Cleaved: where the world will have been cut it will already have been noticeably re-attached.1
To cleave is to split apart. The above elaboration of the term belongs to Madeline Gins and Arakawa, architects of the Bioscleave House in East Hampton, New York. For them, the world is synonymous with life of the individual; as such it comprises a spatiotemporal continuum of sensory experience. Gins and Arakawa advocate for a temporary cleaving of that continuum to make apparent the distinction and interaction between moment-sensations. Through cleaving, one expands each moment-sensation in multiple dimensions, effectively amassing more sensorial action, more life. Yet the question remains of how to transport this cleaving from the metaphorical to the physical realm.
The Bioscleave House is not a normal house. The undulating topography of the concrete flooring with its unexpectedly dramatic hills and valleys further augmented by micro divots, the crayon-color columns that connect floor to double-height ceiling, the dearth of right angles and windows at eye level, irregularly-spaced electrical sockets mounted askew, tables and countertops that mimic roughly-hewn puzzle pieces — these elements befit what is not a normal foundational philosophy.
The Bioscleave House looks like a playground. Many of the adult visitors to the house portrayed in blogs, news articles, and YouTube videos remark that their kids would love to scamper around in this place, and indeed, there exists corroboratory video footage of childish romping.
Playgrounds provision space for play, delineating a dedicated field where children can let both their imaginations and their limbs run wild. The multicolored scalable structures and the varied ground cover that engender unstable shifting, shaking, and sliding are meant to stimulate the child’s senses; this stimulation gets expressed through fanciful movement and visualizations.
The Bioscleave House is a playground, but it is also a house. A house, at its most primitive, is a shelter. Over time, the house has evolved from a simple hut “that serves [humans] well by increasing their chances of survival”2 to an environment designed for maximum efficiency and comfort. By these definitions, it would seem that the typologies of playground and house are irreconcilable. How could a body be efficient or comfortable if she is constantly trying to literally find her own balance?
Adult visitors to the Bioscleave House complain of this very fact. They cannot imagine themselves actually living in the house, precisely for its lack of comfort and efficiency. Navigating the uneven flooring seems to require too much sensory engagement and physical exertion than they are willing to employ for daily existence.
But what if sensory engagement and physical exertion, rather than comfort and efficiency, were valued conditions of daily existence? What if the house could radically “redefine life,” if given the chance?3 This is the inquiry that Gins and Arakawa are trying to provoke. They believe that “if actions necessary to daily living are made more difficult, they will also grow to be far more exalted.”4 They emphatically assert,
It is desirable to keep the body in a state of imbalance for as long as possible. The actions, the range of actions, possible to the body for righting itself and regaining its balance will both define and reveal the body’s essential nature.5
For Gins and Arakawa, “the body’s essential nature” is simultaneous existence in multifarious states through her ability to constantly explore divergent ways of being and moving within her environment. Admittedly, it is hard to visualize how this state of multiplicity manifests physically. From an observer’s point of view, a body gets from Point A to Point B in a distinct movement pattern, inhabiting specific points in time and space in a singular, incontrovertible sequence. But from the vantage point of the body in question, every minute movement is a decision made from multiple possibilities which were quickly considered, to varying degrees of consciousness, through imagined enactment. To the observer the path from A to B is a smooth continuum, but to the traveling body each moment along that route is a juncture that affords an opportunity to go in a new direction and to pursue new sensory information.
It is in this imagined enactment that the crux of Gins and Arakawa’s philosophical position on the body lies; to entertain their fantasy requires a certain investment in magic, where magic involves the desire not to see the world as it is from an observer’s eyes, but to experience the world as it could be through the conscious imagining of all the possible interactions between a body and her environment.
This task of constant manifold imagining is a lot to ask of a human, especially when her house is generally designed for the streamlined reduction of physical and mental effort. Thus, Gins and Arakawa suggest inhabiting a new architecture—a new type of dwelling—to spur the body into her essential nature. The most literal of their experimental environments is a system of stacked labyrinths, each about one foot high, in which a body would be “prompted to move in contradictory ways,” receiving “instructions to follow a path of one kind from the labyrinth at, say, her knees, and indications of quite another shape and direction for a path to be taken from a labyrinth at her waist or chest.” Inhabiting the levels as a whole would require the body to “twist, bend, shove, squeeze and propel itself.”6 These highly sensory actions bring the body out of her domestic stupor of walking and sitting and provoke acute awareness of the environment.
While perhaps it is too idealistic to expect people to actually dwell within a multilayered labyrinthine structure, a body could imagine the existence of such a maze to give an ephemeral but highly articulate framework to her imagined movements. This double imagining further enriches moment-to-moment existence, giving color to every point in space and time.
With their persistent intention to ground the imaginary in physical action, Gins and Arakawa devise the term of “landing site” to help keep track of the collection of these imaginings, all possible moment-sensations. Even if a body does not actually land in a particular site in a particular way, this action can be imagined, and the landing site acts as a perceptible marker for this specific imagining. Landing sites are explored and amassed in a perpetual process called “fielding,” which helps the body determine her initial surroundings and subsequent actions.7 The connection of landing sites to one another creates paths, which serves the body in determination of the topography of her environment in that she “initially embraces terrains by covering them with paths.”8 In the evolution of the imagery that accompanies their text, Gins and Arakawa imply that the definition of the world may start out as immutable surfaces and objects but eventually becomes wholly constituted by the body’s projected movements as it lays down more and more paths. Thus, the body becomes her world’s creator. Gins and Arakawa give each body the facility of architect, but in the verb form, saying,
Having once begun to architect their surroundings, human beings never stop. A person turns a desert or a forest into an architectural surround by how she moves through it. Advancing and cutting paths, fending for herself and defending herself, she uses her limbs to erect enclosures or break them. [Architecture] blocks, guides, facilitates, comforts, contains, or suggests containing.9
Gins and Arakawa take comfort and efficiency and throw them out an irregularly-shaped window, eschewing these conditions for their detrimental effects of complacency and desensitization. They fill this void with the idea that “one is one’s own artwork,” to be created through the medium of movement. They continue, saying architecture, including the Bioscleave House, “is a record of the ways that have been taken, [yet] it can and must be used projectively” to break out of the staleness of banal architectural forms and related corporeal habits.10
Perhaps the ultimate expression of Gins and Arakawa’s imagined ideal human existence is sited in a mythical tabula rasa, where humans create active form purely through free and prolific movement. The Bioscleave House, in this light, is not so extreme; it is a middle ground between the contemporary average dwelling and the exalted mythical plane, meant to easily stimulate people into operating imaginatively in the physical with relatively little mental effort required. Initially, the environment of the Bioscleave House is novel and challenging to its user, yet because it is pre-articulated, it will not remain so forever. Magic will happen only when environment creation and responsive movement are merged into one, transporting each body’s world into a constant state of exhilarating imbalance.