Every season fashion critics try to spot in new collections links with other disciplines such as art or architecture; at every art fair or architecture biennale, new installations and works prove that the boundaries between disciplines are merging thanks to smart materials, state of the art tools and innovative studies. It will maybe take another few years to really understand if in future we will have a mix of disciplines and interests or just less rigid divisions, but there are already some professionals pushing the boundaries and merging disciplines. Canadian architect Philip Beesley is one of them.
His living installations are an example of a strong collaborative effort, integrating multiple disciplines such as art, architecture, literature, biology, science, artificial intelligence, electronics, engineering and a little bit of fashion as well. Known for his studies on liminal responsive architecture, Beesley creates amazing structures suspended between the biomorphic and the high tech, creating stunning formations that, moving thanks to sensors, envelope the space in depth and texture.
Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen was inspired for her A/W 2012-13 Haute Couture collection by one of Beesley's most famous installations, “Hylozoid Ground” (2007). Entitled “Hybrid Holism”, van Herpen's collection moves from “hylozoism”, a term derived from Greek that refers to the belief that life arises out of material things and that there are no rigid boundaries between the inert matter of rock, gases, liquids and living things. Both the collection and its starting point are visually rich, but while Beesley's work is an immersive interactive geotextile living structure made with a flexible lattice meshwork skeleton of transparent lily-shaped vaults, basket columns, artificial forest-like grids that form acrylic chevron-shaped tiles and alien looking elements that reshape the space, van Herpen uses 3D printing, UV-curable polymer, copper sheeting, silicone lace, acrylic transparent sheets and eco leather to create bulbous forms that literally envelop, reshape and alter the body.
Beesley collaborates with professionals from many different disciplines, among them also Rachel Armstrong, an experimental chemist investigating a new approach to building materials called living technology, and the link between his near-living interactive systems that breathe and move and van Herpen's body-reshaping forms may become stronger in future. Who knows, we may not be able to change the buildings in which we live in that soon, but we may start by changing the shape of the clothes we wear.
The last time we spoke (post-Golden Lion ceremony at the Venice Biennale architecture in 2010) we started our chat talking about Kazuyo Sejima's wearing a Comme des Garçons dress during the awarding ceremony. In the last two years the connections between architecture and fashion strengthened leading to collaborations between designers and architects, why do you think this has happened?
Philip Beesley: Some practical paths in contemporary architectural design seem to point directly to the craft of fashion. The parametric simulation tools that have recently emerged in architecture tools make it possible to work with complex, subtly changing arrays of repeating components. The craft of working with complex arrays, in textile and fabric design and the language of the ‘hand’ of textiles, where materials perform in precise ways - foundations of fashion - make those disciplines seem like natural ‘elders’ to new field-based architecture. It seems natural for architects to look to textile designers and to borrow their language and craft. But perhaps a general zeitgeist is bringing our fields together in more fundamental ways. When I think of the expanded, hovering layers of space, inward and outward, and the active kinetic performance that some new architecture is pursuing, and when I think at the same time of the increasingly subtle phenomena and material inventions especially in engineered and responsive textiles within new fashion, it seems inevitable that these worlds will intersect.
There are quite a few architects who turned fashion designers from Japanese Kei Kagami, to Italians Gianfranco Ferré, Daniela Del Cima and Gentucca Bini: why do you think there are architects who want to work in fashion but not so many fashion designers who want to work in architecture?
Philip Beesley: I love the Venetian Mariano Fortuny’s example, where there seemed to be so many cycles moving between fashion and architecture that the boundaries get tangled. I am not very keen on a picture of only a one-way exchange, but you might be right - those examples suggest that more architects turn to fashion than the other way around. It might be related to public impression about the very long path required for professional training in architecture, and the webs of liability that contemporary buildings require. But I can’t say that those are good reasons, because I think architecture benefits greatly from fashion designers working at the scale of buildings.
How is your research going geotextile-wise?
Philip Beesley: Geotextiles, where textiles are used as engineered landscapes, have intrigued me since a remarkable Philadelphia and Maine textile artist, Warren Seelig, first introduced them to me in the early 1990s. I think it is the prosthetic relationship that motivates me most. By prosthetic I mean an artificial layer that extends and supports a living system. We’re working on new artificial scaffolds, and also on near-living systems that are supported by those scaffolds. In those latter systems I have been heavily influenced by recent collaborations with artificial-life chemistry researchers Rachel Armstrong and Martin Hanczyc, and they have shown me that circulation systems using inorganic materials can be designed to work like primitive metabolisms. In parallel, we’ve made good progress with support structures. We have been developing dense arrays of custom glassware with flexible connections, and these extend the structural geotextile scaffolds into three-dimensional reticulated forms carrying fluids in multiple channels. We’re hanging these porous layers and using them to make walls and canopies that make quite satisfying immersive chambers to gather in. Next steps are to generate bundled fibers and larger felt-like skins within the chemical systems, and to set up active exchanges between those with wicks and valves with interior and exterior spaces.
A while back you co-designed with Dereck Revington a laser cut Mylar screen for the opera The Girl with No Door on Her Mouth (2002), yet you never worked on a fashion design, did you ever think before now to create something along the fashion and architecture lines, maybe moving from the geometrical motifs in your Orpheus Filter projects?
Philip Beesley: I would love to work quite directly in fashion design. When I work on walls, floor and roof surfaces in my own work I often think of them as being quite intimate, close to the human body. The scale of clothing seems very close to this.
How did you and Iris van Herpen meet?
Philip Beesley: Iris and I have had a tremendously satisfying dialogue, discovering common ground in how we design and conceive things. We met through our work, encountering each other's material at a distance through the images that have accompanied exhibitions and publications. We discovered that we have a number of colleagues in common, perhaps coming from shared interest in computational design and digital fabrication.
Her latest Haute Couture collection featured dresses that seemed to echo your living sculptures: can you tell us more about this exchange between you two?
Philip Beesley: The work has been an informal exchange of looking and learning about each other’s work from a distance. The rapport was strong and seems to be leading us to more contact: I will be contributing to a book project that she is editing this coming year, and I hope we’ll be able to work directly on a new design project together as well.
Was she inspired by the chevron/lily canopy or petal assembly diagrams in your responsive architectures?
Philip Beesley: The chevron/lily canopy is something that emerged in several generations in my work, since the ‘e-art’ exhibition at the Montreal Beaux-Arts museum in 2006. I do have the impression that the very flexible, bubbling forms of those canopies were a reference for Iris’s recent collection. We spoke in some detail about how turbulent layers could emerge out of the step-by-step assembly of flexible pieces in this structural fabric. I am hoping to work more on this series with her.
Can you tell us more about "Sibyl", the latest installation in your “Hylozoic Series”, presented at the 18th Biennale of Sydney?
Philip Beesley: We were quite ambitious in mounting "Sibyl" on Cockatoo Island in Sydney, and combined layers of movement, sound, light, and scent. New carbon-capture setups for chemistry were laid into densely massed custom glasswork. A new layer of kinetic filters made horizontal surfaces akin to fields of seaweed surrounding viewers. Synthetic whispers surrounded the viewers as well, following a beautiful ‘ambisonic’ acoustic composition created by our collaborator Mark-David Hosale. Arrays of scent-glands were integrated with touch and movement sensors, exuding frankincense and ginger oils through wicks, they made quite a heady atmosphere. The title, Sibyl, refers to the history of ancient seers that drew from earth-based energy in making prophecy. Recently I have been dwelling on the presence of Cybele, the Great Mother goddess that came into Roman mythology from Anatolia. We’re trying to make a potent new kinds of hybrid soil in the Hylozoic series, and there are some lovely resonances between these conceptions. To me, there are conceptual and emotional connections between our own work, qualities in ancient writing about sibyls, and public conceptions of the natural earth.
Have you recently developed further studies about liminal responsive architectures?
Philip Beesley: In the past few months we’ve been able to make a few technical breakthroughs that contribute to the general area of responsive architecture. Hopes are high about fleshing these out with more writing. Our craft work has focused on lightweight structures, computation and chemistry. The structures are now moving into light metal materials that can handle large forces. We should be able to handle small building scales soon. In computation, we’ve been pursuing ‘subsumption’ organization with nests of reflexes that allow quite subtle interactions to occur outside of central control. Shift-register processing is being integrated, allowing us to work with large numbers of individual devices and sensors. Custom glass housings and circulation systems of new chemical systems are giving much finer-grained organization, creating integrated membrane assemblies interwoven with fluid circulation. These examples point to practical work, while at the same time we are working more on the psychology of encountering and working within a responsive environment. Liminal is a provocative word, but it remains rather general and I hope to find more precise language that can capture transitions that move beyond the stable threshold of individual skins and clothing. I remain impressed by Donald Winnicott’s conceptions of how objects can play key roles in the growth of the human psyche. Extending his work on transitional objects - the cuddle-toy and ‘blankie’ that so often accompanies a little child - he also writes about transitional fields that might play a role in how public culture can grow. This could suggest a similar role for these sculpture environments. Two other writers have offered some valuable dimensions along related paths. Michel Serres speaks in lovely, almost incandescent meditations about social gatherings at the very beginning of cities in his books ‘Foundations of Rome’ and ‘Genesis’. George Didi-Huberman’s ‘Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration’ gives a close reading of Medieval conceptions where material is manipulated in ways that attempt to capture ineffable qualities. To me, all three of these writers offer valuable material that can give a language for working with liminal architecture.
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