Last week, I attended a lecture given by Philip Beesley as part of the ROM Daytime Lecture series. Beesley spoke about his long-standing experimental architectural practice with the Living Architecture Systems Group. Beesley and his collaborators investigate the possibility of a living architecture – next generation interactive environments – by combining artificial intelligence with a network of structural proposals forming dynamic and interactive spatial installations. One of these installations – Transforming Space – is currently on display at the ROM as part of the exhibition Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion. Beelsley’s lecture titled “Transforming Space: Can Architecture Come Alive?” provided an important framework for considering his work.
Physical encounters with Beesley’s work can be challenging because they prompt one to question conventional tectonic assumptions. (Toronto design audiences may remember Beesley’s installation “Astrocyte” for the Design Exchange’s EDIT in September 2017.) From a distance, strategic illumination of spikey, otherworldly forms creates filigree of shadows on the surrounding walls and ceiling. What is this sheltering network of delicate parts suspended like a complicated interior tent? We are drawn ever closer until we are ‘inside’. Why does the scaffold move and hum? What are the connections between the parts? We see: droplet-like clear vessels containing liquids of different densities, and even tiny cells that appear to be growing; fragile, interconnected spires forming improbable structure-like systems hanging from each other; feathery fronds that arc and shift in the still air; and familiar electronic devices – sensors and speakers – that promise to detect our active presence. A curious and patient visitor is rewarded with delightful discoveries amid this integration of elements. But what does it all mean?
Beesley’s discussion of the overall project is entrancing and set the basis for meaning-making. He is a good speaker who generously shares poetic and metaphysical observations. He explains scientific contexts and instills curiosity about the promise of advanced technologies. Plus, his unwavering faith in the transformative potential of spatial experience provokes a spirit of optimism. Architecture does have a future and can make a difference. Rather than valuing architecture as a monumental impulse springing from the ego, in his architectural experimentation Beesley focuses on the in-between, the connective tissue, the changeable relationship.
To be sure, there are still tectonic relationships at work here: remember the protective scaffold that shelters fragile vessels. And an aesthetic response is still activated: remember the suggestive shadows, complex linear constructions, coloured liquids, and sensuous feathery textures that define the overall form. But the installation also features constant movement initiated by a system of dynamics rather than statics. This condition of movement is, in first principles, life-like.
Beesley’s theoretical research pushes the limits of current paradigms of materiality. It isn’t built from the ground-up but evokes a shelter of ideas and impressions. Sensors and artificial intelligence embedded in the structure make it respond to users and the surrounding environment. Using curiosity-based artificial learning algorithms that respond to outliers in movement and sound rather than on predicable patterns, the kinetic quality of the structure is always changing. Regenerative chemistry (protocells) contained in the vessels promises to co-produce a renewed environment even if it is only at a molecular level.
What I find exciting about this advanced architectural experimentation is that it opens up a different set of criteria for thinking about architectural relationships. An overwhelming response to this work is intellectual engagement through curiosity. Curiosity prepares users to approach architecture not as a set of formal relationships based on conventional aesthetics or structural calculations, or even a pragmatic solution to industrialized/functional goals, but as a manifestation of universal relationships based in science. Architecture becomes a partner in a more collaborative existence. The envelope’s quality of dynamic responsiveness brings architecture closer to the user. By using technology and scientific concepts, the ‘architecture’ moves and reacts. But does it come alive? Does this make architecture and the user co-dependent in a symbiotic relationship that is new?
The link with Iris van Herpen’s experimental fashion in the ROM installation is fitting. Where van Herpen’s creations, however, cover the moving and breathing skin of the representative (gendered) body and interact existentially with those qualities through technological enhancement, in Beesley’s installation experimental architecture itself becomes the moving and ‘living’ structure. Indeed, the dynamic, regenerative structural scaffold could be seen as taking the place of the body. While it doesn’t mimic the body, it does not yet collaborate with the body. Perhaps this doubling can account for a gap that currently exists between user and shelter in this ‘Living’ Architecture. Instead of asking if architecture can come alive, therefore, we might ask how might architecture and ‘living’ be better collaborators? How might a consideration of real and perceived affordances in these nascent ‘living’ spaces enhance life/living? Or how might the current shared cultural language of architectural spatial experience prevent such spaces from being legible and supporting life/living? Perhaps what is missing in Beesley’s expanded field of architecture is the stuff of life itself.