The Discomforts of Home

Most people, in choosing a new home, look for comfort: a serene atmosphere, smooth walls and floors, a logical layout. Nonsense, says Shusaku Arakawa, a Japanese artist based in New York. He and his creative partner, poet Madeline Gins, recently unveiled a small apartment complex in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka that is anything but comfortable and calming. "People, particularly old people, shouldn't relax and sit back to help them decline," he insists. "They should be in an environment that stimulates their senses and invigorates their lives."

With that in mind, Arakawa and Gins designed a building of nine apartments known as Reversible Destiny Lofts. Painted in eye-catching blue, pink, red, yellow and other bright colors, the building resembles the indoor playgrounds that attract toddlers at fast-food restaurants. Inside, each apartment features a dining room with a grainy, surfaced floor that slopes erratically, a sunken kitchen and a study with a concave floor. Electric switches are located in unexpected places on the walls so you have to feel around for the right one. A glass door to the veranda is so small you have to bend to crawl out. You constantly lose balance and gather yourself up, grab onto a column and occasionally trip and fall. Even worse, there's no closet space; residents will have to find a way to live there, since the apartment offers only a few solutions. "You'll learn to figure it out," says Arakawa. Ten minutes of stumbling around is enough to send even the healthiest young person over the edge. Arakawa says that's precisely the point. "[The apartment] makes you alert and awakens instincts, so you'll live better, longer and even forever," says the artist.

Completed in October, the apartments are now selling for $763,000 each--about twice as much as a normal apartment in that neighborhood. Arakawa and Gins have received dozens of inquiries and are now in the process of showing and interviewing potential buyers. They have a certain celebrity cachet: Jakucho Setouchi, an 83-year-old popular author and respected Buddhist nun, bought one on the top floor.

Built by Takenaka Corp., a leading Japanese contractor, the apartments actually meet every building-code requirement. The artists are not worried about possible injuries or lawsuits, but make sure each buyer understands "the concept" of the building before he or she signs the contract. This isn't the first time Arakawa and Gins have created seemingly hazardous structures; 10 years ago the pair opened the Site of Reversible Destiny--Yoro Park, a theme park in Gifu, central Japan. The popular tourist spot consists of attractions designed to throw people off balance, made up of warped surfaces and confusing directions. Visitors often fall--but so far nobody has sued.

Arakawa and Gins hope the Reversible Destiny Lofts will catch on outside Japan as well. Each unit is made up of large concrete blocks that can be preassembled, making the Mitaka complex a prototype for mass production. In fact, Arakawa says, they are in talks with interested parties in Paris and New Jersey about building similar complexes. Their ultimate goal: to turn an entire community into a Reversible Destiny town, where people of all ages live, work, study and play in their unsettling buildings. "It will be a revolution," says Arakawa. "This will change the way people live." That is, assuming people don't mind living with sloping floors and no closets.