“IT’S IMMORAL THAT PEOPLE HAVE TO DIE,” Madeline Gins told me when we met, in 2008. The setting was the “Lifespan Extending Villa,” a sprawling house on Long Island where floors were shaped like sand dunes; where walls were painted forty different colors; where switches and fixtures were set at odd angles and inconvenient heights. It was the latest in a series of buildings that Gins and her partner of fifty years, the Japanese-born artist Arakawa, believed would halt the aging process. “They ought to build hospitals like this,” she said during an interview. (“They should never, ever build hospitals like this,” I replied—perhaps a bit too hastily.) Gins’s efforts to explain how architecture could defeat death were tentative, and often tautological. That left plenty of gaps in the conversation, which Arakawa filled by explaining why the achievements of the world’s great scientists, artists, and explorers paled next to Arakawa’s. (He spoke about himself in the third person.) If his ego seemed monumental, Gins’s patience appeared inexhaustible. Seemingly as fragile as a butterfly, she was also the driver of a project that went on for half a century.
When Arakawa died in 2010, she lost not just her husband and partner, but her central belief: that death could be defeated. “This mortality thing is bad news,” Gins said in a moment of candor. The architecture thing could also be bad news. In 1997, Roberta Smith, reviewing a show of their work at the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim, discouraged them from building. “Theoretical follies,” she wrote, “one of the plagues of contemporary architecture, have their place, and it’s on paper.” A few years later, the owner of the Long Island house withdrew from the project. And then Bernie Madoff, whose high return on their investments made it possible for them to work full-time as poets, theoreticians, and the most conceptual of conceptual artists, turned out to be a fraud, leaving them financially hobbled. “He pulled the rug out from under us,” Gins said at the time. But they outlived Madoff, persisting in their fight to make death obsolete.
It was hard to know what they really believed. Some of their associates said their talk of killing dying was intended metaphorically; others insisted they were dead—or is it undead?—serious. Among their coterie of admirers was the architect Steven Holl, who found their writings on phenomenology persuasive. Lawrence Marek, a Manhattan architect who helped steer the Long Island house to completion, took the high road. “The house has a way of making people happy—it’s a feeling you don’t get from many buildings—and we should be studying how that happens.” He was right. The buildings the couple created induced joy, even giddiness. It’s also true that Gins and Arakawa (why not reverse the order, in her honor, just this once?) stood for something important: Architecture Against Death is a goal worth sacrificing for. Gins didn’t defeat mortality, but she had fun—and taught us a few things—by setting her sights high. “After this, Gehry, Rem Koolhaas—boring,” Gins remarked. And maybe she was right.
Fred A. Bernstein is a writer based in New York.