Interview: Cecil Balmond

Cecil Balmond is a Sri Lankan born, British designer, engineer, artist, architect, and writer. Known for his close collaborations with architects, such as Toyo Ito on the Serpentine Pavilion and Rem Koolhaas on the Casa da Musica in Porto and the CCTV in Beijing, he also works closely with artists, particularly Annish Kapoor. Indeed their major project the ArcelorMittal Orbit is nearing completion on the main site for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. 

What is non-linearity? 
Non-linearity is where my work has been for the last 20 years. It’s been there since 91 when I stated in a lecture in Berlin in 1991 that the informal was a subject. So there’s that area of non-linear. Then there’s The Nonlinear Systems Organization at Penn Design, which I set up in my professorship as the Paul Philippe Cret Practice Professor of Architecture

You were working in a world in which post-modernism held sway. Did your ideas about non-linearity develop in opposition to that?
In the mid-1980s I suppose I felt caught in a trap of a stylised or minimum efficiency model that was running through planning. Architects would draw squares and the site boundary and everything would be reduced within it.  It felt like a very reductive system. It didn’t seem to be a profound design system, it seemed to be formulaic. My task in those days was to answer the architects question ‘where do the columns go?’ I started rebelling against that question. All you do is put in some columns and then another formula comes up about lengths and breadth. It was formulaic.

Did you look to the natural world for influence?
No, I started going back to study – I don’t know why I even thought about it – to read the fundamentals of architecture, so I went back to Vetruvius and to the Greek models and Pythagorean models and what I found there was an entire richness of invention: when it all began. 10,000 years ago. There was a very lively system of proportion. It wasn’t just a case of ‘I’ll put the Parthenon there’. There was a whole proportionate system at work with refinements ultimately but essentially in the guts of it, I found that all sacred architecture was given to certain specific systems of thought. And it made me think what is a modern system of thought? Of course I knew the classical one because we’ve inherited it. I thought that here was geometry as a system. This was what the Greeks had. It was very real for them. Buildings were frozen proportions. That was the way I was practising it and that was the way the people I was working with were practising it. It seemed that it had died somehow. It was now no more. It was now some formulaic system. So I posed questions to myself: ‘what is a contemporary method of looking at similar ideas?’

And what was your answer?
This question took me into algorithms as a new concept. That there could be something where you would start with a local concern only and then move on to compile and that somehow from this process which was completely a reverse to drawing a boundary and then cutting in. this was starting from inside and going outwards to end up somewhere. It seemed a totally different process. It was exciting and it gave me totally different results that looked sensible. That was surprising itself. But also interesting were the spatial effects. That was interesting to me.

Front of the Neue Staatgalerie Stuttgart, 1984. Concept by the British Architect James Stirling

Which projects help you develop these ideas?
I had done it subconsciously at the Neue Staatgalerie in Stutgart with James Stirling collaborating with him, very much led by him. But the famous ice-cream columns on that project came in through debates. Looking back I could see that I was moving my ideas on the subject– that was 1978 – but I didn’t realise that it was labeled. The first real reference for the thinking in practical terms was the Kunsthalle in Rotterdam with Koolhaas. He was a tabula rasa man at the time. He really didn’t want to go down the root of traditional architecture. So he was looking and I was looking and we came together. We were looking for animations, inventions, different ways of how to build. He was looking for more from an urban context and I was looking more from a spatial context. And so it was a happy meeting point.  The Kunsthalle was the first exemplar of how four parts of a building can have completely different systems.

If you walk round the building you can see that structurally there are four different solutions, which is not something you would do on a small building, 60m x 60m plan area. We tried to have a kind of system which could govern every single space and every time I tried to iron out conflicts that came from spatial arrangements – big rooms coming next to small room – it wouldn’t work. What do you do? In the early days I would try to have a system that governed all parts. Simply put, I let that rigidity go and I looked at everything on its own and said what works here? and what works here? If I transit from here to there – then what’s right? In the end a local language grew. It was a very successful project. I had no algorithms as such, but I was already beginning to animate, to make geometric animations in order to make space.

Fundamentally the difference between non-linear work and traditional work is traditional work spaces the gap. Every architect, every design starts here and then thinks about the next thing. You look at a room and then think where does the next one go. It’s about taking space as an empty vessel and putting things into it.

The Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, which opened its doors in 1992

If you are not filling the space what are you doing?
I start somewhere and then I compile the next interval in that process I can chose right angles but the way the vertical would come in relation to the horizontal I believe would be more interesting in a school in a hospital, if I did it my way.

Through the 80s I would work with sketches and model but the late 90s I was working sketch and computer print out and by early 2003 I was working with sketch, computer print-out and 3D prototype. Physical models had dropped away, they were still important but in holistic work – because another part of non-linear work is that you are taking the whole spatial effect in one go. You are not taking parts and putting them together which is the case within reductive processes, if you put the parts together, you can pull them out into parts, hence your focus is only on the small parts. Technically a building is solved – you take a section, you spend hours making the floor work and then you extrude the section and repeat it – so it’s cut and paste methods really. More non-linear methods don’t allow you to do that. It has it’s problems of functionalities and things but so does any process, it’s just how do you master them.

How important is the natural world to your work?
Today, I sat out in my garden for 30 minutes and heard the bird sing and looked up at the trees. And I was quite refreshed. It is because when you look at the cloudscape or the trees there is a certain uniformity – the trees look like trees, in one way – all green in the forest – but there is this variation when you walk through the forest. Similarity and variation. Nature is much more varied than we can make buildings. But there is an element in that story that buildings that have some variation – a controlled variation – not random – within a uniformity.

H_edge consists of around 6000 aluminium plates. Shown as part of the Element exhibition in Tokyo

H_edge consists of around 6000 aluminium plates. Shown as part of the Element exhibition in Tokyo

People think when I called my show Element it was about nature, but I mean Element to refer to OUR nature. I think you create your own logic depending on what you are trying to do.  The bridge in Coimbra in Portugal – had I thought about any pre-context – I went there and looked at the river and I had to see the mayor and I knew the budget was absolutely minimal and I thought what can you do? You can’t do any fancy stuff with cables. I just sat there and thought about the river and thought about being here and going there and what would I do. Me. Personally. That place. From that comes an answer. The same thing happened in Philadelphia when the university asked me to do the footbridge across the railway tracks. Out of that logic of crossing and moving – came a certain narrative. So I came up with an idea of certain traces on the landscape, which became a tectonic and like a good novel 2/3 of the way through there was a crisis – and this thing emerged and wrapped itself around and then unwrapped and that was the denouement and I presented it like a novel. And it won favour with the Trustees.

When I saw it built – I couldn’t believe I had designed that bridge and Coimbra because they are worlds apart. One has a romantic nature a certain extravagance – it bakes in the sun and sparkles like jewels. And the other one in Philadelphia is hard-bitten, industrial and over the railway but they are both – one is a short journey of 45m and the other is 200m – but if you do the journey – you change your narrative.

Coimbra Footbridge, Mondego River. Coimbra, Portugal.

The Coimbra Footbridge over the Mondego River near Coimbra in Portugal.

How has the establishment of the Nonlinear Systems Organization at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design helped you? What type of research organization is it?
I took up the Paul Philipe Cret Chair on the East coast of America. The most famous incumbent was Louis Kahn. He was there for 15 years. The person there before him was Le Ricolet – a theoretician – then it was Khan and then Joseph Rickwert. I’d already come to Penn – first thing I did 5 years ago was give lectures, in the physics, chemistry and biology department, cognitive science. No one from the architecture department had ever done that. That opened up thinking.  Then I formed the NSO having talked to the dean. I said why don’t we have some research here where the belief is that architecture needs more rigour – going back to the Greeks when there was rigour – and sciences have that as a given. Working along with scientific ideas will help. Also – and this was more of a gamble, maybe science can learn something from the synthesis that architects bring.

The Weave Bridge. A dramatic new bridge that links The University of Pennsylvania with its sports recreation ground

Before we talk about the ArcelorMittal Orbit, I wanted to talk about another project with Annish Kapoor. Together you have already completed one of the largest public arts projects in Britain called Temonos. What is it?
Temonos is one of five pieces in north-east England called the Teesside Giants. The idea was probably initiated four years ago. There were four or five big sites for urban regeneration: Darlington, Middlehaven, Middlesborough and Redcar. There were already master plans – huge ones – for schools and houses and developers were already in play. Each of them would bring attention to the region. And so the first was a bridge that was in Middlehaven. We were trying to get that ready for the Tall Ships race which ends there next year but that didn’t quite happen. So the next one that came up was the one in Middlesbrough, which we are working on now. The idea is still to go through with five sites, developing public art pieces for each of them over 15 years. If it completes it will be the biggest public art project in the UK, in terms of scope.

Temenos is a very strange piece in a way. It looks a bit like Marsyas, [the piece that Anish Kapoor and Balmond produced in the Tate Modern]. It’s an armature but it is also two rings raised into space – one elliptical and one circular. One is supported on a plinth and another one is hung from a mast. Soon on the Teesside skyline, you’ll find a circle hanging in space and a line juxtaposed against a circle and then you’ll see another circle 100m away. Only when you come close will you realize that they are connected by a wire.

How is it made?
The steel net starts at the rings – each cable is fixed 2.5m apart around the ring. The hoops, which keep the cables in place are about two or three metres away. The idea is that no one can climb on them. Middlesbrough Football Club stadium is nearby. You know after a match everyone will be challenged to climb that thing. We took a lot of care with health and safety, about not putting temptation in people’s way. Mind you, if someone wants to get there, they’re going to get there…

A rendering showing the Temenos project in Middlesbrough

In the middle of the piece the cables are close together. And so the cable net looks like a solid material in the middle but then it vanishes near to the rings. If you look at it obliquely it takes material shape; if you look at it square on – it’s whatever you see. When there’s rain on it and light catching it, it’s iridescent. It will play with the seasons and it will play with light.

Are the Teesside Giants designed to be a series?
There was a brief that they wanted some kind of single idea, but manifested differently because none of the mayors wanted anything that looked like what would be in the other towns. In the end it doesn’t have to come from one root idea. It would be nice but it doesn’t have to. I think the logic of the site will dictate that in a way. Teesside has a big engineering background. It’s a rugged landscape a massive horizontal landscape. Full of gantry cranes. I think they fit the tradition of the area. But they are art pieces as well.

Temonos under construction on Teesside.

When did you meet Anish Kapoor?
He phoned me up when he was awarded the Tate commission in early 2002. It was a big space and he’d only done studio work. He talked to some friends and someone said “you should work with Cecil” and we hit it off straight way. I liked the way he was thinking. We really are collaborators. Of course he gets more of the press because he is a famous artist. I liked the way he was always looking for something deeper in the form. Something intangible. I do that as well.

Tell us about Marsyas, the piece you made together for the Tate’s Turbine Hall.

At 140m, it spanned the entire length of the hall. It was 45m high and it was just 1mm of fabric. I’d never done a fabric structure before and I didn’t want to have the usual language of fabric, which you see all over – lots of wires holding the fabric up. You feel the tension pulling it. I wanted the fabric to be everything, so that you don’t see anything: look, no hands!

Marsyas in the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern in 2002. Balmond’s first collaboration with Anish Kapoor

How important was it for you both?
With Marsyas; artists wrote about it as a great piece of art, architects thought of it as a great piece of architecture and the structural people said “my God how was that done?” In the end it transcends our own boundaries. Anish was working in small forms as a sculptor, working with smoothness. I was working with building frames and the logic of programmes. In the end, I think, it is beyond our disciplines.

It’s a crucible of invention. It’s a little research product. I have very few collaborators: I have Anish in the art world; then there’s Toyo Ito with whom I worked on theSerpentine Pavilion – a lovely subtle mind at work. And Rem Koolhaas – a Western product, a dynamo of invention, a very interesting mind.

How has it been working within the Olympics site?
Interesting. There’s a lot of politics. It’s a hugely risk-averse culture. People want to be sure it can happen and it will be built in time for the money we say it will be. So we have worked with a contractor in a consortium to try and make sure it can be done on time and within budget. We are applying for planning consent soon. We have done quite a bit of work on it to make sure it goes through all these bureaucratic gates; it wouldn’t have been announced otherwise. The Mayor can’t afford to announce something that wouldn’t happen. It’s also interesting having a sponsor. It’s the old way of working, having a patron. This time it is Mittal Steel. That’s not why we used steel actually. For a 200m-high structure on a minimum budget, you have to use steel.

A model of ArcelorMittal Orbit

What will it be like to visit?
It’s not just a tower to go up and have a look at London, although there are observations decks and eating facilities up there. We are trying to make it as good an experience as you can have – to go up through the piece. We are working on the feeling of entering it. It’s more than the object. It’s the experience of going there to get to the top. We’ll be on site in two months, so that’s what we are working on now: the little things that make all the difference.

Do you think it’s significant that the sponsor, the engineer and the artist are all from the Indian subcontinent?
It never occurred to me that we all had Asian roots. I’m a British citizen. I’ve been here for 40 years. Anish similarly. He went to school in India briefly but moved to London and I graduated here. It could’ve been another sponsor, it’s just the way it happened. I didn’t think about it until just before the press conference and I suddenly thought there will be a picture of three of us, grinning away.

That’s the beauty of Britain. It has assimilated us so completely. I feel at home here. Anish too. I’ve been tempted many times to move abroad in my career. People have tried to get me to go to other places. My wife’s American but I think this invention – British engineering, British architecture, British art – is very strong. I’m thrilled to be working in London for once. I’ve done all my work abroad – the concert halls, the bridges, everything – and it’s really nice to work in England again. I did a lot of work here in the Seventies but not really in the last 20 years.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Lakshmi Mittal - main sponsor of the structure, Anish Kapoor and at the far right Cecil Balmond

Why did you leave Sri Lanka?
I left because there were ethnic problems and my father was the wrong kind of mix. He was mixed race and Christian: part of the privileged minority that the British handed over to in 1948. My great-great grandfather was English. The Balmond name comes from Somerset. I did a genealogy search and there are hundreds of Balmond’s buried around Tiverton. My father went out with the railways in the mid-19th century and intermarried. And that’s why we are not pure race. As nationalism grew, those people were put under pressure: why were they privileged? Because they spoke good English. English is my mother tongue as Singhalese is. We spoke English at home but Singhalese elsewhere.

I was in university in Sri Lanka and I thought I needed to move so I went to Africa. I did half a degree in chemistry and mathematics in Nigeria. The most insightful teacher I ever had in mathematics was a Senegalese professor there. It was a crazy serendipitous thing. I was very lucky. My teachers in maths were always very gifted. I had a beautiful Indian teach me maths when I was younger.

When did you first come to Britain?
I came to Britain in 1963 and realised that I really wanted to go and work in Africa. I did my degree here and went back to Africa promptly, did three years there and then the Biafran War happened so I came back and joined Arup here, and did some postgraduate work at Imperial College.

What was Nigeria like?
It was a fantastic time to be in Nigeria. I had a real cultural awakening there. I grew up in an a very refined Asian culture – which is 3,000 years old. Nigeria was raw, powerful, drumming. It was the perfect age to be there. It was a great time in my life and I’ve kept my friends from then. It’s a shame it got so crazy there.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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