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On the publication of Cecil Balmond's new monograph Informal,
Lucy Bullivant appraises Balmond's contribution to architecture and engineering.
Publ. in Surface Consciousness (AD) Mar/Apr 2003.
To be told that 'your work is so invisible' by a fellow professional, and take it as a huge compliment seems strange. Yet when it comes to Cecil Balmond - the London-based, Sri Lankan structural engineer, European president of Ove Arup & Partners, the international firm of consulting engineers, for the past thirty years, and Saarinen Professor at Yale - the remark means that his original ideas about form have influenced his high-level collaborations with world famous architects - without disturbing their egos. In fact, his collaborators queue to sing his praises. "Perhaps as only a non-European could", says leading Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, "Cecil has destabilised and even toppled a tradition of Cartesian stability".
These descriptions suggest a quietly subversive role for Balmond, a polymath who is passionate about the role maths and music play in the creative overlap between science and art. His organising skills in transforming line into plan and topology are much sought after, and as far-sighted in design terms, perhaps, as Kandinsky's point, line and plane art works were in the 1920s. Providing the engineering wizardry behind some of the most advanced architecture in Western cities, his work includes James Stirling & Michael Wilford's 1984 Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, notably its complex collage of column/wall intersections, Rem Koolhaas's all steel City Hall in the Hague (1988) and Kunsthal in Rotterdam, where structure is treated as episodes, 'a catalogue of juxtapositions', Congrexpo in Lille (1994), a trio of spaces with a hybrid, rather than a macro, solution in roof of timber and steel, the Jussieu Library in Paris, completed in 1996, with its spiralling floor ramps and permeable facade, and the Maison de Floriac in Bordeaux for its disabled owner, a new twist on the floating box.
For Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum in Manchester (2001), he helped to realise the building's structural rationale of structured steel shells clad in concrete, each supporting each other in interconnecting shards, work, and for the proposed Spiral building at the V & A, there is the prospect of a three-dimensional wrap with self-stabilising walls with a fractal tile pattern. The bond between the architect and the engineer produces a consummation; however, it is hard for outsiders to truly gauge who did what. That is the art, as well as the libel risk, making his work a real balancing act. For Marsyas, the huge pvc membrane sculpture by the artist Anish Kapoor currently filling the turbine hall of the Tate Modern in London, Balmond causes the engineering to be invisible, building it into the structure which is the extraordinary art work that results, to which people respond immediately as they crane their necks, "How did they do that?".
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Balmond is equally happy to work on small projects as he is heavyweight urban interventions, such as the intimate cube pavilion designed with Toyo Ito for the Serpentine Gallery in London last summer, Meanwhile his list of forthcoming building commissions is sizeable. He is consulting engineer on Koolhaas's Seattle Library, its floating slabs of programme held together by a diagonal meshed seismic system, and, further in the future, a major scheme for media headquarters in China; UN Studio's Music School in Graz, Austria, which will feature a spiral that winds longitudinally, overlapping itself, and then there is his transport interchange at Arnhem in the Netherlands planned for completion in 2006, set to be the most ambitious demonstration of Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos's adherence to seamless structures. In his interventions on Libeskind's new Denver Art Museum and Jewish Museum in San Francisco, each in their own way explores the interdependence of forms and the interplay of solids and their disappearance.
Now the structural engineer Libeskind calls 'a thinker, a mystic' has written a book revealing the ideas behind his work. Informal, a small hardback with the weight and proportions of a brick (frankly, I was hoping for pop-up demonstrations, and less weight, but maybe the light, physically emergent book is Balmond's next one), is a sandwich of 'manifesto, theory and templates' and sensibly argues that architecture has to change in relation to society. Just as there is a wider breakdown in fixed ideologies, a more informal approach is called for in the built environment. 'Informal' for Balmond means natural patterns and energies must be coopted into building, to avoid standardisation and creeping soullessness. Koolhaas is thoroughly convinced: through his work, he claims in the introduction, engineering can now enter a more experimental and emotional territory, one that helps architecture transcend its currently ornamental status.
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Taking Balmond's non-linear approach, layering and folding form usurp the place of Newtonian mechanics, repetitive rhythm and hierarchy. It's an architectural vision of the complexity theory. "The classical ideas of form we've all inherited, of symmetry, plan, boundary, I'm challenging that whole basis", he says. "Why does space have to be container-like and neutered to house works of art? Instead of the minimal Modern, he opts for 'layered and more complex forms - not new, just look at the brick patterning on Victorian facades, for instance - which give a deeper reading". The design process, Balmond explains, embraces more - as desirable and different, referring to the remarks of the Nobel laureate and scientist Philip Anderson, that when you add more information or energy or mass to something, its system jumps into a new pattern of organisation. However the sum must be digested, to avoid pure collage. Don't be deceived: "What is an improvisation is in fact a kernel of stability, which in turn sets sequences that reach equilibrium", says Balmond. Opportunistic, but not ad-hocist, his approach gives rise to ambiguity as one definition of an intense exploration of 'the intermediate', and simultaneity, in which several equilibriums coexist, but never hierarchy.
Informal certainly employs a form of abstract mantra only a true cultural catalyst can get away with. It places the charting of the design process of ten of his most creative collaborations with architects, shown step by step in tiny sketches, in a metaphysical perspective the terms of which many architects would feel uneasy about arguing for, such as their level of pragmatism, at least in the UK, anyway. Calling the creative dialogue between architecture and engineering 'the writing of new stories', he reveals how he makes shapes that defy gravity, are beautiful, but also pragmatic and relate to their context. For instance, 'structure is flow' in Ben van Berkel of UN Studio's Arnhem interchange. The task being to integrate and make compatible three separate layers of programme, concourse area, basement car park grid and commercial offices, Balmond and van Berkel avoided organising space in vertical slices, and generated a mobility of plan with inclined V-walls. To keep the curvature as a 'natural consequence of the concept', the connecting roof and floors are merged into one network.
The tag of engineer as invisible creator doesn't appear to disturb Balmond; however he clearly enjoys writing about the design process. "A lot of engineering assumes comprehensivity. It wants to be correct so it's hard to see a strategy that may have evolved, for instance, with cas-
cading load, where the structural systems are carried by each other, and are interdependent, or non-hierarchical, like Sydney Opera House". The shared nature of the creativity behind such a creation is hardly part of the media narrative about the architectural star system; that's why Balmond's comments are worth paying attention to.
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He argues that we are now in a period that, like the early Renaissance, or the early 20th century, when professional barriers are breaking down as specialists exchange roles. A revolution in built form is slowly developing that will hugely affect the appearance of cities in the future. "We have not changed in 2000 years how we see form - as column and beam - but it is changing now. We are poised to go into a new paradigm of geometry". So what effects does the breaking down of Cartesian form usher in? A sense of movement, a certain sensation, which you have in Koolhaas's villa in Bordeaux where the structure breaks with symmetry, and instead you have concepts of 'slip, jump and overlap'. This is not high tech architecture, or purely sculpture masquerading as building, but about bringing a lyrical, metaphysical quality to the organisation of form and space. In this sense, Balmond is in the tradition of the brilliant Italian bridge builder, Nervi rather than following the iconic, early modern aesthetic of Eiffel. Clients have said to him: "I can't understand what's going on, but I know what it is, and it's joyful".
A canopy in concrete at the Lisbon Expo '98 site for architect Alvaro Siza, for instance, has an equilibrium so simple, it is like a Zen temple, one that hovers above the ground like a spacecraft. "People don't know there's 2,000 tonnes of concrete, but it's only 20 cm thick". With its taut curve, it splices substance with air, its structure 'a metaphysic in the science of architecture', flying like a bird.
Admittedly a dutiful 'problem solver' in his early career after graduating from Imperial College, he soon began 'posing questions that were unanswerable'. Balmond's mind is, as his collaborators rely upon, 'wired to be subversive' and function as an inventor. "People are excited by the organisation of form in, say, the great cathedrals, as there's a mystery seeded to it. Each time you visit the dense field of columns of Cordoba's mosque, for instance, you see different things". The intrigue of his work lies in the interdependence of the rational and the totally systematic with the mystical. "I don't want people to think I do abnormal buildings. I can't remain poetic on the drawing, all the laws of physics have to apply". His emerging 'informal' repertoire encourages even the sceptic that there is power in such intermediacy, and art and science are not really in conflict, but more meaningfully in love with each other.
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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