When you first enter The Leonardo museum in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, your eyes immediately are drawn upward into what is at first glance nothing more than a whimsical and ethereal hanging sculpture.
As you ascend the escalator to the second floor of the museum, the sculpture begins to seem as though it’s moving with you and that you are somehow a part of it. Or that it is a part of you. And that is exactly the point of this sculpture by architect Philip Beesley called Hylozoic Veil.
Hylozoism is the ancient belief that all matter is life. The Hylozoic Veil is a piece of near-living architecture that asks us to reimagine the worlds we create. It is a glimpse into the possibilities of future architecture. The exhibit describes that future as one where we have a more natural relationship with our man-made environments.
“We might think of this work, I think of this work, as being a step towards participation in complex systems. Overlapping networks which depend on and buffer and influence each other in many, many layers,” Beesley says in a video explaining the Hylozoic Veil.
The sculpture, made up of over half a million pieces, is a structural scaffold made of small, transparent acrylic meshwork links covered with delicate fronds. Mixed in with that structure are active kinetic systems and microprocessors communicating on a very simple level with one another. Then, there is a kind of chemical metabolism, which Beesley compares to your body’s lymph system.
That sense of the sculpture moving with you is very real. Sensors built into the sculpture recognize your presence and prompt the structure to respond by bending, folding and expanding. The sculpture almost convinces you it is breathing.
Beesley uses shape memory alloys as an alternative to gears and motors. It works silently as electrical currents pass through the material causing it to contract. Beesley says it is very similar to the strands of protein in your muscles and works much the same way.
“The craft that goes into becoming acquainted, becoming fluent in these kinds of systems is one that draws on several different disciplines, engineering, some science, certainly sculpture and tremendously practical craft such as the craft of textiles and working with fibers,” Beesley explains. “Architecture is a discipline that allows us to participate with some confidence in those other disciplines by the means of design.”
It’s hard not to be drawn to and into the Hylozoic Veil. The more time you spend observing it, the more you have a sense of its sublimeness. It becomes more important than its simple, gentle nature that drew you to it initially.
Traci Browne is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing, engineering and science. You can find out more about her at www.TraciBrowne.com.