Based in Toronto, Philip Beesley Architect Inc. (PBAI Studio) is a multi-disciplinary studio that creates installations designed to invigorate a viewer’s experience of space and material.
Projects such as Sibyl, presented at the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012, feature intricate mesh work columns that flow and ripple replicating the movement of the ocean. Strange, surreal, yet closely connected to nature, Sibyl is representative of Beesley’s extensive practice. Farmboy Fine Arts caught up with the architect to talk about his multi-disciplinary practice and how design can connect us to nature.
The practice at PBAI Studio is incredibly versatile and multi-disciplinary. Can you explain a bit about the scope of work and focus at the firm?
Working across disciplines is at the heart of what we do. PBAI Studio works with a wide consortium of artists, engineers, scientists, and researchers as a central member of the Living Architecture Systems research group. We explore the possibilities of next generation architecture, responsive environments, digital media and immersive sculpture. So we are asking, how might buildings and our environments begin to know and care about us? And might they start, in very primitive ways, to become alive?
We constantly explore new technologies that can be used for making expressive work, building on my early training in finely wrought metal, glass and wooden instruments. In early days I was immersed in abstract expressionist sculpture, surrounded by the media of the late 1960s and early ’70s. My practice has steadily expanded to also include robotics, light, and spatialized sound. I’ve become deeply involved in digital fabrication methods, and I often combine those 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 edge of our perceptions.
You’re often working with biophilic elements of design–mimicking and reconstructing nature. How do you feel biophilic design in architecture impacts people’s lives?
Biophilic design can go far beyond curvilinear ‘natural’-appearing ornament. Nature almost always involves hybrids with remarkably diverse combinations of natural and technical elements. 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 floating cloud of material hovering just over head in a public atrium is quite soft and delicate, yet at the same time has enough toughness in it to handle rough-and-tumble behavior too. This feels like an existential question… At a fundamental level, this kind of design can help us to be healthier… and perhaps it can help us to be happier. The work is robust, yet delicate in nature, and this seems to encourage different ways of acting. Observing people interacting with these spaces is quite striking because extraordinarily gentle and respectful responses tend to happen. Have we caused someone to experience a different, and perhaps healthier form of interaction?
Your installations are based in large part on interaction. How do you hope people engage with your work? What do you intend to inspire in viewing your work?
I think that we tend to assume that the world is inert and exists to serve humans, but a fundamentally different attitude can be found in shared, collective relationships. Through interactive systems and the behavior they elicit, I hope to find some renewed relationships with the world. This is through mutual relationships rather than dominant ones – and what do I mean by mutual? Rather than living in the world we can exchange and participate in it, living with the world.
Regarding your collaborations with Iris Van Herpen, do you learn more about your own practice from working in fashion?
Working in couture offers fundamental insights into my own practice; my own vision has been transformed by working with the intimate dimensions of clothing. Also, just the sheer pleasure of being close to the extraordinarily vivid creative intelligence of Iris and her team has a deep impact.
The creations of couture sometimes exist only to satisfy a brief instant of possibility, while at the same time, the intimacy of the relationship with the human body means that the work has to be always extraordinarily fine-tuned and sensitive. I think both the restless innovation and that fine-tuning have been fundamental influences on the work we do in the studio.
What’s next on the horizon for innovation at the firm?
We are making striking progress in very strong and extremely durable materials, in freely-formed metal and glass constructions, which are also incredibly expressive. This allows us to increasingly work in large scales even outside. We are also finding strategies to integrate biological systems by creating masses of interconnected glass vessels that can hold reactive fluids that can absorb and release air, vapour and other elements, much like our bodies.
Also, an emerging collaboration with 4DSOUND is creating dramatic experiences in immersive sound, both at intimate whispering scales and epic public landscapes. Finally, we’ve made wonderful progress in learning how to integrate artificial curiosity and searching functions by developing new generations of software supported in turn by custom electronics that can be organized in meshes. This has remarkable similarities to the way human neurology is formed. Hopes are high about coupling these environments directly to human thought with brain-computer interfaces for the purpose of empathy – that’s what we’re trying to achieve. We are trying to create environments that can literally feel and think with us, empathically, and enrich our interactions not only with each other but with the spaces we inhabit.
All images courtesy Philip Beesley Architect Inc.