How architect Philip Beesley uses artificial intelligence to create transformative environments.
-By Caitlin Agnew
When you hear the words ‘artificial intelligence’, you likely picture the sort of deranged, talking computers produced by Hollywood, like the famous HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, or, more recently, GRTA in the Netflix series Maniac. While pop culture may still be obsessed with the blurry boundaries between man and machine, it’s clear that this data-driven technology has applications that go well beyond the anthropomorphic, including in the fields of art and architecture.
It’s something that Toronto-based architect Philip Beesley has been exploring for the past 15 years or so through his work in responsive environments. His interdisciplinary design studio specializes in experimental installations of living architecture, including sculptural work that focuses on immersive textile environments, landscape installations, and geometric structures.
Recently, that was through Transforming Space, an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum that accompanied the work of Dutch couturiere Iris Van Herpen, who regularly collaborates with Beesley on her award-winning fashion designs. This exhibition included the piece ‘Aegis’, a shimmering sculptural canopy embedded with AI that was programmed with a curiosity-based algorithm, meaning this piece of art is constantly seeking new patterns of behaviour from its audience.
In October, Beesley’s work travels to Vienna’s MAK museum as part of the exhibition Sagmesiter & Walsh: Beauty, an immersive examination of taking delight in beauty. Ahead of the opening, we caught up with Beesley at his studio in Toronto’s west end to talk tech, textiles, and transformation.
How did you start incorporating artificial intelligence into your work? This work started as traditional architecture deeply involved with the collective myth of working in Canada and on the land and trying to find relationships in the way that architecture has worked for 3000 years, of working with the idea that you connect [with] and that you’re supported by your surroundings, by the ground under your feet and by the people that are around you. Along the way, that work, which has been so devoted to building, has resulted in seeing space itself change as well. Instead of working with the solid ground that supports you, that you are freely on, like you’re working on a stage, the sense that things can become resonant and start to vibrate and oscillate and move and shift around you has tended to make things become much, much more personal, even intimate in the way they start to wrap around you and extend you. What that’s meant is that the layers that are much more familiar as clothing and fashion and sculpture have become very immediate, direct scales. That’s made this studio practice change fundamentally into working with architecture very explicitly as clothing.
How does this type of technology function in your designs? There are layers of artificial intelligence in this work. I’m very attracted to mesh-based micro-processing systems, which is a way of generating control and imbuing intelligence into a system that’s quite different than making a powerful central controller or a powerful central brain. Instead, this is an event that takes many very small bits of intelligence, microprocessors, [and] connects them together and gives each of them a modest task, but keeps them signalling from part to part to part. And, in total, all of those individual controllers can have a really profound effect.
What does that type of a building look like? Imagine going into a slightly darkened space. At first, the atmosphere is very still and you are first aware of just basket-like forms and quite lightweight shelves around you, framing the space and making canopies and vaults above you. Then, as you go a bit closer, you become aware of a very faint rustling and slight undulations. You reach out your hand, and then a sensor nearby detects your movement and sends a signal to a microprocessor which responds with a little ripple of light and a blooming of movement, which then recedes away from you into the distance with a wave that moves from part to part. And you come closer and wave your hand again, and then a much stronger burst of light results, which then ripples out even more strongly. You start to explore, and this whole web of sensors gets revealed together with a myriad array of lights and small vibrations and little ripples of sound as well that move off into the distance and start rebounding. The sense of going through an environment like that is one which is not quite the same as being amidst a group of fully-conscious beings. It’s quite explicitly mechanical, but at the same time, there’s something [about it that has] the quality of being in a rainforest or in a deep woods where things are very distinctly alive around you and which have presence, rather than things moving and responding as if they are tools or machines.
How does an environment learn how to respond this way? These are environments that have embedded intelligence running all the way through them and their meshworks and microprocessors. The small ripples of responses have [a] quality of being able to respond to you in very particular ways that start to open up the possibility of them being empathetic, even sympathetic to you, not simply registering your presence but starting to know you and to echo and to offer qualities back.
Going forward, where can living architecture take us? We’re just at the very beginning of understanding how to work with these kinds of systems. Some of the things that we do are a bit clumsy and hesitant, but other parts are starting to gain some confidence. What I can say is that working in this way seems very worthwhile. It’s important to get to know this medium.
Art is obviously very important to what you’re doing. What periods and genres are you most inspired by? Quite recently, the collective work of the ’60s, where such subtle phenomena were really embraced with all kinds of willing disorientation and a wish to find new boundaries, I find incredibly compelling. I really love some of the revolutionary work of the early 20th century. I’ve got a very soft spot for romantic work in the 19th century as well. I have to say, some of the dimensions of medieval work of seven or eight hundred years ago are also incredibly compelling – just the sense of searching and trying to manifest what is vastly larger than you and then trying to honour and touch it and give it new language.