Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Couple's Dreams of Immortality at Death's Door, Thanks to Madoff

original article here

Arakawa and Madeline Gins's quest to make human beings immortal is at risk of dying.

That's because the couple lost their life savings with Bernard Madoff, the mastermind of a multibillion-dollar fraud.

Of all the dreams that were crushed by Mr. Madoff's crime, perhaps none was more unusual than this duo's of achieving everlasting life through architecture. Mr. Arakawa (he uses only his last name) and Ms. Gins design structures they say can enable inhabitants to "counteract the usual human destiny of having to die."

Immortality Quest Hits Financial Snag

The pair's work, based loosely on a movement known as "transhumanism," is premised on the idea that people degenerate and die in part because they live in spaces that are too comfortable. The artists' solution: construct abodes that leave people disoriented, challenged and feeling anything but comfortable.

They build buildings with no doors inside. They place rooms far apart. They put windows near the ceiling or near the floor. Between rooms are sloping, bumpy moonscape-like floors designed to throw occupants off balance. These features, they argue, stimulate the body and mind, thus prolonging life. "You become like a baby," says Mr. Arakawa.

A typical apartment has three or four rooms in the shapes of either a cylinder, a cube, or a sphere. Rooms surround a kitchen-living room combination with bumpy, undulating floors and floor-to-ceiling ladders and poles. Dozens of colors, from school-bus yellow to sky blue, cover the walls, ceilings and other surfaces.

At least one tenant says he feels a little younger already. Nobutaka Yamaoka, who moved in with his wife and two children about two years ago, says he has lost more than 20 pounds and no longer suffers from hay fever, though he isn't sure whether it was cured by the loft.

There is no closet, and Mr. Yamaoka can't buy furniture for the living room or kitchen because the floor is too uneven, but he relishes the lifestyle. "I feel a completely different kind of comfort here," says the 43-year-old video director. His wife, however, complains that the apartment is too cold. Also, the window to the balcony is near the floor, and she keeps bumping her head against the frame when she crawls out to hang up laundry, he says. ("That's one of the exercises," says Ms. Gins.)The couple's destiny intersected with the Madoffs' in 1994, when Ms. Gins met Mr. Madoff's wife, Ruth, at an art gallery. Ms. Gins recalls that she later met the Madoffs at one of her art shows, and Mr. Madoff said he could help her by investing the couple's savings in his firm. 

The couple initially invested less than $1 million with Mr. Madoff. Over time, they added deposits and had several million dollars in their investment account at the time of his arrest, Ms. Gins says. "We were grateful to him; he was making things possible for us," she says.

Since Mr. Madoff's Ponzi scheme came to light, the couple have been trying to sell their seminal work, the "Mechanism of Meaning," a series of 84 8-foot-tall panels that took them 10 years to complete, for about $17 million.

"Museums in the U.S. and Germany would be the best candidates," says Lisa Dennison, an executive at Sotheby's who is trying to line up a buyer. "It's an amazing work, but there are not many possible customers for it."

Barring a sell-off of their collection, the couple fear they won't realize their dream of building a "reversible destiny" village with homes and parks that would combine their theories of life into one community.

"Here was someone we thought was a supporter of ours," says Ms. Gins of Mr. Madoff, "and he pulled the rug out from under us."