An artist named Shusaku Arakawa and his partner have designed a fantastical condo development in Mitaka, Japan. Called “Reversible Destiny,” it’s meant to challenge the occupants. The exterior is brightly colored, with improbable lines and edges running helter-skelter over the facade, and strangely shaped windows and openings.
Inside, floors slope, outlets are difficult to find, and nothing is exactly as expected. It’s deliberate: the condos are designed specifically for older people.
“People, particularly old people, shouldn’t relax and sit back to help them decline,” [Arakawa] insists. “They should be in an environment that stimulates their senses and invigorates their lives.”
The phrase alone — “reversible destiny” — sounds like the holy grail for anyone who begins to experience the mental deficits that often accompany aging. But disorienting living spaces, floors that can only encourage falls, and outlets placed so that every use requires exploration aren’t a reasonable solution. At the moment, I have no difficulty moving around in my home at all; even so the idea of fighting my environment to that degree seems appalling, however great the intellectual benefits.
And yet . . . what Arakawa says about environment and stimulation is absolutely right. I think about these issues every day when I visit my dad in his nursing home. The recreation department does a great job of providing scheduled activities for the residents, but in spite of these efforts, my dad spends much of his time in mental ruts. Without the stamina to pursue interests and activities on his own, he is dependent on what others provide, and there is simply a limit to how many planned activities an in-house recreation department can offer.
I feel the full force of Arakawa’s earnestness when I look at this photo of his “elder-condos.” The vibrancy of the colors and the provocative design remind me of a window display my husband and I put together for my dad’s nursing home recently. Over the last few years, Paul has made origami polyhedra folded of brilliantly-colored copy paper, ranging in size from about two inches to about ten inches in diameter. We collected enough to fill the display case, and I hung the oddly-shaped paper sculptures with invisible thread so that they seemed to float in the case against a deep black background.
The results were dramatic — not only visually, but in terms of the responses from the residents. My dad kibitzed as I installed the pieces, and virtually everyone who passed by stopped to comment on the colors, the shapes, the novelty, of the origami. People talked to us, they talked to each other, they pointed the display out to anyone who came near. Frequently when I came to visit my dad, I saw that the window continued to provoke reactions. The staff at the nursing home told me that the display was often mentioned by residents, and missed when I took it down to make room for the next display.
I know that the success of that display had everything to do with its unexpectedness: unexpected shapes and contrasts, and the bold colors against the black background. Though absolutely passive, the display was shocking, it was stimulating, it was invigorating — it evoked an almost automatic response, whether the viewer intended to react or not.
I think this is what Arakawa was aiming for, on the grandest scale possible. Living spaces that encourage falls are clearly not practical, but Arakawa’s goals, and his over-the-top approach, made me dream a little bit. Couldn’t there be a way to make a shared living area that invigorated without threatening? A middle ground between an apartment overfull with challenges and a single, small display? I began to imagine a common room that was different from the activity center my dad knows so well, and different from the living room-like pods in the nursing home where residents gather to watch quiz shows and old movies.
What if there were a different room, something closer to an art gallery, with touchable structures, mobiles, textured surfaces on walls or tables? What if these changed from week-to-week? What if there were a room of in-your-face challenges to explore and consider — to appreciate, to argue or complain about, to experience, to share? What if there were an ever-changing coffee-house-of-the-senses to shake up my dad’s world? What if it were accessible all the time? That would be an environment worth designing.
My dream is no more practical than Arakawa’s condos, of course. Nursing home care is already prohibitively expensive and staff stretched thin; there’s no storage, and carving out extra rooms where interior real estate is already at a premium isn’t going to happen. Reality bites. But at least I can dream . . .