The Strandbeests Come to Boston

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, August 24th, 2015


Strandbeests - Peabody Essex Museum

It’s a windy day on the popular Massachusetts Crane Beach. There’s a three hour traffic jam running miles down the congested country road that ends at the water. The cause of this latest traffic jam isn’t a frantic migration to enjoy the last days of summer oceanside. People are anxious to see Theo Janson’s fantastical Strandbeests in action. Crane Beach is the site of the first kickoff event leading to a new exhibit that will explore these unique, moving sculptures in detail.

Boston’s Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a new attraction showcasing the creations entitled, “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen.” The exhibit runs from September until June and is the first major American showcase of these kinetic sculptures. After Boston, the Strandbeests will travel to other major museums around the U.S. While the sculptures’ creator, Theo Jansen has given a Ted Talk and shown them elsewhere around the globe, it’s an exciting opportunity to better understand the life’s work of this visionary artist – scientist.

Strandbeests walk across sand

Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist who began building his Strandbeests (literally, beach creatures) in 1990. The project has been described by many as blurring the lines between art, science and performance. Primarily, the structures are constructed out of yellow PVC piping and white sails, with connective materials and some strategic add-ons. The sculptures – propelled by wind – move on their own and can store wind, sense water, and hunker down in the face of an incoming storm.

Where did the vision for these fantastical creatures come from? Jansen’s personal history involved a stint as a journalist and a strong interest in physics. He wrote a weekly column where he spent time postulating new features and inventions to improve life. A note that the seas were rising gave birth to the idea that sand dune protection would be critical. Why not invent a race of wind powered beach creatures that could manage that, he asked? Ultimately, that question would set the whole Strandbeests project in motion.

It took some time to create a working Strandbeest. Early challenges including mapping connections between different segments so that the legs would work right, and switching from tape to tie cords to connect various pipes so the creatures could support their own weight. Jansen didn’t draw his inspiration from nature, trying to mimic a specific bird or insect. Instead, he used core science and evolved his concept over time to find things that would improve the creature’s stability and locomotion. The evolutionary nature of the project is highly unique and part of what draws interest from the public and designers.

Strandbeest construction details

One of the core challenges was also energy. The creatures were meant to be self-sufficient, so their ability to capture the wind was critical. Jansen focused heavily on their sail layout. When there was no wind, Strandbeests had a way to compress and capture air in bottles or “air stomachs” for future use. Dangling tubes help them sense as they approach water, so they don’t submerge. Eventually, as Jansen imagined the environment that the Strandbeests needed to thrive in – that is, coastal environs – he created a series of gated logic steps that ultimately functioned like a “brain.”

The next stage of possible evolution is fascinating. In a New York Times article, Jansen discusses that he’s trying to develop strategies that would enable the beasts to share information using a binary system. It’s a big, science fiction style dream. But given what he’s accomplished so far, it’s just possible that he’ll bring his vision to life. For entertainment designers, the Strandbeests are a model of what’s possible when you dream big and are willing to embrace the lessons between projects to ensure that each new generation of creations is better than the last.

Images sourced courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, DesignBoom and Quotes WP

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