us feel more alive and aware of natural forces, gravity, and the planet. With Claude Parent, Virilio worked on an architectural principle they called the “oblique function”: everything sloping and inclined, with no flat surfaces. Instead of furniture and comfort conducive to disembodied concentration, we would have dark, windowless chambers made of steep inclines; we wouldn’t just inhabit, they wrote, but “traverse” our shelter. Always off-balance, squatting, leaning, huddling, constantly resisting inertia or momentum, we would live as “perpetual dancers,” as if on the cliff faces, screes and caves of a high-altitude mountainside.
2. Impractical apartments
Günther Feuerstein thought that comfort could numb and console, helping people reconcile themselves to a society they should oppose: that the bourgeois apartment, with its thoughtful design and labor-saving appliances, could be a training facility for the bourgeois society. Writing for the German wing of the Situationist International in 1961 – who sought to make society more adventurous through, among other things, removing all destination information from train stations, opening rooftops and subways to pedestrian traffic, and total political revolt – Feuerstein outlined his personal work on “impractical apartments.” He sawed a few inches off two legs of every table, so they wobbled violently, installed locks that failed to keep anyone out and hinges that shrieked and groaned in use, nailed windows open so the apartment could sweat in summer, echo with honking cars and jackhammers, and fill with drifts of snow in winter, drilled holes in the walls, and put in obstacles and baffles through which he could clumsily crash at night in the dark, as the miswired switches turned on lights in other rooms.
3. An apparatus to bring life closer to eternity
Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa designed for immortality: living spaces so unexpected, stimulating, destabilizing, and uncomfortable that they could break lifetimes of habit and force continuous openness to experience – a theory they called “reversible destiny.” They could extend the human lifespan by this architecture, they believed, both by the overwhelming immediacy of constant disorientation, and in having to adapt and move in an environment that resists you. Each moment would be longer, and there would be more of them. “Death is old-fashioned.” They built in Japan and the US (though their greatest project in the States was derailed by the man with whom they invested all the income from their practice – Bernie Madoff), and designed cities, parks, and labyrinths for the future, each filled with “laboratories for everyday life.” Reversible Destiny houses and apartments feature poles to cling to while ascending or descending the bumpy, pebbled, sloping floors around the kitchen pit – a terrain of gullies, humps, and ditches, sometimes broken up by maze-like arrangements of barriers. The study is a golden egg with no flat surfaces, which functions as an echo chamber. (The acoustics make the whole building hum and croak.) Switches are at ankle height, and electrical outlets mounted on the ceiling, along with rows of hooks from which to hang guywires, hammocks, festoons, swings, and any clothing you might need. Every surface and object is painted one of thirty-odd bright, contrasting shades.
Gins was always simultaneously joyfully playful and absolutely serious. Arakawa, her partner of decades in work and life, died of ALS in 2010; as she struggled with grief and her own cancer in 2013, her work took on a new poignancy: the plans, diagrams, and renderings of a machine with which she had hoped to keep herself and her husband alive forever.
Charlemagne Palestine’s “One + Two Fifths,” off Four Manifestations on Six Elements from 1974. A simple, perfect thing, played on a single piano, coming into being in just the intervals, the speeds, and then vanishing again, as though as whole friendship, a life together, happened in that moment when you and a stranger made eye contact between your moving trains. (Palestine, a marvelous composer, pianist, and carillonneur, performs accompanied by hundreds of plush stuffed animals, toasts his beloved Bösendorfer piano with cognac, and once designed a one-off synthesizer in the ’70s called the Spectral Continuum Drone Machine.)
A sting in the American eel trafficking underworld: Operation Broken Glass
Hoisting machines of ancient Greece
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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