“The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.”
The idea behind those words from dutch artist Theo Jansen are continually proven true with his insanely intricate and ever-evolving artificial lifeforms he calls “Strandbeests.” On the Chicago leg of their US tour, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, I was lucky enough to witness Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen.
For years, I’ve always kind of assumed that the videos and gifs of these things tip-toeing across beaches had to have been doctored in some slight way. Not that I thought they weren’t physically possible, but they’re just so massive that I figured the their movement couldn’t have been quite as smooth as advertised, or that they were somehow powered by something that was discreetly removed from the footage. They’re utterly fascinating, and something about them just begs for investigation. Anything that combines art and science scratches at my brain in the best of ways and the Strandbeests are no exception. After walking with the Strandbeests, I am more fascinated than ever.
Perhaps I should explain what Strandbeests are before we go any further. Created by Theo Jansen, Strandbeests literally walk the line between art and engineering. Assembled with simple materials in incredibly intricate ways, they harness the power of the wind in order to move on the hardened sand of beaches at the water’s edge.
While the size, shape and flourishes on each Strandbeest have evolved over time, there are a few key components that allow them to wander about. Some serious math, a few plastic bottles, and a great deal of plastic piping all contribute to this new form of life. The PVC piping, normally used as electrical conduit in Danish buildings, makes up the majority of each creature using various techniques ranging from simple pipe fittings to being heat-formed to serve a specific purposes.
Mostly built through trial and error, the only thing that relied on computers was the design of the leg. Thousands of different computer models were generated in order to zero in on the correct ratios needed for the leg system. Jansen calls the result the “Holy Numbers.” His site goes into great detail about them, but put simply, there’s a sweet spot of leg design that allows the maximum propulsion while staying on the ground long enough to support the weight of each Strandbeest.
With the leg design mastered, how do you get these to move? Simple. You need muscles and “Wind Stomachs”!
The “muscles” of each beest rely on pneumatic pressure and are beautiful in their simplicity. Connected pipes act as pistons to push and pull various components.
Air pressure is utilized elsewhere to assist these and other movements by harnessing power from the wind and keeping them in what Jansen calls “Wind Stomachs.” As the beests stroll along, some are equipped with sails that turn crankshafts, which in turn pump air into plastic bottles. This bottled up pressure helps to move the beests along when the wind isn’t cooperating.
Wind Stomachs with Piston Demonstration
Manual demonstration of Animaris Suspendisse’s wind sail crankshaft
The exhibit chronicles the evolution of the Strandbeests. A good portion of what’s on display are the beest “fossils” from past projects that serve as close up (although not hands-on) reference to how some pieces were formed by Jansen. Take note in the gallery below in how, despite being made of plastic, various parts look as if they’re woven from reeds and seem strangely organic in nature.
Alongside the tables full of fossils and the proof-of-concept tables for the legs, wind stomachs, and muscles stand some of Jansen’s complete creations. While each beest is made from similar materials, each is unique in design variations. Some are successes like the Animaris Apodiacula, which was one of the first to sport effective outrigger skis for stability, leading to even larger designs. Others, like Animaris Umerus Segundus didn’t do so well on beaches but serves as a lesson for further improvement. Then there’s the big boy, Animaris Suspendisse, which has some incredibly amazing features garnered from past creations. Suspendisse has “sweat glands” which pump water through its joints so sand can’t clog them and the ability to turn itself away from a rising tide. This ability relies on a vacuum, created by its wind stomachs, that continually sucks in air through tubing. If it’s compromised by the entry of water (which is much harder to suck than air), then a system is triggered to turn or reverse the Suspendisse away from drowning to death.
What might be the coolest aspect of the exhibit may be the real-world applications of Jansen’s designs. Ok, maybe “real-world” is a little much, but there are people out there making some seriously awesome builds with Strandbeest knowledge. Say, for instance, that you wanted a cool new vehicle for a pet?
Or maybe you want to create the most steampunk lego set ever?
Wait, did I say that was the coolest aspect of the exhibit? Apologies. The fact that you can walk with some of them is the coolest part:
If you’re at all a science- or art-oriented person, I implore you to find a way to visit the show if you can. Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are a weird and wonderful form of life that continues to evolve. Along with them, the way we think, learn, and solve problems can continue to evolve as well.
Take a look at the gallery below for more pictures from the exhibit and let’s talk Strandbeest fandom in the comments section!
Image: Theo Jansen/Strandbeest.com
Blake Rodgers writes for Nerdist from Chicago, IL where he lives happily with his Guinness World Record for High Fives. Be his pal by following him on Twitter (@TheBlakeRodgers)