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Interview with Architect Philip Beesley: Meander – Tapestry Hall, Cambridge

Late last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing world-renowned architect, designer, and professor Philip Beesley. Because of the current conditions with the pandemic we conducted the interview over zoom to talk about his latest exhibition Meander, which is currently on show in Tapestry Hall, Cambridge. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition is closed, but I was able to see it before our province went into lockdown.

The work is very inspiring, and if you believe that there are new ways of looking at architecture to create more resilient and open systems of collaboration, connection, and diversity watch or read the full interview below:

Richelle Sibolboro (RS): Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do.

Philip Beesley (PB): I am an artist and a researcher. I started my work as a as a classically trained visual artist. And I worked on the stage quite a bit and then music in those earlier periods; and with a lot of collective work and collaborations, and group processes where it really was not about one person but rather about group thinking. That was in the 1960s and 70s. Then after a period of visual art I became an architect and then I started practicing and doing some strong public work and experimental things start continuing with it with that. And then after a couple of rather transformational experiences including a wonderful year in Rome and another one in India, I returned with a renewed the sense of working experimentally and the current series started which has been happening for I guess about 25 years now.

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But it went in in a succession of jumps as well starting with textiles and new craft and then digital fabrication computational design became very strong and then added to that chemistry. Now I’m giving a rather long answer to this because the layering of those different things actually has turned out to be quite a happy fertile one, increasing what I do now. And what I do now is work with quite a large group, collaborative group called Living Architecture Systems Group and we’re working on a vision of what the future of architecture in the built environment could be. And in fact what the future of sculpture in and some kinds of art could be as well. The core idea that we started to work with is the idea that instead of treating things as inert and just material, that things can be treated increasingly like they’re alive and the boundary between cold rock and mineral and the elements and organisms and living systems becomes increasingly open in really extraordinary in interesting ways. We’re working right at the boundary, back and forth constantly. Now that’s it’s not the same thing as working with living tissues and all of the ethical problems of genetics and eugenics. It’s working right at the boundary in which mineral systems become plantlike and start to regenerate and start extracted grow and under planishing that seems like an incredibly fertile way to work with sculpture and architecture. 

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RS: That is beautiful, do you find your work brings those themes of inclusivity and diversity because there are so many layers and so many elements to the work that you do?

(PB): The work can be thought of as inclusive and diverse in two fundamental ways.

One way is to think of the difference between humans and other things. If we look below and above let’s say. With the ground below us and the sky above us. Rather than think of those realms as different it is possible to say that we are a part of vastly diverse environment. And we are an integral part of it but other things are also very powerful and very fragile too. And we have a vast spectrum of impact.

So the sense that rock and soil, for example or the air and space above us is literally part of our body. That is one type of inclusiveness.

The other type of inclusiveness and diversity is that who we are socially, between us. Rather than being taught that we are one in a closed thing, with boundaries around each thing. The reality that we are each unapologetic mongrels of diverse species, like bundles, of different organs and beings. Makes the suggestion that we can really approach with a wonderful humility and curiosity, the idea of identity. And rather the kind of deeply unfortunate trend of wall making, which is so beset our world in recent years. Which is a long, long, tradition, really, its a 2500 year old colonial tradition.

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RS: Yes, it’s in the DNA of architecture to build walls

PB: Yes it is, rather than follow in that tradition, we could believe in the sheer frailty in open thresholds, and boundaries. Rather than focus on vulnerability and disease and fear we could focus on curiosity and diversity and refreshment and fertility and see how that makes us incredibility resilient and strong.

So both of those ways of thinking, both outside of humanity and inside of humanity are really devoted to finding sheer sustainability fertility and a kind of confidence. In fact, the work is quite optimistic and at the same time celebrates a kind of unapologetic fragility.  

RS: And has COVID affected the way you work or approach your work now?

PB: I think it’s affected the work in fundamental ways and make maybe two are the most striking. One is through our work which is increasingly very complex and involves several different disciplines. I mean advanced industrial design with special ways of making things and software that is meshed in modular and complete panic. We work with complex systems for example and the physical scaffolding. So what we’re doing is we’re investing deeply in open source pattern making and skill sharing and a full kind of expansion of publication in kits and creation kits too that allow a very deep participation both of the expert level and also at the at the level of children and young students. Whether there’s some course work going on in there or there’s some particular programs that are going on, that’s going to have a very striking impact because of the COVID crisis which has turned into something very motivating.

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The other kind of impact is in symbolism in what the words and work expresses. Just that the sheer need to find resilience in fertility is so acute and in that search for ways to express possibility. The way the dreadful death star nature of the COVID virus itself has very strong common ground with some of the forms that that we’ve been making in the sculpture. I mean when you walk into into the space of Meander Tapestry Hall in Cambridge, you can see a series of great hanging bubbling spheres above you in in the in the centre of the main chamber met with many other spherical, spiny accretions around it. But the COVID virus is a cousin of those forms. At the same time there’s a real crucial difference. Where you see the some common ground in this spherical cellular accretion of all of the forms and on one hand that the COVID virus has really terrible kind of lugs on the end of all spines and it is described as a death star because that’s how it locks into the cell walls of the host and then it tears away tissues when it when it separated has got a real kind of devastating impact on its surroundings. In contrast the bubbling spheres that that are in the sculpture are very delicate kind of ghosts that gently reach out and caress and overlap and relate. So there’s a similarity for sure which maybe speaks of how things could come together in the future in accountable optimism. That you integrate that kind of form as opposed to just polarize it and make it the monster. We don’t need more walls what we need is to become resilient and integrate and let things pass through us but in a very careful and effective way. So I find that the common ground of the meaning of the work like what it symbolizes also really very motivating.

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RS: I was reading that you were taking your inspiration from the Grand River, so how did that influence the elements in the exhibition environment? What did you take from there and bring into this space?

PB: The name Meander is taken from the lovely sinusoidal current of the Grand and the way it is gone through its oxbow forms, scouring and depositing, scouring and depositing, over the eons since their full response in ice and likely earlier than that as well. I mean and that kind of extraordinary fertile current within in which there is a surging kind of movement of fertile liquid gathering it. So it’s organic matter from the silts and from the underlying limestones and then depositing it and continually making new landscape creates a kind of very interesting standing wave. That sense that it’s got a rhythm to it and reaches up to the surrounding community as well at the same time. And it never stand still and it’s remarkable dynamic form those same principles are very much at the heart of the Meander sculpture. Coming in there’s quite a special new physics that’s involved in this culture called dissipative adaptation and that is the idea that in contrast it the ideas of the classical world in which you kind of get to be a living system you have to fight and treat yourself like a Fort and the outside is insecure and classical physics is like that as well because the original idea of entropy was that a living system has to hold itself together and be really organized otherwise you will fall apart and eventually you’re going to fall apart into dust anyway, that’s second law of Thermo dynamics in its classical sense. That produces a kind of weird opposition, a terribly prevalent opposition between life and the world with us certainly for 2500 years in classical paradigms.

So in contrast to that the idea of just a dissipation is that actually there you’re not simply holding onto energy you’re constantly having energy roll through you and forms lovely standing waves. Think of dunes around a beach or ocean waves or perhaps the forms of cumulus clouds. Those are wonderful pure versions of that and in fact that those examples are actually simple norms which like all around us, make up all of nature. In fact the Grand River is a lovely local example of that same form and the discovery of that was made by Ilya Prigogine some 70 years ago and won the Nobel Prize for it in the 1970s. It’s been that idea that has been an incredible inspiration because it means that underlying the ethical idea that we can be open and inclusive is some hard physics that says no that’s actually how you make something really durable. It continually renews itself.

RS: It’s very poetic. Where you take the movement of something, the feeling of something and try to recreate it in a new space for somebody to experience. What I find interesting about the work you do is that it is so complex. As poetic as everything is, all the little pieces and parts and the way you’ve layered everything is very thought through. So how do you put it together? Do you approach it from the ecosystem and the environment? Or do you approach it in terms of materiality and how they speak to each other. Because there are a lot of parts that you have working with each other. So I would love to know that process in terms of putting that puzzle together.

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PB: The analogies of ecosystem and environment are really strong as well as class and material. It is true that the work is complex. And it doesn’t nearly approach the almost unthinkable complexity of a living organism in nature. But it does have a certain amount of complexity. What happens is that there are original patterns that are in fact very simple. Think of something as simple as a molecule or let’s say a tile that has just a certain number of attachments with it. And in a certain number of ways they could fasten it. Sort of what primary geometry is or another a triangle or a pentagon or hexagon, for example. And then those things are formed in rather special ways so that skeletal skeletons reach each of the attachment points. And in a very efficient kind of way, lightweight structures are made out of those and then those are multiplied very strongly in that by the thousands or maybe even the tens of thousands. And then because of their simplicity in their lightness they are able to combine in a whole kind of pattern language of families of different clusters and then those compound on top of that, on top of those basic organizations, and it produces, kind of very satisfying fertility of many different configurations. But they’re all harmonized in fundamental ways so that even though they’re different they can still fit together.

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Now that’s a structural kit that I’m just describing. You could think of that is similar to the way that a living organism has cells, that multiply and then make tissues, that would be a good analogy. On top of that, there’s a nervous system that is composed of arterials and branches and nodes of small microprocessors which are all interconnected as well. And they have a similar kind of organization in the sense that rather than trying to make one grand central tree, you know like the supercomputer that can do everything, they’re distributed in many modules that then can talk to each other and recognize each other and work in quite a diverse kind of crowd dynamics. And that produces another kind of very interesting organization. So there’s a structural organization, and then there’s also a control organization. That in turn has a kind of addressing expansion through many glass vessels holding liquids and then kinetic mechanisms that move and shift. And many fronts like covers that filter and it make membranes and each of those makes its own system that has something of that kind of diversity of the very simplest kinds of periodic tables of elements where were you have a kit of parts they are quite carefully made but then they can expand and multiply.

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Now I’ve just described a formal composition system what I need to describe is the human effort of making and putting it together. If you think of the kind of like energy of a quilting circle or maybe in my earlier generation of group family getting together to preserve vegetables for the winter or making jam or something like that. I mean like that the organized repetitive. A very pleasurable action that where things can be very simple but they can build up into great collective complexity. So that’s a very important part of how we make this work. We have community workshops and we cooperate together and we manufacture things so it occupies a kind of human industry that stands quite in between mass mechanical construction but also it’s not it’s something larger and more intense than the work of an individual; let’s say painting or drawing or working or writing a book. That middle zone in between those places are very interesting way to work and it really speaks of an experience that might be important for the future; that is the sense of collective work. The way we share, the way communities can work together. Maybe it’s an entry into some rather difficult conversations about whether countries and provinces and nations can really mean important things to us these days. And then how global media also has affected those kinds of conversations. These kinds of projects are very motivating kind of community think tanks and community-making projects that offer some very happy experiences in them.

RS: So how long did your exhibition take to create? There are so much craft and so much technology added and then the installation component… how do you know when it’s done right when there are so many different pieces? And then when it’s up how do you know that it’s all going to work because of all of the computational elements?

PB: Thoes are great questions, let me go through those three questions about how you make it work and how you know it’s done and then how long it took…

Meander took about a year and a half to make it. Maybe about two years. We started with several months of rather intensive design using digital prototyping and making of samples. Then we made large patches in the studio and hung them up and started engineering them. We deliberately destroyed some things and found out how fragile they were and how they could be durable. We have practiced ways of putting them together. Then using very small industry of farm of printers and a few laser cutters and some thermal forming using very small stretching jigs, we manufactured the elements. Then we spent about four months building. And starting in the fall a year ago. Of course, the pandemic has affected that but that involved great arcs of hanging cords fitted into the beautiful industrial hall of the Tapestry Hall, the original textile mill and then setting up scaffolding and then setting wiring in the trunks and then laying in the mechanisms and the glass and then programming it with upper routines and the sound and lighting that you can now see.

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The work is open-ended. And at the same time, it has a very strong, rather balanced organic composition that is very carefully worked out in digital modeling. So, we invest quite heavily in digital simulation as well as physical models and prototyping, so the composition is complete. And if we were to freeze it in time and without any kind of human events happening then it would be just like a piece of frozen music. Every single union specified, there are hundreds of pages of drawings and models that have been rather carefully done. However, it’s designed as an open system and so by having the possibility of a grid with the hanging points like an arc and by the elements able to support each other just the way the same way cells multiplying a tissue for example is a living organism it becomes possible to look and stand back and explore. All of the different primary team members are very strongly invested in how it can be, as well as what it should be. So that means that we do a myriad of adjustments and small tucks and folds very much the way you say a fashion designer would carefully adjust in order to give it a point of harmony. And some of those adjustments are very minor but they seem to make a world of difference. Just in the same way you know the difference of just a little bit shifting your posture. My mother would tell me to stand up straight and maybe that’s a bad example but I think you know what they mean about the power of those little adjustments. So I love the sense that it’s an open system, where at the same time we’ve become pretty good and being able to manage the energy so that it’s not too much of a monster. It’s more just like a pleasurable intense race that’s open.

How do we know that it works is the other question? And we know it works by intense cycles of testing and in the design process, we deliberately go past the limits. Like we break this, and it’s made us pretty confident in making resilient things. This is really a kind of essay in resilience. And I guess an example, would be you know back to the Grand River. We have two very different examples of how to handle the flood. You know we have the huge, armored floodwalls through the center of the town and then we have the glorious wetlands that extend northward for example. These are examples. I have great respect for the intense responsible technicians that built the floodwalls but I disagree with them. I disagree with them because they intensify the impact of the flood. The break up in the spring that create extraordinary turbulence downriver.  They concentrate the River and they make it much more dangerous and then they absolutely strip away the life that sits around it. And if I compare that to the wetlands that are in the rear Conservatory, then thousands and thousands of individual tendrils of quite tough materials set on damping and work with the flood. They work together in the matrix formidably and resilient kind of structures. So to my mind, that offer is an incredibly important lesson for how we can make buildings in the future. Living in an open system rather than something that insists on resisting everything in staying exactly the way it is, is very true now. There’s a host of problems in what I’m saying but there are very good reasons to build walls. But at the same time it seems very important for us to move beyond simplistic wall making.

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RS: there was a term that was describing your approach was organicism, how is that different from biomimicry or is it similar?

PB: Biomimicry and organicism are two related terms. And both of them interesting to my mind. But biomimicry is the practice of learning from nature and then imitating its processes and integrating those in new ways of designing. And that’s the idea that nature is the teacher. It is just a kind of an inexhaustible tradition I think that that that every designer in certain ways has learned. Even the minimalists of say Apple design still somehow find that kind of incredible elegance that the nature knows as well. So that’s a particular design practice. Organicism is perhaps the underlying movement would say that living systems and the sense of life is. A fundamental inspiration and that that results in paradigms of how things can be harmonized what makes sense what kind of relationship there is in the world. It’s a very broad and arguably internal part of human thinking in human culture.

RS: So, organicism is the bigger system, where biomimicry is breaking it down the system to the most simplistic form.

PB: Yes I. like how you put that.

RS: Your concept of high tech and high touch is very poetic in the work that you do. And it’s also like this utopian view of the world, like what the future could be in terms of architecture. And that there’s this participation of community in that nature and everything is not dominant, they’re working together. So when I go visit the space what should I be looking for? How should I experience or what are the types of things that I should be conscious of when I go through it?

PB: I love the way you just put that Richelle. Utopia is a difficult word and I hope maybe we can spell it Eutopia, that way we’re reclaiming its earlier meaning. Today it’s got a very negative meaning as if it’s just foolish it obsessive and probably a cult. But the earlier term means beautiful topography, it’s a kind of beauty and the idea that this world could be a vision of where we could go and a possibility is what I hope a visitor who’s who goes into Tapestry Hall and visit’s Meander would see. So that kind of vision I think unapologetically would be eutopian. At least differently if w misspell it.

So if we walk in the North or South entries, you’ll be in this soaring space about 60 feet high of of the 1800s of lovely basilica form of the long haul which stood on the banks of the Grand River when it was part of a bustling 1800s town in the industrial revolution. Now that’s been converted into a lovely event Hall at the heart of hip new residential development by Scott Evans where the idea of public spaces are really woven into the heart of the development. And then as you go in those doors you’ll see hanging above you a great ring cluster of expanded transparent polymer and stand stainless steel forms encrusted with glass castor oil fluids with lights coming through them that would make it a home bubbling forest of lenses that gather an amount of glistening light. There will be rustling vibration and shifting patterns of lights coming from the many hundreds of digitally controlled elements. Digitally controlled little vibrating mechanisms resulting in fluttering feathers and lights within the vessels. And vessels have rather special ingredients they have protocell ingredients which are prototype cells primary minerals that are modeling how living cells might work.

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Hanging in the centre with flanked by a couple of River like skeletal canopy’s that reach are also encrusted with mechanisms and sensors and speakers and then floating off into the distance as a billowing cloud. You can walk to the upper levels and explore it and make gentle gestures and the sculpture will respond back to you with the stroking inviting vibrating and ripples of light and if you make certain gestures that it will react playfully and sound as well echoing through the space. And you can coax it into a lot of very active response or else it’ll settle down. Then it can also just be a very quiet kind of contemplation. A little bit like looking at it say a quiet pond in a forest just as the light fads.

RS: I like that the work is doing the exact opposite of what the pandemic is doing. It’s actually encouraging interaction and touch in different ways of exploring the space than just the barriers of what we’re used to. So just to close everything out, is there anything else you would like to say for the next generation of architects and designers?

PB: The idea that something very simple it can be very carefully multiplied and then can result in very substantial the transformations of the environment is something that that I’ve come to believe. And the difference between acting locally and with great intimacy and care, and then the consequences of really making a difference in the entire world. I think that through sheer involvement like the being very involved in Meander demonstrates a kind of optimist making. It can mean that they’re kind of an optimism of being deeply involved in the world is justified but very substantial and resilient things become possible by using some contemporary technologies with care.

Meanders is currently on show at Tapestry Hall, Cambridge ON
Due to COVID, the exhibition is closed until further notice

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Richelle Sibolboro
Richelle Sibolboro

Design strategist and content creator for hire with a passion for arts and culture specifically in design, architecture, and travel. She has produced content for designboom, Azure magazine, Open City Projects, Digifest, and World Design Weeks. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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