Bound for the Venice biennale

Hylozoic Ground: Philip Beesley's experiment with architecture that lives.

Hylozoic Ground: Philip Beesley's experiment with architecture that lives

Toronto architect Philip Beesley’s visionary exhibit Hylozoic Ground is a startling blend of art, fancy and high-tech engineering.

The project heads to Venice this summer as Canada’s entry at the 12th International Architecture Biennale, an annual forum for new ideas in architecture and design that runs Aug. 29 to Nov. 21, and is expected to attract more than 130,000 visitors. Beesley plans to fill the 2,000-square-foot Canada Pavilion in Venice with otherworldly columns, spirals and organisms that interact with the people who pass through.

'What could architecture be? How could an environment move around us, maybe know us, maybe even care about us?'— Architect Philip Beesley

Hylozoic Ground is made up of plant-like objects with delicate white fronds; a filigree-like space-age mesh that creates beautiful expandable structures; and huge, tree-like columns that expand in and out in response to the environment around them. These lightweight components are fitted with microprocessors and proximity sensors that respond to human presence.

"Hylozoism" is an ancient belief that all matter has life, and this exhibit gathers 10 years of experiments in what is called "responsive architecture" by Beesley, in collaboration with Rob Gorbet of University of Waterloo and Rachel Armstrong of University College London (U.K.).

Beesley calls this the "future of architecture," and every element of the display appears to be plucked from the imagination.

"What could architecture be? How could an environment move around us, maybe know us, maybe even care about us?" Beesley said at a public preview of the work in Toronto last month.

Beesley’s team is also working with environmental filters that save energy and generate electricity. Most remarkable about Hylozoic Ground are the structures that are creating what Beesley calls "carbon-capture protocells’’ and which hold out potential for "self-renewing architecture."

Through a chemical reaction with water, these cells create new material and could, theoretically, be the technology needed to repair the foundations of the buildings of Venice, for example, which are slowly sinking into the seabed.

In aggregate, the exhibits seem to be a fantastic living forest — like something out of Avatar.

"[These technologies] form a responsive filter around us and react to us as individuals," Beesley said. "This is architecture as a sheltering quality."

"On the one hand, the work is imaginary, but it is also sound, and we’d like it to become public."

A sculptor as well as an architect, Beesley said he began thinking about the ideas of interactive environment while doing excavation work on the Palatine in Rome, a research project he undertook as winner of Canada’s Prix de Rome for young designers.

Like him, his associates have backgrounds that cross art with science. Rob Gorbet is a member of Gorbet Design, a Toronto film specializing in public interactive artwork and an expert in mechatronics and other advanced technology, while Rachel Armstrong brings a background in medicine and chemistry to her study of architecture.

Exhibits of these technologies have been a hit wherever they are displayed — in London, Madrid, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, New York and at the COP 15 Copenhagen climate summit.

The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts are among the sponsors of Hylozoic Ground. The jury that selected the exhibit as Canada’s entry to the architecture biennale believes it has the potential to win the Golden Lion, the exhibit’s top award, for Canada.

The futuristic ideas it presents are geared to impressing the leaders in design and architecture who attend the Biennale. The jury hailed Beesley’s work for affecting people on an "emotional and poetic level" — an acknowledgement of the stunned fascination laypeople feel when they interact with Hylozoic Ground.

The 12th International Architecture Biennale runs Aug. 29 to Nov. 21 in Venice, Italy.

Susan Noakes writes about the arts for CBC News. Ramya Jegatheesan is a photo intern for CBC News.