Philip Beesley is a practicing visual artist, architect, and Professor of Architecture at the University of Waterloo and Professor of Digital Design and Architecture & Urbanism at the European Graduate School. As the leader of the Living Architecture Systems Group, his work over the past two decades has focused on immersive textile environments, landscape installations, and intricate geometric structures. The most recent generations of these works feature interactive sound, light, and kinetic mechanisms with distributed control systems.
Interview by Theo Di Castri.
Theo Di Castri: Where is the field of interactive, responsive architecture at today?
Philip Beesley: The discipline of interactive, electronically-enabled architecture has become familiar. 20 years ago, doors opening in front of us might have been a revelation, but if we walk up to a store in a shopping centre today it would be rather annoying for its doors not to open automatically. We could speak enthusiastically about “smart buildings” and about searching for a responsive kind of architecture that can be operated with deeply embroidered meticulous control. It does appear to me to be a very potent way of working. At the same time, this sense that the world can be mechanically primed to anticipate our behaviour is deeply fraught, the subject of intense debate over the last century. It’s rather surprising to see the wholesale enthusiasm for this movement in many architectural circles. It’s surprising that there is not an equal fervour for countering movements. Kafka drew an acute picture of a machine that destroyed its victim a century ago. During the cold war, Orwell wrote the darkest critiques of overarching, technical networks. Perhaps the present enthusiasm is temporary.
TD: On the spectrum of this enthusiasm, where would you locate your work?
PB: To make things fertile, to achieve great sensitivity is a vast and arguably eternal collective project:. This is a fundamental human aspiration. It does seem possible, now more than ever, to create very effective self-renewing functions. However the work I’ve been doing with my colleagues is tangled between the optimism that is necessary in order to make technical progress and ambivalence. On one hand, working with complex distributed systems requires a tremendous focus on craft. That focus is inherently positive. It’s hard to build the things we build. We have to concentrate. We have to want to be able to build. We have to set objectives and we are sometimes hell bent on making them work. But at the same time there are deeply emotional, even abject qualities embedded within the work. This tension is expressed in fundamental ways. In our own iconography, there are layers of details which are about loving, nurture, soft immersion, and expanding individual human perception and agency. The environments provide the means to be heard, to see, to be comforted, to feel pleasure. But in addition to these, there are layers devoted to resistance, to aggressive cutting, to repulsion and rejection. There are elements which are closed and which refuse. The combination of these qualities seems to me to be absolutely necessary. When I reflect on this, I think this comes from a sense of trying to move beyond the simple achievement of procreation in which we can make things expand and grow.
I just walked with you through the space here and I shared images of our warehouse space that has become almost tragically full, saturated with material. Perhaps that’s evidence that if one sets out to work diffusively with dissipation and with efflorescence, then one can get a very thick, saturated space. That can be a problem, not just a glorious fulfillment. As any farmer who has used too much fertilizer or whose fields have become tangled would know: it’s not simply a glory for things to be rolling in unending growth. It can result in a kind of flat-lining of saturation where things get stuck and occluded. It can be a kind of horror. In practice, alongside other nurturing qualities, this means that the actions of mortality -- of resistance, voiding, and refusal -- become essential ingredients.
Now when I’m saying this, I’m raising the thorniest of questions. If we moved into genetic engineering, what would such a thought mean? If we went into eugenics, what on earth could we be talking about? If we went into politics? We risk atrocity in speaking this way. I am not equipped to traverse the ethics of these ideas at those scales and so I’m going to step back from this. What I will say is that the work is deliberately ambivalent. The detailing of the environments that we make is gentle and expansive, but it also contains needles and blades. And this gives a kind of material agency to the environments so that they are not simply at our service. They also take care of themselves. My parents used to have a beautiful house cat who had really nasty claws as well as the most beautiful gentle paws and whiskers. Perhaps she is the best analogy for the range of qualities we try to include in the work: from gentle, loving, beautiful to defensive, violent, closing.
TD: Is there something about architecture — or your particular practice of architecture — that allows for an exploration of these “negative” qualities without necessarily taking them to the atrocious ends to which you’ve alluded?
PB: Scale is very significant to this question. If you develop a body of technology that is highly local to yourself — let’s say, vestment — then you can speak of prosthetic extensions to your own physiology. We can work with a local zone of pheromones, of thermal activity, of convection and emanations, and we can readily take responsibility for it. At such scales, you have an immediate compass that allows you to maintain some semblance of health (or at least a relationship with health) and a sense of consequences. When things are intimately connected to your own body, ethical judgement is almost automatic. I have been enjoying working at this scale. We’ve been making clusters of spaces which allow small groups of people to meet and gather -- perhaps 2, 3, 12; perhaps even 100. Those kinds of granular, overlapping, nested scales correspond, I think, to the political units of the town counsels of the original Soviets, village panchayat councils of South East Asia, or perhaps elders in a First Nations community. That kind of tangible scale seems like a very happy one for architecture to work with. The nest of personal connectedness sets up a rebound system of consequences for what you’re doing. On the other hand, what kind of architecture can we speak of at scales that seek to foster a kind of common, unified, universal experience? What kind of architecture are we speaking about when we make a football stadium for 80,000 people? Or a parade ground? The great axis leading to the Washington Mall? The great trident reaching out from Versailles? Is it possible to feel triumph, is it possible to feel emplaced? Certainly we do feel these things. When the touchdown happens in the stadium, we feel the glory! We revel in this collective quality.
I do take heart in a process that builds, out of the tribal scales I was invoking earlier, towards a sense of the public where we can speak coherently about the streets, neighbourhoods, and wards of the city. I believe in the res publica, the collective enframing that architecture can offer. But I’m betraying my preference for working incrementally. I can’t escape the sense that this particular stance comes from being reared by parents who were traumatized by the Second World War. Perhaps I am speaking more of my own limits than something inherent to large-scale architecture. But in speaking this way I am also asserting a common loss: the inability to work and speak within a great common, a nation. I can’t escape the concern that working at fully public scales seems likely to orchestrate cancer and fascism alongside collective fulfillment and emplacement. With the atrocities of this last century, it seems impossible to work responsibly at such scales. I feel that, for now, i have to work more locally in order to take responsibility for my actions.
TD: I find it interesting that you speak about a sense of loss because beneath the initial futuristic, almost sci-fi appearance of your environments, I detect a certain hint of nostalgia—something that hearkens back to the visuals of Ernest Haeckel, for example, or to an almost Rococo sensibility even.
PB: The attempt to generate wholes, the attempt to think about complete, immersive things is surely a beautiful thing in its innocence. The great delicacy of those particular movements that have embraced such an ethos -- the movements of the Rococo, for example, or the great encyclopedic projects of the 19th century -- are surely full of beauty and hope. My studio is aligned with those hopes. The sources for this work might be happily anachronistic. The high baroque might be thought of as glorious, but the rococo that followed it -- at least as it was taught to me by well meaning and wise art historians — is thought of as being a period of excess and decay. What a curious position! Of course, these periods are also full of problems. If we look at a period of late 19th century expression, we see this incredible efflorescence of collecting images of microorganisms and systematically gathering and illustrating them. In Haeckel’s popular opus, Art Forms in Nature, we see the orchestration of a beautiful kind of encyclopedia. But through this orchestration, Haeckel is also thinking about very powerful synthetic methods — methods that might allow one not only to sort the different forms of nature, but also to select and control them. Haeckel was very interested in the early forms of genetic engineering and invokes them very directly in his discussions of the human species. In his writings he speaks about master races and inferior races. He describes an ethical obligation to engineer ourselves according to those master races. We don’t have to go too much further to anticipate the dangers of this thought and where it has gone in the past. I would rather back away from the atrocity that is implied here, while still drawing some inspiration from the sheer efflorescence present in his work. And, speaking more directly about the work in my studio, I hope that by mixing in some acid and vinegar into the technologies and phenomena of the landscapes that we make, we provide a means of caution, not of a disabling kind, but rather of a kind of stringency-imparting consciousness. I do hope that this can lead to resilient mutual relations rather than some kind of vast, totalising system.
TD: Can you trace the genealogy of how you arrived at your present work?
PB: These projects started 40 years ago in the 1970s, launched when I was deeply influenced by late abstract expressionist painting and sculpture. The technical layers in my own practice took hold in four waves. One of the first was a layer of textile organization which started taking root at the beginning of the ‘90s through collaborations with a series of craft artists and from stage design. I was preoccupied with filtering and generating layers of tangible materials woven around each of our bodies, a kind of thickened atmosphere. A second layer happened when those textile-like environments became automated through digital fabrication. A third wave happened when computational controls and interactive electronic systems were introduced. That happened starting in 2001-2 with a workshop called the Digital and the Hand between craft artists at the Haystack Mountain School for Crafts and the group headed by Mitchell Resnick at MIT’s Media Lab. Then, a fourth was added, when synthetic biology took hold around 2007.
TD: Could you say a little bit more about how your early experiences in the domain of theatre and performance came and continue to influence your work?
PB: Working with the stage some thirty years ago, I found a sensibility that thinks of space as thick and full of presence. This was a rather different sense than my parent’s existentialist generation that held space as empty and humans as free within empty space. I was part of a series of workshops geared specifically towards exploring limits. For example, I did a workshop with the Wooster group in 1979 in New York which involved exercises where we would move until we were exhausted, speaking until we had no oxygen in our lungs. The situation was not necessarily that of atrocity or suffering, but definitely one that tested the limits of our bodies. It involved the experience of resistance, tearing, and decay. Those interpersonal experiences in theatre were valuable to me in establishing a terrain for expression. They helped in finding a way of mapping sensations and experiences directly into my body, noticing my emotions, finding detailed experience of my musculature, and becoming aware of the relationships between my gestures and those of my colleagues. This helped set up a kind of liminal zone that is deeply ambivalent, carrying both relaxed, confident possibility and danger. I think these early experiences with personal limit-based explorations have carried forward into the new generation of technically based work. The densely distributed mechanisms that I and my colleagues make are still infused with this ambivalence. On the one hand, they seek to be as maximally reactive as possible — rippling and reacting kinetically. On the other hand, they also involve qualities of rictus and mortality.
TD: We’ve been speaking about the past. What of the future? What role does the future play within your practice?
PB: Let me offer an analogy: when we look at stem cells, there is this absolutely lovely sense of their pluripotency. I understand that term to refer to the process by which a cell specializes, divides, and grows guided not only by its preprogrammed DNA, but also by the extra cellular matrix which is being manifested around that dividing cell. There is a sense of being pulled into fate — into the fated future — by the interactions with the chemical gradients in the extra cellular matrix and by the cell’s proximity to other formations. But that’s not the end of the analogy. It’s not just that the environment shapes me as well as my own genetic map. The third, most fascinating thing is that the operations of the cell project certain chemicals move outward into that ECM which interact and serve to create the milieu and the scaffolding into which the cell bodies itself. So there is a very real sense in which the cell is mapping its own fate through its behaviour, in a way that is not at all preordained by its instruction set. I love this sense that there is a deep, constant flux between circumstance, the vector of the prior causation, and the set of ingredients that are both inside and outside any given situation. This means that the future is a fundamental medium for the work.
When I say the work, I’m speaking practically about the work of this studio: the interwoven responsive environments and immersions that we’re trying to craft. I love thinking of those projects as possibility spaces. Throughout our studio we have a densely spaced hanging array in three triangular vectors shot through eight metres of height. Within this it becomes possible to place material without requiring it to be resolved or fully organized. Things condense. We don’t need to start with overarching scaffolds and strong foundations. Clouds can accumulate with fragile connections, perhaps just the flutter of a possibility. Concentrated behaviours, harmonizing, resonating can appear. If these concentration make a single crystal, then that might serve as a template for purifying the surroundings. On the other hand with multiples and intermixing, a quite resilient, mongrel, weed-like amalgam can result. I like the using the conception of pluripotency, the term that I am deriving from cell biology, in seeing architecture as a possibility field, like a fertile soil. So this is a particular way of working, I think, with the future.
TD: Can you speak to the future as it relates to the more abstract, conceptual — and, if you will, political — dimensions of your work? On some level your landscapes present a challenge to Platonic cosmology that sees the world divided into neat dichotomies of internal/external, living/non-living, artificial/organic. In this, are you expressing a vision or a desire of an alternative future wherein we might think beyond such weatherworn binaries?
PB: I’m going to be very unfair to Plato and blame him for a current cancer of minimalism. The Platonic universe speaks of a set of origins where you distill things down and clear away the circumstance of the world. The world is seen as just a forlorn chimera. To hell with the natural world! Plato gives a vision of boiling things down to the transcendent world of harmonics, and down further until we get to pure arithmetic, dividing down to 3,2, finally 1! This glorious sense of the absolute crystalline seed of the world. The geometry of that is the circle and the sphere, distilled, optimal wholeness. If I’m seeking great profit, a sphere could be the best possible building form, helping cordon off the maximum territory to exploit with the minimum expenditure, and warding off intervention from the outside. Such a construction is effective for maximizing internal heat and internal territory. I must admit that I hate that sphere. I hate it because of its mechanical arithmetic, I hate the machine that ordains the maximum possible internal territory and the minimum possible envelope. If I act this way, I’m effectively treating the outside as a void. If I urgently need to shed heat off a planet that has gotten too hot, or if connection with other things is a source of refreshment and renewal, I can hardly imagine a worse form than a sphere. What do we do if we want to shed heat? We need a reaction face with largest possible envelope, the most interaction possible. I would be very tempted to say that the Platonic vision of the world which has so dominated Western architecture and design has resulted in an architecture of death. Beautiful, eternal, memorialized, but death nonetheless. I would like to stand against this Platonic vision in seeking an alternate form language based on maximum efflorescence and involvement and vulnerability -- a form language in which fragility becomes a virtue rather than a weakness. With such a strategy lies the possibility of connection and interchange. Rather than static territory, metabolism becomes the field and the currency of exchange.
In some contemporary quarters, reduction is held somehow to be virtuous, holding up minimalism and simplicity as qualities giving greatest agency. I’m trying to offer an alternative to that, rooted in a language of dissipation and entanglement. If I turn to Donna Haraway’s fundamental conception of what a body might feel encountering the division between nature and technology, then I find a remarkable kind of belief in fertility. She says, in her famous essay called "Simians, Cyborgs and Women," that she is not afraid of the boundary between nature and technology. She says that she relishes the traffic. We get a sense that instead of shrinking from a trauma, she advocates that we swarm it and engulf it. Perhaps then this speaks of a fundamental feminine conception, one that seems distinctly different from the Western tradition that has held us for 2500 years. I think it's a conception that stands to change us collectively.
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