Places of the Heart by Colin Ellard - Excerpt
Places of the Heart
The Psychogeography of Everyday Life

by Colin Ellard

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 2 'Places of Affection'

Living sculptures, loving buildings

In the quiet centre of this small fern forest, I could feel my heart slow and my muscles relax. Disconnected thoughts that had raced through my mind after a frenetic drive along a busy freeway gave way, replaced by a feeling of calm and contentment. I had retreated to the quiet centre of myself. I felt, in the term used by scientists who study our responses to natural environments, as though I was “away” from my regular life. Time slowed down. My eyes began to flit effortlessly and pleasurably from place to place as I immersed myself in the setting and I became fascinated by it.

I reached out to touch a frond that was at eye level.  At first it curled up a little, but then it reached out to touch me.  This is when things began to get a little weird.  This was no ordinary forest.  If I pushed, it pushed back.  If I flinched, it responded by moving towards me with curiosity.  This forest seemed to know that I was there and I could easily imagine that it knew a little about how I felt.  My initial absorption in my surroundings began to give way to something less familiar.  My feelings shifted in the direction of uncertainty, surprise, perhaps even a frisson of threat.

When I walk through forests, I’m accustomed to being surrounded by life of all kinds—singing birds, chirping insects and the natural sway of vegetation in the wind.  What was happening in this forest was different.  It wouldn’t be unusual to notice that one’s presence in a forest had been noticed—birds and insects might stop their activities, sensing a human threat—but here I felt as though I was the very center of attention.  The forest responded with obvious interest and intent to every move that I made.  I felt exposed.  This forest seemed to know me.

The small forest I was standing inside, remarkably, was entirely artificial.  It was in the living room of a beautiful old house in the leafy suburbs of Toronto that doubled as the workshop of the architect Philip Beesley, the visionary creator who had designed this grove of plastic ferns with a 3D printer, a large collection of simple microprocessors and sensors, and some spools of a special kind of wire called “resistance wire” that expands and contracts in response to electric current.  This mass of delicate filigreed acrylic petals was a small working sample of a series of major installations that Beesley has set up at a number of international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 2010, where hundreds of thousands of visitors have wandered through several different giant versions of Beesley’s so-called Hylozoic Soil series, experiencing the same kinds of strange feelings that now enveloped me in his workshop. The response to his work has been nothing short of sensational. Evoking states of intimacy and connection in visitors, Beesley says that his intention is to gestate feelings of sympathy and care, but to build them “out into a sense of exchanges in space, where the boundaries of what and who I am, the differences between me and an animal and a rock, become quite blurred.”

I had met Beesley for the first time several years before my visit to his workshop when  I was involved in a fund-seeking venture for a project looking at the use of new kinds of technologies for measuring feelings and behavior in community health clinics.  I had heard that Beesley’s architectural practice had been involved in the design of several such clinics, so, on the urging of another architect on the team, I asked him if he would take part.  When I convened our first meeting, I sat in a conference room with a handful of professionals from different disciplines ready to discuss strategy.

Beesley arrived late, sweeping into the room with a broad, beaming smile and infectious energy and enthusiasm, but looking slightly off-balance, like a man who had far too much going on.  As most of us were strangers to one another, I suggested we begin the meeting with a quick round of self-introductions.  Others in the group gave the usual boilerplate messages, describing their discipline, their qualifications and, how they saw themselves fitting into the project’s mandate.  When Philip’s turn came, he told us that he wasn’t quite sure how he might fit in with the rest of us, but his main interest these days was in the design of special kinds of sculptures that lived at the edge between life and non-life, generating a strange admixture of attraction and revulsion in observers who would become enmeshed in and ultimately digested by the creations.   There were a few seconds of silence at the table—unusual for a gathering of talking heads—as we got our first inkling that this was a man who would not allow us to plod along with pedestrian ideas about what a building could or should be.  Beesley was in another universe, it seemed, with a vision of a world far off in the future, but also firmly rooted in our ancient past.

A quick glance at Beesley’s curriculum vitae gives some clues as to how an architect graduating from the University of Toronto in the mid-1980s went from a conventional practice consisting of the design of residential housing, student centers, health centers, and restaurants to a set of interests he describes like this: “Emotion, romanticism and 20th century spiritualism as alternate qualities in Modernism; alterity and dissociation; chthonian and expanded definitions of space; the archaic.”

As he describes it, a turning point in his life was a project he carried out with the support of a prestigious Prix de Rome in Architecture award in 1995-1996. Working with archeologist Nicola Terrenato on the ancient ruins of the Palatine Hill in Rome, Beesley’s own role in the dig was to try to reconstruct the circumstances of an ancient sacrificial burial of an infant, deep in the foundations of the structure. The burial, taking place in the 8th century BC at the Porta Mugonia, one of the three ancient gates of the original city, was an example of a common ritual of the times in which the children of the first families inhabiting a city were sacrificed at its borders to define a threshold separating the wild outside from the urban interior. Beesley’s experience here, carefully dissecting the tomb of a baby, examining its painstaking construction, thinking about its meaning, set in motion a lifelong preoccupation with thresholds between living and non-living, the capture of vital forces in meshes of human construction and, eventually, to the world of geotextiles—fabrics which act on soil—and from there to Hylozoic Soil—fabrications that are neither living nor dead, that respond to living beings and take on some of the most intimate properties of that life—empathy and caring.

Beesley’s work is characterized by a series of remarkable leaps of imagination backed up by careful scholarship, deep thought, and an ability to draw long arcs of connection between seemingly separate realms of discourse and understanding (one of his most recent projects involves designing clothing with Iris van Herpen, Lady Gaga’s dress designer) . These abilities shine through not only in his creative work but they are evident in his everyday persona as well. His language, gestures, and expressions lead his listeners along a merry chase of fascinating ideas extending from high theory to fundamental architectural practice.



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