From the archive – Glass talks to Cecil Balmond one of the world’s leading designers

From the Glass archive

Designing “the next” – Cecil Balmond, one of the world’s leading designers, talks to Glass about the power of mathematics, the negotiations of expression and growing forms

“The harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all the poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty.” – D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, circa 1915

CECIL Balmond is one of the most influential names in the world of structural engineering and design. Through his work in collaboration with leading architects and artists, such as James Stirling, Rem Koolhaas, Shigeru Ban, Anish Kapoor and many others, he has put forward a dynamic, organisational and science-based approach to the understanding of the structures that compose the material world. He sits and asks for paper and a pen in order to talk, then he begins to sketch and scribble – almost instinctively. He draws a triangle defined at the vertices by fashion, art and architecture and locates space in the centre as the force that holds everything together. For him, space is tension, balance and proportion. It is a medium of organisation, an argument.

Balmond was born and educated in Sri Lanka. After living briefly in Nigeria, he moved to Britain to continue his studies in structural engineering. In 1968 he joined Ove Arup & Partners, a global and multidisciplinary consultancy services firm, where he became deputy chairman. He has held several architectural visiting professorships at Yale University, Harvard’s School of Design, University of Pennsylvania and London School of Economics. He received the Gengo Matsui Prize in 2002, which is the highest recognition for structural engineering given in Japan, and the Charles Jencks Award for Theory in Practice from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2003. He is the author of Element (2007), Informal (2002) and Number Nine: The Search for the Sigma Code (1998).

China Central Television Headquarters - CCTV, Beijing. Design by OMA. Structure by Cecil Balmond - Arup, 2002-08. Photography courtesy of ArupChina Central Television Headquarters – CCTV, Beijing. Design by OMA.
Structure by Cecil Balmond – Arup, 2002 – 08. Photography courtesy of Arup

You worked for Arup from 1968 to 2009, with unique collaborations. Why have you decided to open your own studio now?
This decision is the result of two conditions. The first is a long corporate career where I was in charge of a big company. I was one of eight or ten people directing Arup and I was running the building business, with more than four thousand people in thirty or forty countries. That is a big responsibility. The second is that I was doing my own work  . I was always designing, and wanted to carry on at a smaller scale, focusing on research.

In 2004, the director of the arc en rêve centre d’architecture, in Bordeaux, France, asked me to do a show based on my book Informal. I ended up with some traditional ways to represent architecture, such as drawings and scale models, but I also experimented with new media. I filled two rooms with audio-visual effects, combining aboriginal paintings with moonwalks and my work. I was trying to find forms to express spatial ideas without being descriptive. The aim was to entertain and to avoid the misconception of architecture as a specialised field.

In 2007 I was asked to put on another exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in Copenhagen, Denmark. They asked me not to do an architectural show but an exhibition of space. It was named Frontiers of Architecture.

I also wanted to focus on my research that was getting more serious and producing interesting findings. These experimentations would have been impossible to do as a corporate man.

Seattle Central Library, USA. DEsign by OMA & LMN Architects. Structure by Cecil Balmond - Arup, 1999 - 2004. Photograph courtesy of ArupSeattle Central Library, USA. Design by OMA & LMN Architects.
Structure by Cecil Balmond – Arup, 1999 – 2004. Photograph courtesy of Arup

What is your current research about?
The research has been prompted by the belief in science, especially mathematics, as a visual language. Most people do not know this language – they cannot speak it and they cannot express it. The work with algorithms, even in simple ways, creates a beautiful sense of space that comes from self-organisation and rigour, such as the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in collaboration with Toyo Ito. The rational part of the idea came from drawing a ratio of half of one side of a square to one third of the other side and then repeating it. The design extended all the lines and cut the corners out, folding it, to make a box – a pavilion of crossed paths.

This sort of research started in 1991. I founded a material and structural research unit at the School of Design in the University of Pennsylvania, called NSO – Non-Linear Systems Organisation. Its aim is to explore architecture influenced by science and to have scientists influenced by the synthetic powers of architecture. Designers think differently to scientists, who search for direct answers. For example, we worked  with biologists to improve the visualisation of cell behaviour.

The most recent investigation is looking into the basics of how things grow. The biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Thompson published On growth and form, a popular book some time ago on the role of physical laws and mechanics as alternatives to formal evolution. I read it 15 years ago. But when I wrote Number 9 in 1998, my first book, people asked me if this was my version of Thompson. They thought I had found some secret on the theme of growth, but the book had nothing to do with that. However, the question of what would I do in the artificial world to pursue the idea of growth kept coming back to me. The current research is about this.

Weave Bridge, University of Penn, Philadelphia, USA. Design by Cecil Balmond & AGU, 2009. Photography by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of Balmond StudioWeave Bridge, University of Penn, Philadelphia, USA. Design by Cecil Balmond & AGU, 2009.
Photography by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of Balmond Studio

How is this research being materialised?
It will be realised physically as small sculptures and the publication of a book. If you look at data, actual quantities, you will find qualities. So these elaborations are looking at a set of quantities and looking for qualitative relations. Then we see what happens if the same relation, or rule, is repeated several times. I’m finding, out of abstract data, how to grow crystal forms as well as biological ones – such as worms, octopuses and squids. This is not really imitating nature, but gives an insight into the basic rules of connectivity.

Pedro e Ines Bridge, Mondego River. Coimbra - Portugal. Design by Cecil Balmond & AGU, 2004. Photography by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of Balmond StudioPedro e Ines Bridge, Mondego River, Coimbra, Portugal. Design by Cecil Balmond & AGU, 2004.
Photography by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of Balmond Studio

How do you combine abstraction and expression?
Ultimately expression prevails because it is what we engage with. Design is intended for other people to partake and participate in. I believe that the expression has more value, or lasting resonance, if it comes from some deep or abstract concept. You need to have a vision in order to transmit integrity to your work. It is easy to shock, but design needs to have value either in its interiority or in the way its thesis sets out new ideas to engage with.

Marsyas, Tate Modern. London - UK, 2002. Design by Anish Kapoor & Cecil Balmond. Photograph courtesy of Balmond StudioMarsyas, Tate Modern, London, UK, 2002. Design by Anish Kapoor & Cecil Balmond.
Photograph courtesy of Balmond Studio

So, how would you define context?
I would say that context, literally understood as a way to fit in the world, is not something that I am particularly interested in. That is status quo. The context that I address is based on people’s sense of space. If I were working in Thailand, where there are certain characteristics within the built environment – deep symbolic meaning rooted in the consciousness of the inhabitants – I would try to enhance that consciousness through my reading of their existing forms but pose a rethinking of the norm.

The notion of the new is a modern one. How do you relate to history?
I see it from the zero point, history as a series of the new. There is “the now”, then there is “the new” and then there is ‘the next’. The new can be trapped in sensationalism; the next is unknown. My aim is to think about the next after the new. It is a gamble. In history, those gambles have been taken all the time. If you would have been in  Beethoven’s first performance of the 9th, you would have been in shock because it was startlingly different. However, you would go back to it because it was not different for difference’s sake but a whole new sense of the symphony, bound to its own inventive rule set.

Element Exhibition, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. Japan. Design by Cecil Balmond 2010. Photograph by Masao Nishikawa, courtesy of Balmond StudioElement Exhibition, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. Japan. Design by Cecil Balmond 2010.
Photograph by Masao Nishikawa, courtesy of Balmond Studio

You have witnessed the emergence and evolution of sustainability. What is your perspective on this?
It is an irreversible trend and it is growing slowly, not dramatically. There are orientation moves that an architect can play with. For example, if your building is tall and flat, you don’t place it directly towards the sun, you turn it in an angle to avoid direct exposure. And there are micro-climates, which relate to the kind of materials you can use, energy consumption and other structural and mechanical features. I don’t think manufacturers have provided architects with interesting materials yet, so the solutions still speak with an older language.

In general, the strategies are to add “green elements” like roof gardens and sticking in wind turbines. Hopefully we will be able to move past these first responses to a wider, more total understanding of sustainability.

Temenos, Middlesbrough - UK. Design by Anish Kapoor & Cecil Balmond, 2010. Photograph Courtesy of ArupTemenos, Middlesbrough, UK. Design by Anish Kapoor & Cecil Balmond, 2010. Photograph Courtesy of Arup

How has your understanding of architecture and space been influenced by your collaborations?
I think these collaborations have been a productive and creative tension. I have particularly learnt from my years of collaboration. The longest relationship I have had in my career was with Rem Koolhaas – from 1986 to 2006, including the CCTV building in China. I also had long conversations with [Toyo] Ito about fluid notions of space and with [Alvaro] Siza about tradition and architectural history.

The work of the architect and the engineer was blurred all along. We usually started with a blank piece of paper and then a process of design exchange happens.

Serpentine Pavilion, London - UK Design by Toyo Ito & Arup, 2002Serpentine Pavillion, London, UK. Design by Toyo Ito & Arup, 2002

Which are your conceptual sources?
I am usually engaged with past inventions that inspire me to look again. For example, Bach in music; Da Vinci or Titian in painting; Shakespeare, of course, in literature. They broke convention and discovered the next – their contributions are a constant inspiration. They totally refresh me.

by Christian Parreño

From the Glass Archive – Issue 9 – Purity

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