Beyond Buildings


As It Lives and Breathes

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The ground is no longer underfoot. It lives and breathes, surrounding you with tiaras, candelabras, reefs, and stalagmites that pulse, flutter, and ripple in a manner that belies their mineral forms. This is architecture as living jewelry.

Courtesy: Philip Beesley

It is actually an installation called Hylozoic Ground, which currently fills the Canadian Pavilion at the 12th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. It is the latest in a series of experiments in which architect Philip Beesley and his firm have collaborated with scientists to explore the ancient Greek notion of “hylozoism,” which held that all matter has life. Though this belief has been out of favor for millennia, in the era of quantum physics and advances in earth science the boundaries between the living and the mineral have indeed become increasingly vague. Beesley is fascinated with the notion that what we think of as static structures might actually change and react both to their environment and to us. He also has predilection for the most refined, delicate versions of dirt and stone, namely quartz, diamonds and other compressed forms of carbon. He takes his inspiration from living forms that appear to be mineral, such as ocean reefs.  

hylozoic 2
Courtesy: Philip Beesley

In Venice, the hylozoic installation consists of a forest of plastic connectors without a clear core.  They gather into bunches, arching from one to the other.  Together, the overall structure is like a Gothic cathedral’s ceiling—appropriate, I think, as this was another instance where architecture mimicked natural forms of organization.  Suspended within these webs and a baskets are small vials containing a liquid that, Beesley says, can store and dissipate energy gained from the humidity and movement in the pavilion. Lashes extend out from the webs, quivering as you pass or moving in barely perceptible waves through the whole structure.

Photo: Pierre Charron

This skein casts itself all over and around you as you move through the darkened Pavilion, catching you in infinite geometries that seem to change as you move through the lacunae in the web. Then the whole structure, or just a small part, will start to move, its tiny muscles contrasting or relaxing. According to the various texts that accompany the exhibition, they do so either in reaction to your presence or to an internal logic based on the inputs they obtain from their environment. The whole aspires to be a living thing rather than a mute structure.

Whether it works as such, I will have to leave open. I do not have the scientific knowledge to ascertain how much of what Beesley says is verifiable. All I know is what is visible here, which is an architectural structure that seems to be alive, that seems to be mineral, and yet is clearly human-made, that is continuous and fragmentary, offering a structure that is a complete alternative to the building that contains it.

If architecture aspires at times to be a framing structure that comes between ourselves as human bodies incarnate and a wider universe, providing a way of establishing our place in that larger world, then it would seem appropriate that architects today begin to develop structures that articulate what we currently understand that universe to be. Hylozoic Ground is, beyond an exquisite moment of modern rococo, an attempt to construct such a veil of emplacement. 


Postscript: Several of you have commented that there is a new generation of lightbulbs out there that are up to 80 percent more efficient and beautiful as well.  My favorite is the Plumen 001.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.