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July 15, 2014
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Creative Process: Architect Philip Beesley
We reach the inner sanctum of one of Canada's most important living architects.

As I wait to interview Toronto-based, world-known architect Philip Beesley in his cozy library, my eyes quickly trace the books shelved around me: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger… They say never judge a book by its cover but I think you can judge a person by his books. In this case, it’s true. Philip Beesley is a pioneer in the growing, experimental field of responsive architecture, the radical aim of which is to create buildings and structures that have ‘minds’ of their own. Once seen as static and permanent, this new architecture uses intelligent technologies (like sensors and chemical metabolisms) that enable them to measure environmental conditions and adapt accordingly in physical, visible ways. This is sometimes referred to as “living architecture,” but Beesley tells me he prefers the term “near-living.” Says he: “We need to be careful about what we claim. Some people are calling this living architecture, and of course we enjoy being associated with such an amazing term, but I’m interested in limiting the claim because ‘life’ is a very big word. This work doesn’t nearly approach the complexity that naturally living systems have.” His approach is distinctly interdisciplinary; the studio is organized as a collaborative collective of committed and flexible individuals with backgrounds in architecture, megatronics, mechanical engineering, electronics, computation, film making, writing and music. As well, he says, an interest in humanism and poetry is shared. That last bit was the Heidegger talking (am I psychic or what?), and from there, we spend half the interview talking about philosophers modern, like Peter Sloterdijk, and ancient, like Lucretius. Beesley’s creative process is inspired in equal parts by both. Representing Canada at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia, Beesley presented the aptly-named HylozoicGround, a magical environment made up of large acyclic fronds that move as though they were alive. Before leaving for the exhibition, CBC Newsinterviewed Beesley about his Hylozoic ground (bits of it actually present and ‘alive’), which left the interviewer kind of creeped out and uncomfortable. But why? “I think when something pushes back, it can be unsettling,” he says. “I wonder whether it has something to do with the scale. When we look at small elements like toys, acting and physically behaving, we think of them as cute because we can easily control them. But when something approaches our own scale…” Beesley doesn’t want to scare people, though. His brave idea of the future of architecture? ”A change in the pattern of ethics and architecture becoming an active, empathetic partner.” Here, we examine how he’s effecting that change. Aforementioned reading material. The most orderly moodboard we’ve ever seen, and one of many scattered throughout Beesley’s studio. The studio is constellated with the shiny bits of a new project. Technical sketches with a strangely romantic feel. Inflatable garlic bulbs! J/k, serious architecture. Ta-da! Hylozoic Ground on display at the Venice Biennale’s 12th Architecture Exhibition as part of the Canadian Pavilion. Like this? See all our previous Creative Processes.

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