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Philip Beesley: Engineering Liminal Geotextiles

Canadian architect Beesley mixes craftsmanship, science and technology through his installations of alien-like and futuristic structures

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 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) Orpheus Filter (2004), Implant Matrix (2006) to the latest one, Hylozoic Ground (2010), 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. 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.

Dazed Digital: 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 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.

DD: 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.  

DD: 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 and harmonic fabrics.

DD: 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 fosters life. So they are essentially artificial systems, self-organising entities that can generate remarkably potent things, even grotesque nightmarish monsters, uncanny artificial fabrics that unsettle, disturb and act of their own accord.  

DD: 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.