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Cecil Balmond and the Bonfire of the Vanities
[June 12, 2009] -Two global superstars and Chicago architectural virgins come to the city to join the centenary celebration of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago.
This is an article I should have completed eight months ago. It concerns the most brilliant man I’ve yet to meet, the engineer, architect and polymath Cecil Balmond. A striking exhibition of his work, Cecil Balmond: Solid Void, is entering its final week at the Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place, where it closes next Saturday, June 20th. You will regret it if you miss it.
Even after eight months, what follows is ultimately, a series of preliminary notes on Balmond, his work and thought, within the context of the practice and perception of architecture as it has dramatically evolved since the economic meltdown of late last year.
When, in February, a raging fire, set off by illegal New Years’ fireworks, turned the still-to-open 31-story TVCC building, housing a super-luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, into a burnt-out hulk, it was seen by many as the signpost of the end of an era. The hotel was the less-known component of the complex designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas for the Chinese television monopoly, dominated by the sloping, interlocking towers of the new CCTV headquarters, among the most publicized designs of the last decade.
Many of the locals saw the conflagration as a bad omen for the incoming Year of the Ox. Others saw it as a comeuppance for the hubris of their city’s orgy of massive eye candy constructions for the 2008 Olympics. In the words of one satisfied blogger, it was like “seeing a bully fall down.”
In America, there has been a similar reaction to last fall’s economic implosion. Architecture critics who were usually on the first plane out to review the latest wonder from Hadid, Nouvel, Gehry and their ilk now celebrate the death of “stararchitecture.” New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff proclaims “the end of one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history.” Self-denunciation becomes the order of the day, with editor Robert Ivy confessing in an editorial with title Death of the Icon that his “Architectural Record has been party to celebrating the iconic projects of the past decade . . . .” The new Little Red Book is being written by people like Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, who declares “We’ve hit a point where the architecture of excess and the architecture of relevance are set to collide. Given the global crises around us, I know which side I’m rooting for.” Sackcloth and ashes, the new black.
Somehow what pops into my head is Laurence Olivier’s Crassus laying out the new order to Gracchus, the amiably corrupt, democratic senator played by Charles Laughton, as written by Dalton Trumbo for Stanley Kubrick’s film, Spartacus: “The enemies of the state are known. Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have compiled. Tomorrow, they will learn the cost of their folly, their treason.”
Fortunately, today incarceration is no longer required; only ostracism.
And where does the name of Cecil Balmond appear on the list of ringleaders of the corrupt order? Could it be anywhere other than first? As one of the most brilliant engineers of his time, Balmond, a key figure at the international engineering powerhouse Arup Partners, has been a chronic enabler of a rogues gallery of serial creators of stararchitecture: Rem Koolhaas, Álvaro Siza, Toyo Ito, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry – need I go on? Without Balmond’s path-breaking engineering, many of their most radical visions could never have been realized. Architect and writer Charles Jencks has called him “the power behind the throne.”
Balmond’s life and career have been a remarkable journey across continents and cultures. He was born in 1943 in Sri Lanka to a prominent family that was forced into exile at a time of ethnic strife, thereafter settling in Nigeria.
“I was brought up in a rich background,” recalls Balmond. “My childhood house was up in the forest, on a beautiful mountain side. It was full of green, verdant nature, strong rains. I had very informative years in Africa. Much harsher. Harder. More powerful, limitless, in a way. Sri Lanka felt bounded and grounded and had been a little island culture.”
Eventually, Balmond would study engineering in England, and, after a return to Nigeria abruptly ended with the 1967 Biafra civil war, would wind up working in Arup’s office in London, where he eventually became the head of the firm’s Advanced Geometry Unit, a think tank for cutting edge engineering.
Yet the Cecil Balmond I met appeared anything but daunting. Compact, soft spoken, with a spare white beard and short cropped hair on either side of his bald forehead, he has the countenance and manner of a patient monk.
H-edge “kind of aggregates and grows across the floor,” says Balmond. It creates rooms within rooms – some literally at the level of a hedge, others up to ten feet high, in the Graham’s entry foyer and first floor spaces, which, in the words of the Balmond’s official description, “you can walk through . . . or be trapped by . . . The chains glisten, the solids scatter. Steel chains and aluminum cutouts express moments of doubt and certainty.” The leaf-like aluminum plates seem to hang down from the ceiling from invisible threads, but they actually rise from the floor, suspended in tension, like the deck of a bridge, from the thin steel chain to which they’re tethered. “You start to realize the chains just stand up,” Balmond told me. “It’s counter intuitive to your conviction that gravity roots us to the ground, downwards. Here, something starts to climb upwards.”
Balmond sees it as a variation of the “Indian Rope Trick, ” which the Graham describes as “age old”, but actually, as related in a sidebar accompanying this article, has a Chicago connection that suggests a much more recent origin.
When Balmond first saw Madlener House, the Graham’s Gold Coast home, “my heart sank a bit. I thought, Good Lord, it’s a house. It doesn’t have a set exhibition space. So then I thought, okay, I’ll just inhabit the house and maximize its potential. There’s an interplay going on that I found fascinating once I got in.” And there’s a sort of magic in the way the cool industrial metal insinuates itself in the warm wood and Prairie School detailing of the Graham’s interior. “In the evening,” Balmond says of one part of H-edge, “in this place, this room, it’s a lovely ghostly thing that just seems to grow here.”
And this, dear Reader, is where I crashed on the rocks on which I have remained mentally beached for the past eight months. My terror of advanced mathematics dates back to the day when I was called to blackboard in high school algebra and, in the stuff of recurring Freudian nightmares, had absolutely no idea what to do there. (Studying probably would have helped.).
Cecil Balmond’s first book was a novel with the title, Number 9: The Search for the Sigma Code, because, well, that is what it is about. A young boy, Enjil, must undergo an examination, standing at a blackboard (I’m breaking out in flop sweat, already) before a panel of imperious, crimson-robed elders, to explicate the answer to his self-assigned challenge, “What is the fixed point of the wind?” In the process, all manner of arithmetical puzzles and calculations are posited in which the number 9 somehow usually tends to be the final answer. When these equations are plotted, they also produce forms of great beauty.
“I was watching my kids on their calculators” Balmond says in explaining why he wrote the book. “They don’t even know what number four is – it’s just a digit on the calculator . And before that all passed out and got extinguished, I played with the numbers and thought, what do I get from them, because I’m assuming that they’re just these ciphers. Then I found something, and that was the sheer delight. I found something I didn’t know existed and that’s why I brought the book out, to tell people how rich the very ordinary is, right under our nose, of these numbers.”
For his first twenty years at Arup, he assimilated his prodigious talents to the Western ideal of order which found its expression in the rectilinear grids of columns and beams that formed the aesthetic of a modern architecture dominated by the ideas of Mies van der Rohe.
“A lot of Miesian scholars,” Balmond observes, “say his best work was before he came to America, that America ruined him, because he started the grid and off you go with all the grids. He got trapped in it.”
“But if you read him, he said he believed that all designers should try and get the maximum out of the essence of what the technology of the time could do. And I think that’s so true. I think the Greeks did that, I think the Renaissance did that. Brunellschi did that- the best way he could build his domes. They were all polymaths, so they were architect , engineer, designer all in one.”
“What I wanted to bring to architecture, for a long time really, was the inherent poetics in form which I though the modernist tradition stripped out. This is, of course post-rationalizing, but I think being brought up in a multi-cultural place – even the Hindu gods had many arms – there were multiplicities. They were ironed out of me when I got trained in the West. I was a rational being. I did engineering, as a hard science. Eventually, I went back. I had to undo my education, which is a crazy thing, you know, and I started doing it by playing games with myself. I just asked simple things about where we all start our design.”
At a 2006 panel organized by 306090, Balmond explained, “Architects tend to think of forms being made, in a way, from the outside, like an abstract imposition on space, but . . . . you actually see the creation of new architectures which are occurring inside of the space from the individual geometries which come together . . . Form is dynamic. It’s not about shape, that’s literal. Form has something to do with the configuration in space of connectivity. It is the rhythm of those connectivities that provoke deeper resonances, the feeling of deeper archetypes. Form is very complex because it has different layers; it’s never a one statement thing. One of my tests for form is in the tension between surface and volume, it’s the battle between the volumetric feel of the spaces and the surface of those spaces.”
Geometric algorithms are Balmond’s essential tool for generating form. (And if you’re intimidated by the very concept of algorithms, he’ll remind you that a dance is nothing more than an algorithm of movement.) A prime example of his approach can be seen in his collaboration with Toyo Ito in creating the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Park, a temporary gallery designed each year by a different architect. Balmond began by drawing a square. He then drew a line from the middle of each side to a third of a way down the adjacent side, and then joined those lines to form a rotated copy of the original square, whose edges now extended beyond those of the first square. This algorithm was repeated until a continuous series of concentric squares created a intricate mesh of structure defining series of solids and voids that folded down, like a pizza box with the corners cut away, to form the ceiling and walls of a structure that was, at once, light, open, and a delight to the eye. “Complex doesn’t mean difficult,” says Balmond. “You can appreciate it.”
The final room in the Solid Void exhibition consists of Rainbow, long, parallel rows of panels, with animations and videos, demonstrating how “From the beginning of architecture, numbers, geometry, proportion and ideas on equilibrium have been present in the making of form.” Balmond says “It’s a compression of the big show I had in Denmark, where we had a 120 foot corridor, how the Greeks started with just simple dots in the sand and they created algorithms”, through Da Vinci, the golden rectangle (“that was dead and buried until I came along – I use it a lot.”), fractals, equilibrium, Francis Bacon, Braque and Picasso – “multi-realities of different perspectives.” It sounds rather dry, and easy to pass up, but actually it is the heart of the show, and the most direct exposition of Balmond’s thinking. The videos are engaging and expressive, including one showing how German physicist and musician Ernest Chladni (did I mention that Balmond originally wanted to be a musician, and made his living as one for a time early in his life?) pioneered analyzing sound through mathematics, through a demonstration of taking a bow to a metal plate covered in sand, which re-orders the sand in a way that makes the sound waves visible.
What saves Balmond from being the kind of soulless technician usually associated with people creating art through calculations is that he is, at the end of the day, a poet. Just as with numbers in The Number 9, he describes the process of model making – the room dominated by Danzer is also full of models of Balmond’s work – in terms of storytelling:
That same sense of narrative has marked Balmond’s 2006 debut as an architect in a footbridge he designed for Coimbra, Portugal, which shifts in the middle to give the impression to those crossing it that it doesn’t reach to the other side.
“A lot of people who might want to critical of my methods,” recalls Balmond, “say, oh, that’s something mechanical. With design you just think about it, and do it. But it’s not that, because I always think about the aesthetic. That bridge in Coimbra is a classic – I sat there, had no idea, had never done a bridge. We had very little money - $3 million bucks to go 600 feet. I mean, it’s not easy and the Portuguese engineer, he said, well you know you’ll have to just do what can we do for $3 million. I just sat at the bank alone and I just kept thinking, what do I want to do? And I walk from there and look at the old city and go across this water, and the river was very lazy and slow, and I just had this crazy notion then, and this is where you take some guts to go with your craziness. Had I had that thought 20 years ago, I would probably had dismissed it as just crazy”.
“I drew a curve, the very first sketch, drew another curve, and they didn’t meet, and I said, OK, I’ll just make a plaza in the middle, Then what? And then I thought, the elevation, I’d like it to be very low, like skipping stones as a kid, and so gradually, it was what I wanted. And then I realized that what I had done was to step aside in space [contradicting] all the tradition of the bridge, which is a flat thing with hand rails. [But] if I went and then stepped aside , that would look really willful, arbitrary: ‘what is he doing? Here is a bridge that should go straight.’ So I thought, to step aside I have to have some feelings in me, so when I get there, it’s natural, and then I sketched out a series of handrails. “
Those handrails sit upon a continuous balustrade made up of clear fractal panels alternating in pastel blue, pink, green and yellow. “Every three feet,” says Balmond, “the color changes.” Rather than a straight line, the handrails weave subtly in and out. The effect, as described by Balmond, is that the hand following the rail experiences the bridge, not as the usual endless linear trajectory, but as a sequence of segments that break down crossing the bridge into a series of discrete, individual spaces (“this is your handrail”) that slows down the pace of crossing to encourage you to take a moment to savor the sense of a very specific place, “a slightly Arcadian setting on the edge of an ancient city.”
I always used to think of mathematics as determinist and reductive: here are the laws, here are the rules, here are results, which always compress down to these few essentials. Balmond also sees mathematics, architecture and form as expressions of order, but an order that is unceasingly dynamic. “Equilibrium,” he writes, “is not static but dynamic.”
Balmond’s architecture, and the iconic buildings his engineering skills have made possible, are, deliberately, perverse. They delight in taking something impossible – twin skyscrapers that lean against each other, a bridge that doesn’t appear to reach the opposite bank, slanting columns, slabs with no apparent means of support – and making it a reality.
Truth be told, vanity, the compulsion to stand out - and above – through one’s work may also play no small part. And yes, as some of the “socially responsible” architects currently feeling their oats might argue, in the farthest reaches of excess this can veer towards pure narcissism and, in the context of finite resources, inequality and injustice. But as Balmond himself observes, without the stamp of the individual, the collective and the universal oppress; without surprise we cease to see.
“It’s like a walk on the side of a mountain,” he says. “It’s misty and you’re losing your way a bit, and then the mist clears, and you suddenly find a new path and you see it for the first time fresh. I like the idea of delight and surprise . It surprises you and then you interrogate, because if you’re surprised, you’re given new life, to think. If you assume you know everything, and the prejudice kicks in and it’s always there, there’s nothing new in life. It’s what it is. You see everything as you expect it. I’d like to give that a jolt and you can’t do that unless you can engage the eye. If you give a jolt, you could just be sensationalist – a lot of people do that in modern art – and I don’t want to do that. I’d like, if I jolt, if it works, that you get involved, in some way, very superficial or deeply, it doesn’t matter, but you adjust.”
“What do we do it for, all of this? It’s not for Martians . It’s not for robots or computers. It’s for us, you and me, right? And I think we engage better when there’s something personal in there. If you’re a first novelist, use the first person to write, because you keep attention: I did this, I went there. Only when you get more sophisticated do you write in the third person, if you can handle it. The Beatles, “I want you” was their first hit, “You want me.”
“So I think in that sense, you know, how can one explain the love of storytelling still? I read a lot of fiction, I read a lot of trashy books. You just keep turning the page to see what happens next.”
I leave you with an account, related by Levi Dudte in the Harvard Independent, of an April conference on Ecological Urbanism at the GSD, involving an exchange between the great architect and designer Andrea Branzi and the equally accomplished environmental engineer Mattias Schuler, of Transsolar. Branzi used the occasion to attack fundamentalist environmentalists for often compounding the very problems they seek to solve through smug oversimplication. This was met by a challenge from Schuler, who, according to Dudte, “asked Branzi whether, in order to secure our future survival on this planet, the human race and its architects should surely prioritize economy over beauty. The white-bearded Italian peered dimly at the frozen, silent audience and uttered his assured response: ‘No.’”
That one word gives me hope. I know which side I’m rooting for.
© 2009 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.
The Indian Rope Trick:
While there are countless references to the trick going all the way back to the time of Marco Polo, Peter Lamont writes in his book, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, that none of then appear to pre-date the Tribune hoax.