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When architecture comes to life

© PBSI

Where am I? This place is reminiscent of a bright clearing in a dark forest, with shimmering light reflections and a central pool in which light and dark images constantly transform themselves in extraordinary patterns. Those who approach this scene feel the impulse to dive into this magical atmosphere.

GROVE is the name of this exhibit by Philip Beesley and the Living Architecture Systems Group on display at the Biennale Architettura 2021 in Venice. Being invited to display a work at this exhibition is tantamount to being accepted among the deities of architecture, an honor which has been bestowed upon the Canadian and his team for the second time. And it is also the time for PLEXIGLAS® to shine, as it takes on breathtakingly beautiful, organic shapes in this exhibit.

Beesley spoke to us and described his vision of a pioneering and living architecture. And he also explained how he and his team turned PLEXIGLAS® sheets into extremely delicate forms reminiscent of ice crystals, clouds, feathers and webs. In combination with light and digital technology, they can provide their own dynamic which captures audiences and draws them in.

This design language and the use of acrylic glass under the brand name PLEXIGLAS® – sold under the ACRYLITE® brand name in Canada and the USA – are characteristic of the projects taken on by the interdisciplinary design agency, Philip Beesley Studio Inc. The immersive sculptural installations have garnered a great deal of attention at exhibitions around the world. At the Biennale Architettura 2010, Beesley represented his home country Canada with the installation “Hylozoic Ground”.

Philip Beesley

More than an architect: Philip Beesley turns architecture into an emotional experience. He uses the diverse properties of PLEXIGLAS® to create fascinating exhibits that react to the visitors with light, sound and movement.

© Alex Willms, willmsalex@gmail.com

Your contribution to the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale is called GROVE. What will the visitors get to see?

Visitors will enter the vast, dark hall of the Arsenale, the exhibition site, and in the distance they will see a hovering, billowing cloud illuminated by faint pools of glowing light. Walking toward the GROVE installation, a thicket of totem-like columns becomes visible, surrounding a brilliant pool-like image set into the floor. Sounds of gentle whispers and stirring tones surround the space and grow stronger. Emerging from the darkness, the column forms reveal intricate basket-like cages, each containing teardrop-shaped speakers, and the cloud reveals thousands of interconnected lace-like spiraling skeleton cells, bedecked with glistening fluid-filled glass flasks. The pool contains a constantly changing vision of worlds in formation – a CGI film based on the form language of my built work that also echoes the physical forms of the clouds and the totem columns.

Entering the GROVE

GROVE ist the title of the installation by Philip Beesley and the Living Architecture Systems Group at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. It comprises PLEXIGLAS®, light, sound and CGI film.

© PBSI

A cloud made from PLEXIGLAS®

PLEXIGLAS® takes on breathtakingly beautiful, organic shapes in this exhibit. “PLEXIGLAS® XT performs particularly well for intricate laser-cutting, especially for thin filaments and delicate details”, says Philip Beesley.

© PBSI

Immersive architecture

GROVE offers a new kind of open gathering place. Instead of rigid walls that exclude, lace-like scaffolds offer extraordinary durability and shelter.

© PBSI

How does Grove contribute to the Biennale’s theme “How will we live together?”

Viewers can experience a new kind of immersive architecture. GROVE offers a new kind of open gathering place. Instead of rigid walls that exclude, lace-like scaffolds offer extraordinary durability and shelter. The space of GROVE acts as a kind of public forum and theatre. It is shaped around the collective experience of viewing the projection and experiencing densely interwoven fields of sound, sheltered by the glimmering, hovering lacework of the suspended cloud above.

What is the philosophy of Living Architecture?

The Living Architecture Systems Group explores the future possibilities of architecture. It is an international group that is committed to the development of living architecture. This is founded on the concept that today's physical environment of buildings and surrounding space contains increasingly complex systems. The physical components can work as flexible, responsive scaffolds. The embedded intelligence and interactive behavior of smart environments can create a tangible 'sentience'. The intelligent systems and responsive scaffolds can work together to process materials and modify their surroundings.

These three kinds of systems can be summarized as scaffolds, information, and metabolism. Contemporary thinkers that are researching new technologies often consider those three systems together as the minimum ingredients needed for the emergence of life. And if architecture integrated responsive scaffolds, information and metabolisms, it could be considered literally alive.

Preview of the “GROVE“ installation by Philip Beesley and the Living Architecture Systems Group at the Biennale Architettura 2021:

What do you appreciate about PLEXIGLAS® and which of its properties are beneficial for your work?

Our prototypes often need flexible transparent sheet materials. Extruded acrylic from the brand PLEXIGLAS® performs particularly well for intricate laser-cutting, especially for thin filaments and delicate details that require mirror-like transparent qualities. We have rarely found a material that can be laser-cut, while retaining the ability to flex and show resilience, as well as simultaneously supporting crystal-clear light transmission.

In our new work integrating bio-sourced, sustainable materials, PLEXIGLAS® plays an especially valuable transitional role, as it is exemplary in the way it demonstrates extremely lightweight qualities and requires minimal amounts of material. PLEXIGLAS® acrylic serves as the core ingredient that permits modeling of these transforming systems.

It’s an amazing metamorphosis: How do you process PLEXIGLAS® sheets into these extremely fragile structures?

Once a component is designed, my colleagues and I design digital cut sheets, with components carefully plotted and repeated in tessellations to minimize excess waste as much as possible. Guided by these cut sheets, PLEXIGLAS® is laser-cut on our large-scale laser cutter. Once this process is complete, the pieces are manually punched out from the excess material. The flat-form components are then heated and thermoformed over specialized custom jigs to form various geometries. By heating the flat-form PLEXIGLAS®, the material becomes both malleable and stronger.

What is the role of light in your architectural sculptures?

Light plays an integral role in these immersive environments. Our interactive works are embedded with hundreds, often thousands, of LED lights controlled by sensors which respond to human presence. Software is organized in clusters of interconnected groups that can communicate with neighboring groups, resulting in global behavior connections throughout the system, sending rippling light through the sculpture, mimicking conversation with the audience.

We also enjoy the qualities created by using traditional exhibition lighting, emphasizing atmosphere and shadow play. Crystalline PLEXIGLAS® and custom glasswork vessels with light-filtering qualities expand the physical presence of the sculpture to form hovering surfaces that interplay with shadow and light on surrounding surfaces.

Short excerpt from Grove Cradle, directed by Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones in collaboration with Philip Beesley, music by Salvador Breed, 2021 © PBSI

How long did it take your team to finish the GROVE installation for Venice?

In its first iteration, GROVE was conceived and designed in about four months. Components for the final conception were digitally fabricated and produced by my studio in about three months. The physical installation and configuration of the work took three weeks leading up to the opening of La Biennale. The accompanied film and sound work were created in parallel, and we worked closely with several collaborators: filmmakers Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones, composer Salvador Breed, fashion designer Iris van Herpen and spatial sound studio 4DSOUND.

Review of Philip Beesley’s exhibit at the Biennale Architettura 2010: “Hylozoic Ground”

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