Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Sentient Chamber

Sentient Chamber, 2015, Philip Beesley Architect and Living Architecture Systems Group

I’ve written before about Philip Beesley’s immersive installations, so I was delighted to learn that the National Academies of Science was bringing one to their headquarters in Washington, DC.  Last week, I had the opportunity to see it on a special tour with Beesley, and to hear him speak on a panel at NAS that night. The installation is called Sentient Chamber, and it looks a bit like a cross between an open-air tent-style church and a ghostly Rose Parade float. Beesley describes it as an “experimental architecture and sculpture installation [which] acts as a test-bed for ongoing research that combines the disciplines of architecture and visual art, computer science and engineering, and synthetic biology.” It’s silver and white, and as you come close it clanks and beeps in a friendly way, shimmying its fronds and extending slender robotic fingers.

The main structure consists of a flexible grid made up of many triangular shaped elements in metal and plastic. Beesley explains that the shapes of the structure are based on hyperbolic geometry, which creates maximum strength from minimum materials. Above and among the arches are clusters of “acoustic and kinetic mechanisms” – microprocessor-driven fronds and branches that reach out and whirr and clank and light up when people interact with them. Fruit-like clumps of glass globes and tubes contain what Beesley describes as “the beginnings of a synthetic biology system” – oils that react to each other and to changes in the environment.

Detail view from Sentient Chamber 

Beesley is an amazing talker, ranging from the concept of a structure as a box or a “raindrop” to metal-rod cores and distributed mechatronics within a single breath. But he returns often to a central theme – the idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and designed to be responsive to and integrated with nature, rather than an attempt to keep natural forces at bay with thick walls and high-tech climate-control systems.

He dreams rather about building gathering places that breathe, that learn, that welcome both humans and nature, and that are resource-positive – that is, generating energy and other resources rather than just conserving them. Although his Sentient Chamber at NAS is not ready to live in – it’s full of fragile pieces and there are laptops nestled in the treetops – it conjures up tantalizingly novel ideas about how we could live in the future. If you can, go see it now.

Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Glittering, Radiant Soil

From Radiant Soil, Philip Beesley and Living Architecture Systems Group, 2013
From Radiant Soil, Philip Beesley and Living Architecture Systems Group, 2013

When artists depict soil, it is often as a dark, heavy, brown mass. Philip Beesley sees it differently. His 2013 installation, Radiant Soil, is full of light and movement, glittering with metal and glass. As Beesley describes it, “this contemporary soil seethes with a myriad of seeded viscera, miniscule fragments gathering and efflorescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of growth to come.”

Radiant Soil forms interlinking clouds of industrial design biomimetic components of polymer, metal and glass, arranged in suspended filter layers contain a near-living carbon-capture metabolism. Frond-clusters fitted with shape-memory alloy mechanisms react to viewers as they approach, flexing and setting off bursts of light that stimulate the protocells and trigger chains of motion that ripple throughout the environment. Scent-emitting glands attract viewers and encourage interaction with the system, providing stimulus that increases air circulation and protocell formation.” (source)

Is this really happening beneath your peaceful front lawn? Well, yes and no. Beesley is not trying to make an enormous, interactive scale model of actual soil. His goal is to make us rethink the boundaries of our environment. There may not be flashing lights in soil, but there are signals flying among plants, animals and microbes, there are minerals glinting and spores bursting. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet, and Beesley brings it to the surface with bravura.

In his ongoing Hylozoic Series of installations, which have been exhibited around the world, he and his team are “trying to provoke a reconception of architecture, not as a set of closed walls where you see your office as a fort, but rather to think of architectural walls and roofs as deeply layered zones for interchange.” (Wired)

Originally an architect working on much more conventional projects, Beesley changed direction in 2001 after meeting Mitchell Resnick, an MIT professor who introduced him to the possibilities of digital fabrication and low-cost sensors. Using what he calls the “little bits of intelligence and interactivity” the technology provided, he began to create interactive, immersive environments, evoking forests, jungles, plant cells, or in this case, soil. Beesley now works with a team of architects, mechanical engineers and chemists, who (among other things) create interactive features that move, “breathe”, and release scents when activated by visitors

The series title, Hylozoic, refers to the belief that all matter is alive. Looking at Beesley’s conception of soil as a light, airy, sparkling and motion-filled space (video), it’s hard to disagree.

Detail from Radiant Soil, 2013
Detail from Radiant Soil, 2013
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