"Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen"

What it is: Giant, wind-powered kinetic sculptures
By: Dutch artist and engineer Theo Jansen
Produced by: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays to Thursdays; 6 to 10 p.m. Thursdays (only (18 and older only); 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays
Demonstrations: Daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; plus 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays
Through: September 5, 2016
Where: The Exploratorium, Pier 15, The Embarcadero at Green Street, San Francisco
Tickets: Daytimes $19.95-$29.95, free for children 3 years and younger; Thursday nights $15 ($10 for members). Visit

Information: Visit, call 415-528-4444, or email Visit Exploratorium.
Information and video at:

About the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium's interdisciplinary and interactive approach to art, discovery and learning makes it a favorite destination for families. It is a playful laboratory where imagination, curiosity and creativity reign within the Exploratorium's 330,000 square feet. One could spend all day visiting the 600-plus interactive exhibits and stations. This is "edutainment" at its best, and for all ages.

I have enjoyed many trips there. I return again and again to the exhibit "Science of Sharing: Investigating Competition, Cooperation and Social Interaction," which offers important research and challenges for our time. Even without the current Strandbeest show, I wholeheartedly recommend the Exploratorium to everyone. But now is the best time to go, so you can see Jansen’s beasts “live.”

Parking can be an issue at the Exploratorium, so plan ahead if you are driving. Public transit is a good option with easy access by BART and Muni or Caltrain and Muni. Visit
for details. For tickets and pricing information, visit

Anna Koster

Amy Snyder / Exploratorium
Animaris Suspendisse is prepared for one of the daily demonstrations at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The 42-foot-long, pneumatically powered creation is part of the exhibit "Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen."
Artificial life forms
parading through Exploratorium
Don't miss this fascinating show
of 'Strandbeest' by Dutch artist and engineer Theo Jansen
August 14, 2016

The Dutch artist dubbed the da Vinci of the 21st century uses science, engineering and mathematics to create kinetic sculptures. The amazing creatures he builds from PVC tubes — and powers with the wind — have come to the San Francisco Exploratorium in the exhibit "Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen." Eight Strandbeests (translating to "beach animals") are accompanied by displays that explain how they work.

Strandbeest exhibit
Amy Snyder / Exploratorium
A visitor to the Exploratorium in San Francisco watches a video in the exhibit "Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen."

This exhibit, in the Exploratorium’s massive central gallery, has something for everyone. Don’t miss it, and be sure to see a demonstration. Children (and the rest of us) can crank a knob to see how the beach animal’s leg operates, or pump up a pneumatic "muscle" to experience the power of compressed air. Seasoned engineers will be challenged by new ways of thinking. Anyone can take a turn walking a Strandbeest during the demos. We can all marvel at Jansen’s inventiveness and admire his determination, over 26 years, to develop these creatures.

Theo Jansen makes each of his creatures from hundreds of PVC tubes, a lightweight and inexpensive material. Most Strandbeests have four to six "wings" made of tough polyester sails that turn crankshafts and power their many legs, allowing the creatures to move up to six miles an hour in high winds. Strandbeests, designed to walk on the sandy beach near Jansen’s home in Holland, can store the wind’s energy as compressed air in what Jansen calls the beast’s "stomach": plastic bottles. Zip ties serve as connecting tissue. Strandbeests vary in size and shape. While most measure about 16 feet long, 6.5 feet wide, and 10 feet high, the largest one at the Exploratorium is more than twice that size.

A large display of the beasts' family tree delineates their evolution through many generations. The artist refers to his creatures as "new forms of life." The wall text, videos and staff employ biological terms. During demonstrations of the largest Strandbeest in the exhibit — the 42-foot-long, pneumatically powered Animaris Suspendisse (Jansen gives all his beasts Latin-sounding names, emulating scientific taxonomy) — staff point out the creature’s responsive nervous system and wind stomachs. Jansen compares the Strandbeests' rudimentary on-off valves to cells. When many are combined, they form a "brain" to control functions such as detecting the sea and turning away, so the animal does not drown. "Sweat glands" wash sand from the beast's joints. The ratio of lengths of tubing used to create the legs is the creature's "genetic code."

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During Exploratorium demonstrations, the beasts move, but they are not roaming free in nature. They lack the poetic beauty seen in video clips: beasts traversing the beach, their wings waving back and forth, with sea and sky as a backdrop. If you are a fan of Jansen's videos (now viral on the Internet), you must see the exhibit to gain an appreciation of how the beasts work. If you missed the videos, I suggest you see the exhibit first, before searching online.

Jansen studied advanced physics at Delft University of Technology until 1975, when he turned his attention to being an artist during what he calls "Hippie time." He painted, and also created experimental work indicative of the era, such as a contraption that allowed him to "fly" in a performance piece. In 1980, the launch of his "flying saucer," made of black plastic and helium, alarmed the people of Delft, drew media attention and gave him notoriety. This brought back his interest in technology, and he invented a painting machine that he took on tour, demonstrating how the machine reproduced what it "saw" with a light-sensitive on/off device on a moving arm that sprayed paint.

For 22 years, Jansen wrote a column published every two weeks for the Dutch national newspaper de Volkskrant. In a 1990 column, he conjectured that a self-propelling machine could be invented to move sand from Holland's beaches to the adjoining dunes to protect the country's lowlands against rising sea levels brought on by global warming. He tried building such a machine. His first creature could only move its legs while on its back. That attempt begot another. Jansen became obsessed.

Typically, Jansen begins designing a new creature each fall. He tinkers and tests fresh ideas through the winter in his studio and creates a new animal that emerges on the beach in the spring. During the summer months Jansen does experiments with the sand, storms, water, then revises and retests the creature until the fall, when Jansen declares it "extinct." In the past, extinct beasts would go to Jansen's "bone yard" to become parts for future generations. Now that his work is famous worldwide, the extinct animals are "adopted" into exhibits. He has said he looks forward to developing the Strandbeests for 20 more years, and then to the day when his beasts can roam in herds on their own, without him, on the beach.

This exhibit, which includes documentary photography by Lena Herzog, video footage and many informative displays in addition to the beasts themselves, is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The exhibit was on view there in 2015, then traveled to the Chicago Cultural Center earlier this year. It opened in San Francisco at the Exploratorium on May 27.

Email Anna Koster at Visit her website at

Strandbeest exhibit
Amy Snyder / Exploratorium
Visitors to the Exploratorium in San Francisco get a view of the adoptees in the exhibit "Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen."

Strandbeest exhibit
Amy Snyder / Exploratorium
Animaris Suspendisse is prepared for one of the daily demonstrations at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The 42-foot-long, pneumatically powered creation is part of the exhibit "Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen."


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