Looking at an installation by architect Philip Beesley will make you feel as if you had been transported to a surreal and alien interactive environment.
You will indeed find yourself walking around multiple fragile lattice structures, mechanical fronds made of intricate networks of acrylic meshworks and matrices of digitally-fabricated components fitted with microprocessors.
These structures - that at times also integrate flasks acting as incubator systems for chemical processes - move, breathe and weave thanks to sensors and shape-memory actuators responding to the occupants moving within these environments.
From his early works such as Erratics Net (1998) Orgone Reef (2003), Orpheus Filter (2004), Implant Matrix (2006) to the latest one, Hylozoic Ground (2010), designed by Beesley together with a team of collaborators, comprising engineering director Rob Gorbet and experimental chemist Rachel Armstrong, and presented at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice (until 21st November), Beesley created live aggregates, tackling through them different issues that go beyond architecture.
These environments can indeed be conceived as explorations on biological tissues, science and technology, but they also display a strong link with art, craftsmanship, architectural textiles and interactive geotextiles, indirectly analysing also the darkest aspects of fashion (think about projects such as Hussein Chalayan’s 1993 collection "The Tangent Flows" or Martin Margiela's 1997 mould and bacteria designs, and about themes such as decay, transformation and the power of living organisms behind these creations).
Once embedded into the surface layer of the earth, geotextiles integrate with the matter, while Beesley’s alien structures are instead almost independent self-organising creatures, irresistibly attractive yet disturbingly repulsive at the same time.
In a nutshell, they are liminal entities set to make us ponder also on our relationship with prosthetic alien appendages to nature’s body and to our own bodies.
What inspires your structures and complex environments?
Philip Beesley: They come in part from imagination and in part from absolute practicality. When I talk about "practicality" I mean knitting, folding, cutting and stitching. In a nutshell, making materials and building things up in the same way that you knit a sweater or hang curtains or tend a garden, that is building up something quite complex through many small acts that work symphonically together.
Is there a balance then between craft and technology in your structures?
Philip Beesley: I wouldn’t call it a balance, but there is certainly a sort of ambivalence that moves back and forth between poetics, imagination and material craft, involving the process of making something – in this case quite subtle technical systems – and building it up patiently and constantly.
Which are the main materials employed to build your environments?
Philip Beesley: There is a different mixture of materials and a myriad of small elements, some of them are elastic and thin, resilient, sticky or wet, while others – such as plastic, wood and steel – are very ordinary and straightforward, simple and accessible, so it’s a combination of different parts. All these layers are mixed together through a tremendous amount of patience to produce a complex fabric. I would say that actually the individual actions behind these structures are very simple. Any weaver or knitter knows just how deeply satisfying the fabric they have produced can be when they stare at it. In the same way, these environments are built up to create quite complex symphonic fabrics.
In your opinion, will geotextiles open up new possibilities in future in different fields?
Philip Beesley: What I love about a technology such as geotextiles is the way it works "prosthetically" and with this word I mean a very artificial implant integrated into other systems that are then complemented and allowed to grow. For example, in some of my installations, geotextiles are used as a matrix that fostered life. So they are essentially artificial systems, self-organising entities that can generate remarkably potent things, even grotesque nightmarish monsters, that can be defined as uncanny artificial fabrics that unsettle, disturb and act of their own accord.
The protocells contained in the flasks of the Hylozoic Ground installation allow the formation of habitats within the matrix, creating new living bodies, are you ever scared by these processes showing the physical and chemical changes going through your environments?
Philip Beesley: I’m not completely relaxed about the potency of these materials, as I think they raise very significant ethical questions. But, in an open-minded and experimental situation, being tremendously fertile, these materials are also incredibly interesting and I’m fascinated by the exchanges between the chemistry processes, responsive materials and environmental fluxes going through the circulation systems within these environments.
A while back you worked with an archaeological team reconstructing a flank of the Palatine Hill in Rome, does archaeology ever inspire you in your work? Philip Beesley: This experience actually inspired my work in two ways. The work at the Palatine Hill focused on ritual deposits at the fortified boundary of the archaic city. The section we were working on had radically different layouts and anatomies one on top of each other, each of them influencing the other in a very subtle and interesting way. You got a sense that there were multiple layers and different kinds of anatomies within a body, within a ground and within a map of a city, all occurring at the same time. All these parts were different from each other, yet, when you looked at them all together, you could see how one thing had influenced the other. At the same time, while working on that project, we encountered with blood, mythology and deep fertility, since we looked at the deposits that included traces of humans that had been sacrificed. I didn’t expect that to affect me as much as it did, but it really got under my skin and I felt I had quite a personal relationship with the beings who had been there, with the sacrifices that had taken place in the area and with the Dionysian quality of all this. These two aspects changed me quite a bit and prompted me to concentrate on the possibilities offered by the intensive repetition of small parts in my work and by fertility. The latter is at the core of my structures that are also characterised by a connection with bodily dimensions.
Do you feel architecture has somehow changed in the last few years opening up towards innovative approaches?
Philip Beesley: It’s amazing to see radically different sets of strategies and approaches at work during global architectural events such as the Venice Biennale. I can only enjoy and savour the sense of friction and irritation that comes from these multiple and rather disjunctive voices that show how the practice of working with different inter-related systems has made architecture more demanding. We currently live in a period of time in which architects are required to operate in a mixture of practices, using multiple languages. While I’m rather ambivalent about this, because you must be very committed and involved to produce consistent work, I’m very interested in learning how to intensely and productively combine these different inspirations, languages and perspectives.
Do you think the dialogues about your works are more active in Europe and Asia than in your homecountry?
Philip Beesley: In a way yes, but that could be because the power of Canadian wilderness really speaks globally and it has got a particular poetic potency to certain cultural imaginations. In some ways, my work focuses on wilderness and maybe that's one of the reasons why it is of interest to people living in other countries.
Philip Beesley will be among the keynote speakers at FABRICATE, an international conference about the progressive integration of digital design with manufacturing processes and its impact on design and making in the 21st century, that will be held in London on 15-16 April 2011.
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