by Anmol AhujaJul 22, 2021
The Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 asks a question of its international participants. The installations, however, do not necessarily provide answers. As we investigate, interview and interact with the various participants from the international exhibitions, national pavilions and the collateral events of our ongoing series STIRring together, there are a few prevalent ideas that emerge. One of which is to understand the question itself, and reveal methodologies that attempt to reconcile the premises of a world in which such a question would be postulated. Grove, by Canadian artist and designer, Philip Beesley, and the Living Architecture Systems Group, is one of them. Grove is a delicate, luminous, lace-like cloud that hovers within the volume of the Arsenale at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The installation is conceptualised as a mixed-media forest-like gathering space that expands on ideas Beesley previously explored in Meander, a large scale-built project located in Cambridge, Canada.
The sensorial installation is also an enormous collaborative project, with numerous contributors, and is perhaps a parable for how the act of working together is perhaps also an aspect of living together. The installation features a film, Grove Cradle, by London-based Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, projected on the floor to resemble a pool. The projected pool is surrounded by a forest, simulated by basket-like columns that hide the embedded custom speakers that emit a 4DSOUND composition by Salvador Breed from Amsterdam. The central undulating canopy that appears as a whisp is created using an innovative fabric developed in collaboration with fashion designer Iris van Herpen. The deeply layered understanding of the architecture explored in this installation grows from Beesley’s research and work with the Living Architecture Systems Group (LASG), a radical interdisciplinary partnership of academics, artists, designers, and industry partners. The LASG is hosted by the University of Waterloo School of Architecture where Beesley is a professor.
In order to understand the layers behind the concept of Grove and the Living Architecture System Group, Philip Beesley speaks with STIR about the larger processes and concepts behind the work and his practice. However, before we venture into the introspective installation in Venice, Italy, Beesley gives STIR an exclusive tour of his studio in Toronto, Canada.
Devanshi Shah (DS): Where does one begin when working on such a layered installation?
Philip Beesley (PB): I want to respond to the beautiful question like Hashim Sarkis has asked us, “How will we live together?” The question of who “we” are seems important. Sometimes a human project can be one that is exclusively social, where we are focusing on negotiation between people as a species. However, I hope we can respond in dimensions that reach outside of human society. When I think of my own body, I am reminded that, far from one unified being, almost innumerable diverse biomes lie within me. It seems that unification of those diverse gathered beings within my boundaries is rather recent in evolution, leading me to reflect rather poignantly about what has come before me in the depth of microscopic life that lies far beyond my own domain, and what might come after me as well. I do think it may be helpful to answer such a question with a sense of humility about what and who we are. Perhaps, rather than needing to be on top and in control, a satisfying and motivating sense could come from being among diverse beings, belonging and sharing. Being a part of something can be a joyful thing rather than a frightening thing. We might celebrate the sense of being deeply immersed and being among things, moving beyond the simple and rather rigid sensation that we are superior, on top of our hill. That reflection, that we are not alone, is one of the keys to the Grove project.
DS: I think that's really interesting because I am now thinking of another question, which is that in some ways the installation is a manifestation of addressing the “we” rather than just the whole question? Is it more about just identifying who “we” are?
PB: The installation raises the question of who ‘we’ are by offering a radically inclusive gathering. Grove is open. Grove is a gathering space. We define who we are by gathering. If we use the large scales evoked by community, or province, or city, or even more difficult ones such as nation, country or continent, we increasingly seem to move into turbulent, uncertain ground. Is it possible to speak of nations today? Perhaps ‘nation’ is still something that could act like a chorus, strongly reinforcing identity. However, we have seen extraordinary harm caused by the cruel, exclusive mechanisms of nationhood. I think we have to question whether some of these organizations are even viable today. Grove steps lightly within that question by evoking limits and depths, alongside its open exterior boundaries.
The project offers a very gentle circle that gathers. Grove has a well in the centre, a pool. We gather around the edge. Within the pool is a projection that exponentially expands the architectural forms of the spiralling lacework canopy above, and the sounding columns that stand around us. That film projection carries a constantly expanding form-language that evokes the beginnings of life and also innumerable variations that continue within this near-living system. Intense sound, with multitudes of whispers are interwoven with the faint sounds of mineral and organic life emerging. Cycles of fertile growth and decay play like a garden in the projection. We might step into it. We can treat the edge as a couch, relaxing and looking inward and outward. Perhaps it offers a playground. My own attempt is to create an open, deeply refreshing sanctuary.
DS: The concept drawing looks like this galactic painting. I was wondering if you could talk about the inspiration for the installation?
PB: Grove is embodied in a little sketch that we have shared as part of the project. That sketch shows a rather fragile surface of the earth. On that new hovering membrane, diverse people are gathered, within a floating architectural framework. They are gathered with a lace-like canopy and clouds suspended over them. Some of those gestures are quite strong. They create a focus, a nest, a cradle, a halo, the kind of eternal architectures that help to concentrate, and to say, here is a sanctuary, here things can gather, here is a locus. There are many, many small marks coursing together. They offer a hovering, lovely vulnerability. This is a diagram that speaks of a strategy for how to build an open architecture. It takes a position that says that it is not time to build more walls. Hermetically sealed boundaries seem harmful, even irresponsible in understanding how to create a truly reconciled new reality for ourselves. The sketch evokes healing and nourishment.
DS: Could we discuss the installation at the Arsenale itself?
PB: The building’s massive columns frame a darkened floor surface whose centre holds a shallow pool-shaped opening. Above, a hovering, undulating, cloud-like canopy is illuminated by faint clusters of glowing light. The cloud reveals thousands of interconnected, lace-like, spiralling skeletal cells, bedecked with glistening, fluid-filled glass flasks. A forest of totemic columns is set beneath the canopy. The thicket of columns contains intricate, basket-like cage forms, each containing teardrop-shaped speakers that carry a vast field sound containing gentle whispers and stirring tones.
In the very centre, a CGI-based film projects down into the central pool. This projection pool acts as a kind of liquid window into a parallel world that is in a state of constant transformation. We were able to visit the Arsenale before the pandemic and embrace the dimensions of its great hall. The basilica form of the enormous ship-building facility with its wonderful brick walls and giant columns presented a deeply resonant frame for the installation. The complex garden forest that we conceived prior to the pandemic has transformed into a constellation of universes within overlapping layers of sound, of light and shadow and projection, with each of those fundamental dimensions held within the frame of the building.
Let me say a little more about the cloud-like, billowing canopy that encircles the central opening of the film projection. I was reminded, during some of the solemn days in the heart of the pandemic, that ‘tutto fa respiro’ - everything is breath. The embrittlement and erosion of the core of our anatomy of breathing is one of the unspeakably sad parts of what has happened to us all, seeming to take away even the ability for us to be washed and healed within the vast atmosphere that immerses us. I wanted to offer the gentlest of architectural frames in response. The canopy is organised with interlinking flexible spiral skeletons, bedecked with thousands of vessels including crystal-filled storm-glasses that shift and predict weather. I hope this deeply resilient, hovering membrane might act as a kind of deeply comforting shelter, completing the gathering space offered by the Grove environment.
DS: I wanted to ask about the collaboration itself because there is the movie, the sound, and the sound speakers are also part of how space actually looks.
PB: The film and sound composition contain dimensions that all gather together to make the fabric of Grove. Warren Dupreez and Nick Thornton Jones created the projected world of the film. They took our original physical designs and translated them into a projected virtual universe. Within that projected world, we are able to release the kind of dimensions and greatly compound them. There are acts of suffering as well as extraordinary joy projected in this film. A vision of a child is embedded in the film. She comes to life and she also dies. Whispering voices and tones surround the world of the film. Salvador Breed created layers of sound that evoke mineral transformations and emerging primitive life, moving into conscious dimensions that included whispered text taken from Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony. The Temptation is an extraordinary meditation where the main character moves increasingly into a state of ecstatic communion with all of nature. The cycles of the film and the sound score include moments of great darkness and uncertainty. Fundamentally, however, the Grove project shares hope. Part of its optimism might be justified by demonstrating resilient craft can survive, and even thrive in far-from-equilibrium environments. Another part might come from ongoing cycles where life and death are inextricably linked together.
In order to get a complete understanding of the collaborative nature of the installation we spoke to Sascha Hastings, the curator of Grove. In addition to being a curator, Hastings is also an editor and arts producer. This is the second time Hasting and Beesley have worked together at the Architecture Biennale, the first being Hylozoic Ground for the Canada Pavilionn in 2010.DS: Could you tell us about what inspired the curatorial idea of this installation?
Sascha Hastings (SH): The curatorial idea really comes from the theme of the Biennale, “How Will We Live Together?”, which was set by Artistic Director, Hashim Sarkis. In Grove, we wanted to create a gathering place - a bit like an opening in a forest - that would encourage conversation and exchange between strangers, as well as exploring a new kind of architecture that is based on openness and exchange instead of rigid boundaries and closed-off territories. Philip is world-renowned for his installations of responsive, complex and dynamic systems that possess near-to-life qualities and redefine our understanding of architectural space. Traditionally, we think of architecture as inert buildings, but Philip sees architecture as a living entity that seeks communion with human beings, animals, plants, and even inert material instead of separating everything from everything else. His work is inspired by emerging scientific thought on the idea of entropy as a force of freedom and potential rather than disorder, of and dissipative natural forms such as snowflakes, clouds, waves or sand dunes that are simultaneously sensitive, fragile and extraordinarily self-renewing, strong and resilient. If we can think of and design architecture this way, we can create truly sustainable spaces of openness and mutual exchange that create the context for being able to live together.
DS: The installation has many different elements that work together, Beesley’s visual language, the film and a soundscape; how do these work together?
SH: Each element of Grove complements the others. The cloud-like canopy is an example of Beesley’s extremely lightweight, force-shedding architectural scaffolds that use a minimum of material for maximum strength, resilience and openness. The film re-interprets the form language of Philip’s built work, but in a highly dynamic way that we are presenting for the first time through the medium of CGI film, made in collaboration with Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones. It also tells the story of constant metamorphosis, as we see intricate geometries move from inert crystalline materials into surging life forms, in the midst of which a child-like being emerges. The 4DSOUND composition by Salvador Breed underscores and intensifies the emotional journey of the film. The entire work gives the impression of rising and falling in cycles between suffering, death, new life and innocent wonder.
DS: How did the COVID-19 restrictions change the original concept?
SH: The original concept was for a much more robustly physical, densely interactive environment. We quickly realised that this was not feasible in the context of the pandemic and physical distancing, so we re-imagined the work in a way that would expand and enhance the experience of it both physically and virtually. Depending on how the pandemic progressed, we knew that there was a chance that the entire Biennale might have to move online, so we designed a work that could be presented both physically and virtually.
DS: As a curator could you elaborate on how the changes in the physical structure affected the core concept of the project?
SH: I would say it’s more the other way around. With the arrival of the pandemic, and its terrible destructive force, we knew we wanted to emphasise a constantly cycling journey between death and life, suffering and hope, more than we had planned for in the original concept. The addition of CGI film and sound made this possible in the sense that they provided a stronger narrative structure to the work than our original concept did.
DS: As many people may only be able to experience this year's biennale digitally, how was the installation adapted to facilitate a digital translation?
SH: The film and sound composition are currently being modified to create a four-to-five-minute online version that will be released in the coming months, so people anywhere in the world can see it for free. There are also some video clips and short videos of the installation available at our websites.
Principal/Artist: Philip Beesley
Collaborators: Warren du Preez, Nick Thornton Jones, Salvador Breed, 4DSOUND
Curator: Sascha Hastings
Film Installation: Directed by Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
Curator & Producer: Sascha Hastings
Produced: W&N Studio & PBSI Studio & Immortal Productions
Actress: Tilley Du Preez @ Sylvia Young Agency
Composer: Salvador Breed
Text: Adapted from Gustav Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1874
Male voice: Philip Beesley
Female voice: Eva Bartels
Contributors: Iris van Herpen, Poul Holleman, Codrin Talaba
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.