The Amazing Pipe Creatures That Dance on Beaches - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Amazing Pipe Creatures That Dance on Beaches

The Amazing Pipe Creatures That Dance on Beaches

By Jim Knipfel


Because it’s not every day you see something so strange and so elegant.

By Jim Knipfel

Some artists work in acrylics, others in marble or steel or pixels. Dutch sculptor Theo Jansen’s medium of choice is PVC tubing. In 1979, the Holland-based artist with a degree in physics designed and constructed a 4-meter-wide flying saucer out of PVC pipes, equipped it with lights and sound, filled the tubes with helium and set it aloft over Delft. The creation, which utilized Jansen’s skills as both artist and engineer, caused a near riot among witnesses as it drifted slowly overhead. Given the success of the project, Jansen was inspired to experiment further with kinetic sculptures built from PVC pipes.

As has happened to most of us at one point or another, it struck Jansen, around 1990, that he wanted to create new forms of life. The result: the Strandbeest (or “beach animal”), strange, skeletal and unexpectedly elegant PVC constructions that harness the power of the offshore wind and casually stroll the beaches of Holland. They don’t roll or tumble along, but rather step gracefully and slowly across the sand dunes like some form of emaciated alien visitor.

Jansen, now in his late 60s, says his goal … is to develop the Strandbeest to such a point that they can live and thrive independently from their creator.

Over the last quarter-century, Jansen (who really does think of his creations as living creatures) has devoted himself to furthering the evolution of the wind-powered Strandbeest, a process, he says, that has taught him about the frustrations the original Creator must have faced when it came to creating new life. From the early primitive models, which required a bit of human assistance to get them moving, Jansen has increased the Strandbeests’ efficiency, stability and mobility by adding fans, wings and power storage units for when there is no wind. At present, he is working on a form of artificial intelligence that will allow the Strandbeest to avoid walking into the sea and to hunker down when a storm approaches.

Jansen, now in his late 60s, says his goal, like any parent’s, is to develop the Strandbeest to such a point that they can live and thrive independently from their creator, at which point he hopes to let them loose on the beaches of the world, free to roam for centuries to come. If he can achieve that, Jansen says, he will die happy. The rest of us might be doomed, but that’s another story.

Through his website, Jansen sells Strandbeest kits, allowing you to make your own miniature version, which can stroll about the house under the power of a simple desk fan, terrifying cats, small children and the elderly alike.

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