An art museum enforces a very ritualized relation of one's body to the space of the building. One walks quietly through large spaces. There are convenient benches. One looks. Reads labels. And looks. The contemplative stance is normative; reverence rules. The art is removed from daily life, to be experienced intensely but at an aesthetic distance.
Putting art at the service of life to transform life has been a goal of modern artists. So removing art from the museum has been a passion for much of 20th-century art. (Of course there's been an opposite passion on the part of many artists to get into the museum so that their art can be noticed.)
Art became immured in the museum only in the 18th and 19th century, since museums are a relatively recent institution. Before that, much art lived in public churches and public squares. Other art lived privately sequestered away in aristocratic estates and gardens.
In a museum labels and posters use art history to broaden the experience of the artworks. This opens a context for the artwork to relate to other artworks, but this is a confined space and a safe horizon. Or at least it used to be. Now art history is breaking down barriers by relating artworks to social movements, revolutionary impulses, repressed feelings and desires, and other wider horizons that may scare the connoisseurs of comfortable history.
Even so, reading descriptive labels remains a quiet activity (1). Compare the quiet art museum to the lively chaos at a science museum filled with children running about, pushing buttons, walking through apparatus that makes them feel different. Is there some way to bring such an energetic atmosphere to the experience of Arakawa and Gins's work, which begs to be lived in, not just contemplated?
Outside the museum we can run into obstreperous art that glories in denying reverential distance -- guerrilla theater, performance art, some public installations -- yet these often bring the museum with them, putting invisible lines around themselves as works to be contemplated. It is so easy for the work or for the audience to adopt an aesthetic attitude that insulates the audience from challenge to their beliefs, attitudes, or bodily orientation. Trying to overcome this distance can force the artworks to become more and more extreme, which in turn encourages still more safe distance on the part of the audience.
Architecture has the advantage in this, because it can force us to adapt to its spaces and orientations. We cannot remain in a purely contemplative attitude when we are actually within and challenged by puzzling spaces, unexpected heights and depths, colors and volumes. We have to move; we have to organize perceptions and synthesize a bodily image of where we are and what we can do within the building. So the architect has the power to be more than a creators of objects for contemplation. Arakawa and Gins intend to use that power, .
This is not to deny that there are many buildings that are created mainly to be objects for contemplation, buildings whose novel façades photograph well but whose insides enforce thoroughly conventional spatial patterns. Most architecture is designed to be consumed easily, so as not to challenge familiar activities and goals. Such buildings fit nicely into the flat media that display and publicize them.
Better architecture can transcend and challenge familiar activities and intentions, making them something more than they had begun to be (2). Arakawa and Gins want their buildings to be more than displays. But for this they have to be lived in, not displayed at a distance.