The other day, the Transom discovered the last remaining bargain in real estate east of the Shinnecock Canal: For about $800, one can own an adult-sized plot of dirt in Sag Harbor’s tranquil and historic Oakland Cemetery. We were ready to write out a check when an invitation arrived that obliged us to reconsider the whole business of death.
The Pink Elephant at the Capri Hotel, in Southampton, was holding a book party on its patio to mark the release of Stephen Valentine’s Timeship: the Architecture of Immortality (Images Publishing). According to the announcement, the building, which presently exists only in models and drawings, aspires to “provide storage for cryo-preserved biological materials, near-extinct species, and humans traveling to the future for later reanimation.” The mission of this optimistic undertaking is to “conquer aging and eventually death.”
In 2004, The New Yorker published a story by Alec Wilkinson about Mr. Valentine’s ongoing search for a building site somewhere down South. The architect was seeking a place that had the wild beauty of Tuscany yet which existed at a safe remove from natural disasters, nuclear accidents, terrorists, and foreign aggression. It seemed hopeless, but then, in 2007, Mr. Valentine quietly acquired a property–described as “the size of Central Park”–whose location he is keeping secret until this fall.
To acquaint guests at the Pink Elephant with the Timeship, and with the world of cryonics, the architect, 54, projected onto three 6′ x 6′ screens a sequence of images, including a water droplet (representing “the beginning of life”), an eight-cell stage embryo, and a still from Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Whenever the screens were jostled by the wind, the sketch of a hairless naked woman who had been pickled in liquid nitrogen appeared to breathe.
“Sometimes people get the wrong idea about this project,” Mr Valentine said. He was wearing a charcoal-gray suit. In the Eighties, he worked for I.M. Pei, most notably as a senior design architect on the Holocaust Museum, in Washington, DC. “They see you as some kind of ten-headed monster. They’re misinformed.” The incontrovertible truth of this statement became apparent as The Transom began chatting with party guests, few of whom, excepting the Park Avenue dermatologist Neil Sadick, displayed much interest in living forever.
“Is this part of Obama’s health plan?” Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of On the Road with Dylan and The Secret Life of Houdini, wondered.
“Do they cryopreserve the people dead or alive?” inquired a barefoot, pretty hotel patron named Dee Lakhani, lounging on a white divan under a canopy and smoking a Marlboro (“I will be the first to go!”).
The architect said he gets the latter question quite a lot (possibly because he refers to Timeship’s future clients as “patients”). “You have to be dead. It’s not like you say, I’m tired of living, freeze me. The press often misses that point entirely.”
“So what do you think of the concept?” the Transom asked Thomas Twiggs, a young Wall Streeter in a Madras-print jacket, as an image of a fresh corpse being hooked up to a heart-lung machine flashed on a screen. Spearing a lobster corn cake from a cocktail tray, he said, echoing the response of almost everyone on the patio, “What concept?”
Again and again, the Transom tried to explain, but after about twenty seconds, people’s eyelids would start to droop.
There are currently around 100 people in a state of suspended animation at various small outfits around the country. If the Timeship becomes a reality, the $300 million building could house up to 10,000 such souls who will have undergone the procedure in the hope of awakening in the future.
Because that moment could be hundreds of years distant, the structure, which is comprised of nine concentric circles, must be as impregnable as the medieval castles and World War II bunkers that informed the design process. Nine rings of stone will serve as armor in the event that the Timeship is ever fire-bombed. To beef up security, Mr. Valentine may surround the building with what is described in the book as ‘a moat-like water feature.’ Or, as the architect said in a telephone call after the party, he might lay out a golf course just beyond its fortified walls, in the expectation that friendly golfers would alert staff to any peculiar goings-on.
As it stands now, surviving family members will not be permitted to visit the potentially departed on account of security concerns. “I mean, we can’t have people roaming the grounds,” he said with regret. “Let’s say your loved one is stored there. Do you want some shady individual just showing up?”
The next phase of the project involves raising money to build the $300 million facility. Over the next two years Mr. Valentine plans to develop temporary pods for people wishing to inhabit the Timeship but who might die before it is built. Until then, he intends to promote the project in Hollywood.