When we look around us, it seems that modern architecture has eliminated almost all traces of nature from major cities. Stephen Kellert, former Social Ecologist at Yale, expressed that “The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from, and transcending nature - becoming independent of our biology.” Nonetheless, an increasing number of designers, architects and technologists are using natural forms and mechanisms as main source of inspiration for their project. This week we explore the work of Philip Beesley, a visual artist and architect who has dedicated his career to expanding technology and culture of responsive and interactive systems. In the project called ‘Astrocyte’, Beesley has developed a concept of ‘living architecture’ which combines chemistry, artificial intelligence, and a responsive soundscape to react with people’s. This complex structure investigates the deep connection between the user and space through biomimicry.
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of Alex Willms/ Philip Beesley Architects
The biomimicry & biophilic design movement: innovation inspired by Nature
With 3.8 billion years of trial and error, nature has already solved many problems humans are facing. Biomimicry simply put, is ‘innovation inspired by nature’. By studying nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems, humans have been able to create more circular designs, solving complex challenges to improve environmental and living conditions. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of biomimicry as humans have been studying and applying nature’s solutions from time immemorial- in the early 1500s, Da Vinci studied birds which inspired his designs of a ‘flying machine’. A more recent classic example is Velcro - that has been developed by Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral in 1955 to mimic burrs seeds’ sticky characteristics.
But why do Nature continue to drive innovation in all disciplines, namely science, technology and architecture? This “urge to affiliate with other forms of life" has been theorized by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson in his 1984 under the term “Biophilia”. His theory is strongly related to human evolution process from psychological and emotional perspectives. Biophilic Design is architecture’s response to the theory of biophilia. It is a sustainable design strategy which seeks to reconnect modern building occupants with the natural environment.
Given that scientific evidence attributes positive mental and physical human health, how can architecture and technology apply biophilic principles to transform users’ experience of space?
Philip Beesley’s, a pioneer of responsive & interactive architecture
Avant-garde visual artist and architect Philip Beesley, wears many hats in the professional and academic world of art and architecture, as Director of Living Architecture Systems Group, with his own Toronto-based practice, Philip Beesley Architect Inc as well as Professor in Architecture at the University of Waterloo & Professor of Digital Design and Architecture & Urbanism at the European Graduate School. He has dedicated his career to furthering the connection between man and nature in the built environment. He is a pioneer in kinetic, responsive, near-living architectural installations, which are a form of biomimicry.
Video: Epiphyte Chamber, 2013 - courtesy of Philip Beesley - Living Architecture Systems Group
These installations are part of his six-year experimental research. His work combines the principles of biophilic design with technology within strong, lightweight responsive textile environments. Beesley looks at wearable interactive textiles and transform those interactions into architectural scaled structures. According to Beesley textile-based buildings “range from flexible skeletons and meshwork skins to structures that move and respond to their occupants”. Another aspect of his exploration is kinesthesia. In the project Aerial Well Study kinetic mechanisms were integrated so the structure could react to the movement of passing visitors by twisting and pulling towards them.
Astrocyte is a fascinating experience of ‘living architecture’
Exhibited at the 2017 Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology (EDIT 2017), Astrocyte is a multidisciplinary project that combines artificial intelligence, chemistry and an immersive soundscape to create a form of ‘living architecture’. The result is an architectural structure that responds to the presence of its viewers through light, sound and motion. This design, named after a type brain cell, is made of a fitting 300,000 components and like textiles is lightweight yet resilient and capable of supporting varying forces and shifting motions. This lightweight resilience was achieved through biomimicry - mimicking types of vegetation and other natural systems.
Some of the components in the structure include electronic sensors, 3D printed lights, acrylic, mylar fronds, inorganic chemicals, and custom glasswork (which holds oils and chemicals is said to signify the energies of organic life).
Astrocyte is able to detect its viewers’ motion through the sensors and responds to their movements with patterns of light, vibration and surround sound – provoking the viewers’ senses, further enhancing the experience of space. The beautiful and gentle nature of the structure draws the viewer closer, creating a type of ‘body language’.
Image: Astrocyte, 2017 - courtesy of Alex Willms/Philip Beesley Architects
The auditory experience was created by Philip Beesley’s team in collaboration with sound artists, 4Dsound. With this installation Beesley and his team of experts from Living Architecture are not only exploring the interaction between structures and occupants but also future building materials that could self-repair and alter spaces through the use of light, sound and other forms of media.
Astrocyte brings together beauty, tech and human experience. Is this merely science fiction or are we headed towards an architectural revolution? We look forward to monitoring its progress.