Cecil Balmond insists on trying to break the formality of any order and regularity

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Sri Lankan–British engineer, architect, designer, and artist Cecil Balmond about being original, poetic, and improvisational.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Sep 13, 2021

Cecil Balmond’s expertise as a structural engineer was crucial in his creative collaborations with leading architects such as James Stirling, Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, Alvaro Siza, Shigeru Ban, Daniel Libeskind, Ben van Berkel, and Enric Miralles. He was born in 1943 in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, in the family of European history professor who was at one point running the University of Ceylon, the only university in the country until early 1970s. Ethnic tensions that escalated in Ceylon in the late 1950s forced Balmond’s parents to leave for Nigeria in 1960. The next year Balmond entered university in Ibadan, Nigeria, and a few years later transferred to the University of Southampton in England , graduating in 1965 with a degree in Civil Engineering. He then joined Ibadan office of Arup, a multinational design and management services giant, but the 1967 Nigerian Civil War pushed him into exile once again. He chose to transfer to the Arup’s London office, remaining at the company for over four decades and becoming its Chairman. In 2000, he created the Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU), a multidisciplinary group of computer scientists, game theorists, and designers with double degree – both in engineering and architecture – to work on very complex projects and issues.

Marsyas by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
Marsyas by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond Image: Balmond Studio

As Balmond’s responsibilities grew, so did his curiosity; the designer is known for his ability to cross boundaries of many creative disciplines – from engineering and architecture to design and art. The engineer’s ventures into these different areas are well known, especially through his collaborations with Anish Kapoor whose Marsyas sculpture for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall was unveiled in 2003. In 2011, Balmond set up his independent practice in London and Sri Lanka with the intention to run a small experimental studio. Yet, many of the architects he worked with at Arup continue collaborating with him on large projects, which made the new practice quite sizable – about 130 people at its peak – and brought enough resources to pay for ambitious research and art projects. Balmond enjoys designing, whether it is a building, a chair, an art piece, or a book; his books Informal (2007) and Crossover (2013), published by Prestel, won many awards. “The idea is to identify a problem and find a solution. Most importantly, I never see limitations,” says the designer. The following is a condensed version of our recent interview over Microsoft Teams video call between New York and Balmond’s office in London.

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I love your quote, “Sabotaging clean lines and pure spaces, does wonders.”

Cecil Balmond (CB): [Laughs.] No comment! [Laughs] Well, people do say that I often throw bricks at the establishment. But the truth is that I have no intention sabotaging or attacking anything. I simply want to discover something new.

ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond Image: © Thomas Graham - Arup

VB: Nevertheless, your ideas are disruptive, right?

CB: That’s true. When people see my projects for the first time, often their reaction is, “This is too expensive; it will never work!” But once my clients or contractors understand the logic behind specific ideas, they embrace them. For example, when we did The Orbit Tower with Anish Kapoor, the steel tower for 2012 London Olympics, we were competing against the biggest names, both in art and architecture. The design brief asked for over 100-meter-tall observation tower. Of course, this had to be spectacular. So, the question was – what could it be other than a tower simply going straight up? Our answer became an elliptical loop that would go up and down four or five times. And strange as it was, it was highly stable, as a double tripod of great strength and there were just nine points where these loops touched one another. The result was highly criticised by the architectural fraternity in Britain because it was so unusual. But when the public was polled, gradually, from not knowing what to think of it, the reaction was moving towards understanding it better and enjoying it. But really, you could only experience it by going up there. And people were going up without experiencing any sense of vertigo. It was not a tower at all; it was something else. And the tonnage was good; it was light.  

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2005 by Álvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura, and Cecil Balmond | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2005 by Álvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura, and Cecil Balmond Image: © Balmond Studio

VB: Fundamentally, you are questioning the basis of spatial organisation. You make spaces in new ways. You develop new building typologies. You blur boundaries between structure and architecture. And you said, “I don’t want to undress architecture, I want to enrich it and add new layers to it.” What ultimately is the intention of your work? What kind of architecture do you try to achieve?

CB: Well, most importantly, I don’t have preconceived ideas. I look at the site and, like in the case of my project for Coimbra Bridge, I was there, and I was planning to go straight across. But suddenly, I realised that I didn’t want to cross the river directly. The idea came from being very observant of the place. So, my initial sketch was two arcs that didn’t meet, they stopped halfway, in the middle of the river. But I stuck to that despite such a crazy idea. And, gradually, pragmatism came in, and without losing the conceptual idea, the solution was found; it became a meeting and observation point. The important thing to me is to be very specific every time, to allow for something new to occur. To me architecture is a kind of hypothesis. You are posing questions. Every project is an experiment. And 80 per cent of every project is normality – glass, concrete, and steel. But how you put it together, how you do it can be interesting. The way I look at it is that we are in the infancy of 2000-year-old Euclidian geometry and we are entering a new kind of spatial logic. There are different ways to understand space; to do that you need to investigate it. 

VB: Would you say, it is this idea of investigating space that would be the common thread that connects all your projects? 

CB: Yes, I remain open-minded to investigate. We do a lot of research and speculation. But fundamentally, I am pragmatic, not a theoretician. I want to build, I want to create, I want to write, I want to design books, I just want to do things.

Interlocking timber beam canopy of Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2005 | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
Interlocking timber beam canopy of Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2005 Image: Balmond Studio

VB: You said, “What I am always searching for is a poetic in space.” Could you touch on that?

CB: Ultimately, I am searching for the poetic. That’s true. What is also true is that our profession – both architecturally and in terms of engineering – has retreated from the notion of poetry. It is much more concerned with function, but also spectacular in its extreme manifestation. But for me architecture is about achieving a poetic quality, which has to do with tension, balance, and visceral feeling. To me architecture is like poetry. When you read a poem a word can suddenly focus your perception on something. There is a rhythm, and then there is a break with that rhythm. I also like bringing ideas from other fields such as biology and cosmology that I was interested in from early on. To me poetry has a hallucinatory component; it is about a delirium-like state of being. It is about reducing a meaning of something to the absolute essence. To me the poetic of architecture is in the essence of form that gives back a visceral reverberation that makes us feel a part of it. It is very hard to describe it, but I believe it exists, so I know it can be achieved.

In my own work, I would point to the 2005 Serpentine Pavilion we designed with Alvaro Siza, and Eduardo Souto de Moura. I was playing with the grid, which is coaxial, and I said, “Why everyone does grids?” So, I started shifting and shuffling it, just like a kid. Suddenly, the whole world opened, a world of possibilities. And to my amazement, it led to discovering a beautiful, self-organising, slightly vibrated, new kind of animation, which was easy to build but looked like nothing I have ever seen before. And the same was in the case of the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion we designed with Toyo Ito where the structure became the aesthetic. Originally, it was an abstract box with a bunch of straight lines that crossed. That wasn’t rich enough for me. So, I turned those lines into a net of intersecting strings of velocity, based on an algorithm of a cube that expanded as it rotated; the net was then folded into a box, 100 per cent pure structure. To me the velocity lines is a poetic idea. To find the right balance without drawing everyone’s attention to it is poetic. Such subtle shifts and findings are mysterious and poetic to me. And being original is being poetic too – to find a solution that follows its own interior logic that’s not in the norm is poetic. Questions open doors to new discoveries. Anything that’s not standardised, modular, and preconceived has a potential to be poetic. 

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 by Toyo Ito, Cecil Balmond, and Arup | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 by Toyo Ito, Cecil Balmond, and Arup Image: © Balmond Studio

VB: What you say is quite emblematic of our times. Classicists and Modernists used to know what they wanted and how to go about it. But now the world is so complex and transforming so fast that we no longer able or even want to know; we want to discover by questioning and see where that will lead us.

CB: Absolutely. Traditionally, an architect was a God-like figure who knew how to plan everything. But I try to twist every problem. I say, “I don’t know everything, but I have a feeling for it.” So, I will try something and see where it leads me to. I like improvising.

VB: You said, “Architecture is a series of entrances and exits, punctuations and episodes, sequences and envelopes, not an object.”

CB: Yes, to me entering the building, turning left or right, the compression of space, tension, release of space, moving around, walking through, and so on. Architecture is not an object to be occupied. I am fighting against corridors that are endless, functions that are assumed to be distributed equally, or why do patients need to be in the same size area? Why not try different clustering patterns? I am trying to break the formality of any order, modularity, and regularity. I always try to subvert it. Let me tell you an anecdote about this. Years ago, Enric Miralles invited me to give a talk in Spain. And when I finished my lecture, in which I preached about what I just said – breaking with the formality of any order, modularity, and regularity, a person in the audience stood up and said, “So you want us to forget everything we were taught about? How can we throw away everything?” [Laughs.] But if you take the non-linear as a big subject and the linear is a part of it, you must deal with what you have and learn from it. The point is – don’t be closed as if that is all; it can be transcended or transformed, not distorted, but taken to another level and another dimension. 

Interior view of Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
Interior view of Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 Image: © Balmond Studio

VB: I am fascinated about the fact that nonlinear, nonsymmetrical structures can be more economical than conventional straight forward, orthogonal ones. How is that possible and what does this mean for architecture?  

CB: It is true, and it means we have unbound freedom of doing many things in many ways. The 2002 Serpentine Pavilion we did with Toyo Ito is such example. Not only it came to be more economical, but even stronger than an orthogonal structure would be. It was purchased by an entrepreneur, taken to the South of France where it was appropriated as a part of a restaurant. I went there to install it and it passed all kinds of tests; no one believed how strong it was. And the same is with Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Headquarters in Beijing – the form and the skin are so strong. And after 9/11 there was a concern for the building to survive a potential collision with a large airplane. We were asked to design it for 500-year earthquake, but it is so strong it can withstand 1,000-year earthquake. It is innately strong. It is like our body, in a way, a system of bespoke parts. This is what 3D printing technology is allowing – to make special strengths in special areas. You are right, I found this over and over when asymmetrical, bespoke design, not only fits its function but is more economical than evenly distributed logic, which spreads everything and dominates our world in the name of economy. But it is a false economy.   

CCTV Headquarters by OMA and Arup | Interview with Cecil Balmond | STIRworld
CCTV Headquarters by OMA and Arup Image: © OMA

VB: It may be true that a bespoke design can be more economical than a generic one. Nevertheless, the CCTV building is designed to be purposely unstable and it takes a heroic effort to keep it from overturning. How would you respond to the criticism of such critics as Kenneth Frampton who say that CCTV is overdesigned and uses way more steel and concrete than necessary?

CB: Well, there is a long history of so-called form versus shape argument in architecture – you see twisting towers now everywhere. From the late 90s or around the year 2000 architects started playing with towers as if they were toys – they could be twisted and turned, and bent over, as in the case of Daniel Libeskind’s Reflections at Keppel Bay in Singapore [2011]. But if we go back to the times around the mid-20th century, architects were then doing very sleek, minimalist flat-topped towers, as in the case of Arne Jacobson’s Iconic SAS Hotel, the first skyscraper in Copenhagen [1960]. Then came the Post-Modernists with buildings by Philip Johnson and Michael Graves, for example. Those towers were ornamental; they didn’t change the direction. And, in the last 20 or so years, they have been twisting and turning, which is a widely followed trend. Otherwise, architects think their buildings would be boring.

The CCTV Headquarters, which was a competition project with no specification in the brief that it needed to be a tower, we thought about a tower that would be an alternative to the exhausted typology of the skyscraper, something different from aiming to be the tallest object in the city. As opposed to something twisting and turning, I thought of it as two towers leaning up and then connected with a cantilever. Visually, it was a portal. Rem saw it as a loop of interconnected activities of making TV content. To me it became all about distributing stresses. We plotted all the facades and wherever stresses were low we halved the density of the structural grid and doubled them where the stresses were at their greatest. Various experts questioned whether the building has excessive structure. But if we decided to build a skyscraper 100 stories over a similar footprint, we would get very similar stresses at the lower floors. The most excessive stresses happened at the corners of the cantilevers where the two leaning legs hit the ground. They are taking a lot of stress. And the structure concentrated in those places is perhaps unprecedented. But that was the architect’s intention – to have a megastructure in your face, as opposed to polite structure. [Laughs.]

I have the widest regard and potency for discovery in Architecture with a capital “A.” And as a mantra I believe that nonlinear is everything. The linear is only a subset of it. And there is an unlimited range of nonlinear – from random to underlined logic. But the root of a structural solution is in the overlap of science and art, instincts, and pragmatism.

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