Celebrating an installation by Philip Beesley

As part of the design celebrations for the 2019 DesignTO Festival, Aesop will present ‘Aletheia,’ a temporary installation with Toronto-based multidisciplinary designer Philip Beesley of Waterloo Architecture and the Living Architecture Systems Group.

‘Aletheia’ is a pensive installation inspired by a shared preoccupation with a philosophy of deep interconnectedness—a theme that governed Beesley’s summer exhibition at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, where the sculpture debuted. Now installed at Aesop Queen Street West, the display marks our fourth year participating in DesignTO.

On view from 18 January, the suspended installation features a spherical meshwork of spines, fronds, and densely massed glasswork, outlined by a lace-like membrane that motions in responsiveness to the store’s environment. The general shell of the structure mimics the filamentary shape of a head’s bone formations, creating—like our minds—a little world. The project’s namesake, Aletheia, comes from the ancient Greek, and implies nourishing truth through transparency.

Both architect and visual artist, Philip Beesley cogitates his work as having a mind of its own. Less interested in thinking of architecture as a frozen form, his experimental interventions aim to create a relationship between structure, environment, and people.

Below, we are pleased to feature an interview with Philip Beesley.

While many of the themes of your works thread together, was there a specific inspiration for the Aletheia?

In Greek mythology, Aletheia is the name for the ancient Titan mother of Selene, the goddess of the moon. That energy creates the possibility of life emerging, and also of consciousness rising from deep sleep. The literal emergence of life from inorganic minerals in the earliest stages of the earth’s formation is one of the stories that resonates with the forms that make up Aletheia. I love the sense that these interwoven, intermeshed forms might also support a kind of collective consciousness. Perhaps the hovering sphere of Aletheia’s form might act as a kind of thinking skin for the earth.

The sculpture relies on a fusion between the future (technology) and the ancient (organic forms). Why did you forge a relationship between these two forces?

Combining the separate worlds of nature and technology can involve risk. Is there a fundamental difference between sensitive metabolisms of a natural, living being and all the artifice that humans create? Perhaps it is just that precarious risk that makes the exchanges delicious, reaching and building toward a continuous spectrum running from within our bodies to the outer reaches of buildings and moving into the widest environment. Surging progress is evident in responsive buildings, developing complex kinetic systems with increasingly precise manipulation. Distributed kinetic architectural systems are now at the early stages of integrating hybrid circulation systems and artificial metabolisms. The self-renewing qualities of this emerging new generation seem to justify distinct optimism. Might this progress now start to offer renewal and regeneration? Can buildings come alive, and feel, and care?

Living presence has been invoked in the symbolic programs of architectural design since the beginning of recorded history, yet the engineering of life is fraught with problems at every ethical and technical turn. Are the elusive balances of living systems still beyond the practical realm of contemporary architecture? Indeed, with trembling uncertainty touching even the viability of nature itself, how can architecture respond? The work draws on tactile and kinaesthetic judgment. Perhaps another comes from a design method where multiple cycles alternate between playful instability, radical openness, and manipulations based on absolute precision. The work in the studio is constant cycling, with scrutiny and renewal in numerous interim studies. This makes me hope that a constantly cycling design practice might approach something close to natural evolution.

Your works’ responsiveness to its spectators is unprecedented; you have essentially made it possible for someone to have a relationship with your art. How do you see this relationship evolving as technology advances?

This work tends to live at the edges of perception. I love working with things that are stretched and worked to the limits of their capacity. The subtle phenomena that we discover in this search can often be fragile, unstable, far from equilibrium. It is a challenge to translate those qualities into durable, stable, soft-to-touch materials. We’re constantly consulting with technical researchers and material scientists who help us with that process. Precise information in computational modeling makes it possible to visualize extremely complex, layered forms with multiple interrelationships. The constant dialogue between collaborators makes a kind of collective intelligence that allows us to tackle quite demanding new technologies, using specialised techniques in digital manufacturing, material science and computational modeling. However, those computational calculations and digital models just aren’t sufficient to capture the actual experience of the work. To solve this, we work in numerous cycles that move back and forth between computational modeling and physical work. It is striking just how much practical information comes from playing with real materials at full scale, touching them and seeing how they affect our own bodies.

Each shape and material in your work clearly functions to serve the larger whole. When, if ever, do aesthetics come into play? Or is aesthetic a secondary characteristic?

Through cycles of prototyping, testing, and reflection that combine both technology and aesthetic language, I hope to contribute renewed paths for design. I love exploring the diversity and depth within natural evolution, and I think this offers a wealth of renewal and reinvention to the artificial environments of the city. Combining multiple kinds of systems gives resilience—the kind of mixed, diverse combination that can handle all kinds of widely varying situations. For example, a delicate floating cloud of material could hover just overhead in a public atrium, but at the same time it can have enough inherent toughness to handle rough-and-tumble behaviour. Nature almost always involves hybrids with remarkably diverse combinations of natural and technical elements. Biophilic design can go far beyond curvilinear ‘natural’-appearing ornament.

Constant cycling of materials in reactive fluxes are orchestrated in the metabolisms and perturbations fostered by life, yielding a maximum of entropy. Far from living things opposing the flux of the world, threatened by order, new physics can show that life is directly rendered as an optimum of entropy production. Instead of resistance to decay, this new approach offers ‘dissipative adaptation’ of the unthinkably vast forces within the world itself. This vision invites a search for substantial renewal. seeking a maximum of potent interaction, creating fertility. This invites translation into architecture. Instead of resistance and hardened boundaries, might an alternative architecture construct dynamic, constantly shifting open thresholds, seeking constantly renewed thresholds of exchange? With such a fundamental shift in conception of energy exchange, it seems that models guiding the design of machinic control might have reasons to shift in turn. Aesthetics and technical craft are constantly intertwined in how we think and act.

In the past, you’ve spoken about how ‘living architecture’ runs perpendicular to ‘urban hollowness.’ How does your work, with all its futuristic qualities, get back to the ancient, solid ground you cite as your inspiration?

If I were searching for architectural responses many generations ago, I think my answers would be grounded by a sense of the overwhelming solidity of the earth. No matter what earthquakes and storms might shake my home, the sheer sense of the eternal fundament of nature would carry me. That sense of a fundament was spoken by the Roman writer Vitruvius in his famous paradigm of architecture—firmitas, permanence and depth. It could be said that the architectural tradition of firmitas has prevailed for two thousand years. In the generations that have preceded us, I think we can see with almost absolute certainty that we will be carried, and that nature sweeps all around us—a cardinal, unthinkably vast power. Architecture’s role in responding to that fundament was somehow simple—encircling, fortifying, framing.

It would be understandable if responsible contemporary architects attempted to achieve closed envelopes with absolute boundaries, seeking the greatest care in using energy and radical minima of material consumption. Yet new conceptions of physical laws suggest that the opposite of closed boundaries—a radical opening, with gentlest possible gestures outwards—might offer substantial ways to renew and foster living qualities. I am searching for design principles that could be applied to a new generation of ‘living’ systems within architecture. Design paradigms for responsive architecture could be based on the essential functional organizations of living systems: compartments, metabolism, information. These functions invite comparison to conceptions of living systems offered by contemporary physicists: Ilya Prigogine’s Nobel Prize-winning mid-20th-century conceptions of dissipative form, Gavin Crooks’ renewed conception of entropy voiced a decade ago, and Jeremy England’s recent writing on dissipative adaption place strikingly new interpretations of how physical laws shape forms of life.

As a trained architect, what initially drew you to explore other disciplines such as chemistry, artificial intelligence, or poetry, and to explore them through the filter of architecture?

Multidisciplinary study is embedded in everything we do. The Waterloo and Toronto studio that hosts this work is a central member of the Living Architecture Systems group: a wide consortium of artists, engineers, scientists, and researchers working on the possibilities of next-generation architecture, responsive environments, digital media, and immersive sculpture. We constantly explore new technologies that can be used for making expressive work. The work builds on my early classical training in metal, glass, and wooden instruments, and combines it with our new experiments in digital fabrication and synthetic materials.

In early days, I was immersed in abstract expressionist sculpture, surrounded by the steadily expanding media of the late 1960s and early 1970s. My practice has steadily expanded to new media that includes robotics, light, and spatialized sound. I’ve become deeply involved in digital-fabrication methods, and I often combine them with ancient techniques from metalworking. Today, these techniques are combined into large-scale installations that often include hundreds of thousands of custom-made components. I love the way dense arrays of extremely fine, delicate details can express subtle phenomena at the very edges of our perceptions.

‘One does not see his thought distinctly till it is reflected in the image of another's.’

Amos Bronson Alcott