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Forming the Informal: A Conversation with Cecil Balmond

This article appeared in Dialogue, March 2003, No. 67

Cecil Balmond was born in Sri Lanka in 1943 and studied structural engineering at the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine.  Since 1968 he has been a member of Arup and is now a main board director and the Chairman of the Europe & Building Division.  Balmond also lectures and teaches at architectural schools in Europe and the United States.  He has served as the Eero Saarinen Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Architecture and the Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Balmond first gained international attention for his work with James Stirling and Michael Wilford on the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart.  Innovative projects that bear his imprint include the Chemnitz Stadium with Peter Kulka and Ulrich Königs, the extension of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with Daniel Libeskind, the Portuguese Pavilion with Alvaro Siza, and the Bordeaux Villa and the Kunsthal with Rem Koolhaas.  He has recently completed a temporary pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery with Toyo Ito and a sculpture at the Tate Modern Museum with Anish Kapoor. 

Balmond is a designer who believes in the fundamental commensurateness of science and art.  His first book, Number 9 - The Search for the Sigma Code, unveils the mysterious properties of the number 9 and shows the uncanny way it occupies in the organization of numbers. However, unlike other books on numbers, it is more than just insights on primes, squares, golden section…etc.  Balmond seeks out the organizations in numbers and ties them to the making of forms and patterns.  Numerous diagrams are produced in the book to demonstrate the potency of numbers for designers. 

Balmond’s recent book, Informal, is a collection of manifesto, theory, templates, diary, and case studies on his collaborations with architects on some of the most innovative architecture in recent times.

MF  How did you become an engineer?  How come you didn’t become an architect? 

CB  I basically took to engineering because I like the universality of science, geometry, and numbers.  These things are irrespective of style and they are just there.  I kind of see them as being more powerful than anything else.  I have always been a designer and was always good with art – when I was young, I won a national prize for an ideal home design.  I never made a distinction between architecture and engineering.   I just like to design.  When I went to university, engineering was the choice to do something in the world of design from a scientific basis.  Gradually, as I matured, my architectural sensibilities came forward again.  I think as an architect about space and design but also with the skill of an engineer.  So when I collaborate with Koolhaas, Libeskind, and all these people over the years, they engage with my architectural sensibilities about engineering possibility.  I think that’s one of the reasons they like to work with me.  But, I call myself an engineer in the broad sense as opposed to an architect.  My fundamental interests are in geometry and numbers.  The roots of geometry and the symbolic notion of numbers are very powerful concepts for me.  Numbers are also instigators of proportion and that is building space in a completely abstract way.   Architecture and engineering overlap in the abstract.  I believe that structural engineering is a catalyst to architecture.  Columns and beams become very important devices.  A column punctuates a space.  So even a single point and its adjacent relationship is really important.  Therefore a column is not something I just assume.  There is also a higher interpretation of a column as a vortex and a beam as a shock absorber, metaphorical and dynamical notions.   In that sense the concerns are architectural but the overall expertise is in engineering. 

MF  Your new book, Informal, will undoubtedly influence many young designers.  Who were the influences on you when you were young?

CB  In a sense I didn’t have anyone in particular that influenced me and whom I try to copy or emulate.  My heroes in a way are Archimedes and Newton.  Their explorations inspire me as a concept.   What intrigued me was the element of discovery.  How did someone like Newton find these things?  What was the process of concentration by which he discovered things?  I am also interested in the dialogue between Plato and Aristotle and their different world views – the ideals of Plato and the more dynamic view of Aristotle.   These were the things that I was reading when I was about 17 or 18 years old.  In terms of my work, I tried not to be influenced.   I suppose one person I delighted a lot in was Gustav Eiffel.  There were also Buckminster Fuller and Pier Luigi Nervi.  I didn’t try to copy anyone, never had that desire.  These were great people and references but that was it.  As you see in my new book, I needed to find my own language and philosophy.  I believe engineering needs a philosophical base.  There is hardly any philosophy in engineering, whereas architecture is full of philosophy.  I thought engineers didn’t have a voice.  As I am stepping out of the normal Cartesian framework, I was interested in evolving a methodology, technique and philosophy that give a breath to everything.  It was not just a whimsical theory.  The book is about my work in the past nine years.  It is a progression of my ideas from a simple tectonic box for Bordeaux to the more fluid form at Arnhem.   In the heart of the book is a section on pure theory.  And at the end 24 pages of speculations that open a future door, so the book doesn’t finish there.   The next one will extend the theory and convert some of the speculations into practice.  This book is a stepping stone to another.             

MF  How did you join Arup?  Most people’s image of Arup is some form of high-tech architecture, such as the collaborations with Renzo Piano and Norman Foster.  However, you don’t seem to be terribly interested in high-tech architecture.  In fact, part of your work is a critique of high-tech architecture.

CB  Arup is a great contemporary firm of design.  When Arup himself started, there was a relationship with Berthold  Lubetkin.  Later on my colleagues developed relationships with Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw, and Michael Hopkins.  And yes my firm has been very much a part of the development of high-tech architecture.  The story of Arup’s influence in architecture as a constant source of inspiration has never been told properly.  High-tech architecture had its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s when architecture was being caught up in a mechanistic machine-like image.  England was the leading nation of high-tech architecture and still is.  But one concern I had about high-tech was the effort spent on the details, which became more and more effort prone; it was like a fetish.  The detail was the emphasis and the principles of the organization of structure were less focused upon.  I felt this was limiting because where could it lead to, more detail?  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, we saw the development of fractal mechanics, chaos theory, and the rise in complexity.  There surfaced in me a fundamental recognition that the world is complex.  To accept complexity and to face the intractable was a major revelation for me.  Therefore the structure that is explicit, comprehensive, and exposed, prompts me to ask the question, where or what is the architecture?  In high-tech design, the architecture is limited by structure.  But if the structural configuration is not simplistic, but complex, then my belief is that the architecture has potential to be richer, an art, a mystery, rather than an explicit machine.  Perhaps this is my own sensibility coming into bear, I am an engineer who doesn’t mind if the structure is not seen, or even not understood.  What I do care for is that structural configuration opens a bigger interpretation of architecture.  The fact that people don’t talk about the structure does not bother me.  Each of the architects I worked with has a different take on space and I promote the structural possibility of those spaces and extend the possible. The ambiguity of structure intrigues me more than explicitness.  In that sense I have taken a stance that’s different from, a high-tech insistence on a comprehensive structure; for me that’s too limiting.  Architecture has a much wider hypothesis.  In the generic sense that’s what interests me.

MF  How did you come to call your theory the informal?  In many ways your work is actually quite formal as you advocate certain rules to generate forms.   

CB  This is a tricky question.  The problem is I wanted a word to describe my approach and later my convictions that the starting points of creativity are not formal mappings of a complete solution.  Old systems have fixed centers and are linear and hierarchical.  I believe in simultaneity.  For me order is not things radiating around one center.  Order is on many different levels and isn’t hierarchical and formal in the English sense of the word.  It is opposite to formal, hence informal.  Informal is a loose word and I began to use this word around 1992.  You are absolutely right in that I actually advocate certain formalistic processes.  The original title was in(form)al.  Form is contained in the word informal.  Form is a formalistic process of making.  Hence, informal has various levels of meaning for me.  It does represent for me a modern dynamic.  It is interesting that there was a movement around 1935 called the informe led by Georges Bataille.  But for him it was about formlessness and entropy.  I am against that.  I am for starting from initial motifs and making form in a generative process.  I sort of like the contradiction because informal is not classifiable.  Informal is non-linear and complex.  Embracing this complexity and not insisting on self-contained categories of definition is part of it, so I stick with the word.

MF  I suppose the first informal project is the Kunsthal that you did with Rem Koolhaas.  How did you and Koolhaas start to collaborate? 

CB  We started in 1985.  The first major project was the town hall in Hague.  I found Koolhaas to be like the frontier man of architecture.  I found him refreshing.  The whole attitude of non-conformity interested both of us.  We did a lot of influential projects that were all unbuilt: Agadir, ZKM, and Jussieu.  All of them had a special language of structure.  I found for the first time an architect who was delighted in what structure can do: leaning, or sliding the columns pass each other in the Kunsthal.  The simple move in the Kunsthal liberated the exhibition space.  Little things like that delighted Rem and he was open to all of that.  Once he realized what I was doing he used that to an architectural advantage.         

MF  The Kunsthal you did with Rem Koolhaas is the seminal project as it outlines many ideas of the informal.  In the auditorium, instead of making the column stand up straight, you lean the columns to be perpendicular to the slope of the space.  In the book you said the lean created a large force that needed to be resisted.  Is there a trade off between making a structure be dynamic in space and the efficiency in the performance of structure?        

CB  The trick to good structural engineering is to use everything that is there in a full dimensional sense.  The Kunsthal has a floor slab at the bottom of floor 3 that went across the road to connect to another.  This short building is like an abutment so I knew I could thrust on that building with the lean of the columns.  The short building would still be there if the columns were straight, but it wouldn’t have been doing anything.  If its there, why not use it? 

MF  The Kunsthal is a juxtaposition of many local conditions.  Is the informal simply a collage of local conditions without an overall idea? 

CB  The informal by definition does not have an overall idea.  In a philosophical sense you cannot prejudge.  That’s the joy of the Kunsthal.  The language of the lecture theater is completely different from the language of the exhibition hall.  I don’t think you can plan on the outset to think that way of the final plan and make it work; it is a strange thing.  In the informal, single ideas and the local influence pervade more and runs throughout.  There are clashes in these ideas that give intangible overtones, and that’s why the space is more interesting.  Rem told me once that he took someone there to look at the Kunsthal, and the person said this building feels like it is about structure.  I was so delighted because the structure is a catalyst within Rem’s take on dynamic space.  You have to be brave to let the local impulses collide and not try to contain them.  As I have said in the manifesto in the book, our impulse is to trap order.  The classical way of working is to create a planned order, which is a huge effort.  It sounds like the informal is lazy, but it is not.  It is an evolving process.  The Kunsthal is a dynamic space.  You feel space is not dumb but working tectonically in a dynamic sense. 

MF  Are you interested in using structure as signs?  There are ambiguities to your structures and they produce various meanings or make references to other things than structure.  For instance, the three columns at the entrance at the Kunsthal show no evidence of connections.  They just seem to be suspended between the floor and the ceiling.  One of the columns is in a cruciform form that refers to Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion.  There are also the shifted columns in the lower level that is decorated as tree trunks to reference the park outside.  The red structure in the upper gallery is also purposely ambiguous.   

CB  As I said in the text about the thin red line of the upper gallery, is it structure, is it decorative, or is it an architectural motif?  Unless you are an engineer, you can be forgiven to think that it is just a red ribbon of nothing.  A kind of functionalism of structure is totally denied.  I like the idea of structural elements being enigmatic.  The three columns with different materials in the Kunsthal give the whole momentum to the threshold.  I don’t think it is deliberate for these structures to be seen as signs.  But if people read the structure as signifiers, that’s no harm.  Someone may see three columns put together in a clashing way, others might see them as signifiers.  It doesn’t matter.  It gives the interest to the eyes and produces the turbulence, which I say defines “threshold”. 

MF  In the book you criticized certain use of the computer to generate form as gestural and without an inner logic.  However, when you use a certain algorithm or some internal structure, aren’t you choosing algorithms based on also aesthetics, intuition, and experience?

CB  Since the computer gives us unparallel power and we can do anything, there are a lot of architects who just make shapes that are then hastily supported by structure.  The shapes are basically cladding.  Sometimes that’s all right, but it is limiting.  I prefer shapes that are governed by some interior logic and are structures themselves.  The only way to answer your question is to talk about my teaching in the studio at the architectural schools at Yale and Harvard.  If you look at the work of the students in my studio based on the methodologies of algorithm that I have adopted, they are completely different from the other studios.  Studios that are led by a famous architect, produce works that have a similarity to that famous architect; the work is gestural and stylistic.  In the hands of the masters they are fine.  But having an abstract start pushes into your personal subjectivity and gives it uniqueness to the search.  All I can say is my students’ works are so distinctly different that I have faith in the system again.  The generic that the algorithm puts forward is a wide range from the chaotic to the symmetrical.  I agree that in the end it is subjective and you do pick things based on your aesthetics sense.  But the aesthetic sense gets primed more and more. Your intuition becomes sharper and you raise your awareness.  In the beginning your aesthetic take is narrow and as you work with algorithm, it widens.  I find it’s a strange and interesting thing.              

MF  You think of geometry as an animation and speak of the informal as a freeze frame of the animation.  When and how do you decide to stop?

CB  I stop when it surprises me.  Then I have to learn.  How to cope with material and structure and all the limitation of the pragmatic things that challenges the art?  That’s why I validate this process.  It constantly challenges the poor vocabulary we have – the straight steel beam, concrete, and glass.  It also challenges the concept of architectural program.  Fundamentally I am interested in organizational systems and some of it comes into architecture.  Recently I designed a pavilion with Toyo Ito at the Serpentine Gallery, which was a pure geometric algorithm.  It was a joyful experience and everyone who went there just loved it.  People said to me that they don’t know exactly what I did but they know there is something going on with the geometry.  Knowing there is a structure, hidden or felt, to the random gives pleasure.

MF  Why is the use of the metaphor important in your working process?  In the book you talked about trading metaphors with Libeskind.  With Kapoor you talked about art’s ability to carry the metaphor.  How do you use the metaphor? 

CB  My fundamental interest is in pattern.  At the end of the book, the last template is about patterns.  At one extreme is pattern realized, a concrete certainty; at the other extreme a pattern has metaphorical qualities.  One feeds off the other.  When I look at patterns as an abstraction there are metaphors that drive them.  It could be as simple “words” as density or “fluctuation”.  The metaphor is important in the sense that it offers a metaphysic.  I am always trying to give the materials a spirit by letting a metaphor run through them, whether it is a line, a point grid, or a wall.  Metaphors are important sometimes just as something to aim for.  Like in the Bordeaux House, Rem said, let’s make a box fly.  That’s a metaphor.  In the Chemnitz Stadium, Peter Kulka said let’s have a cloud.  I don’t believe in the literalness of the metaphor.  They are just goals to try to raise the game.  I don’t like to let anything fall into an assumption.  It is so easy to just repeat yourself all the time with a successful formula.  I suppose metaphors are a way to check against my own tendency to do that.  Metaphor is important because it is a function of pattern. 

MF  Perhaps we can talk a bit about pattern in terms of your previous book, Number 9.  While you are interested in theories about numbers, you are more interested in making patterns with numbers.  Why did you write the book prior to Informal?  

CB  I didn’t want to write about my work first because I wanted to broader interest.  Number 9 is abstract interest, and is really about the engineering and architecture of numbers.  It was done as a pure investigative and very much like the way I design.  I found one mandala but was not satisfied.  I then discovered a deeper mandala.  I recorded this whole process and found it quite fascinating.  I was intrigued mainly by the patterns of the numbers in our decimal system, 1-9, and their movement.  In terms of number, I am eternally fascinated by them, for instance, prime numbers, is a big area of my interest.  All of my about serialization comes from prime numbers.  They are an unknown and irresponsible organization yet the fundamental theorem of arithmetic is called the prime number theorem.  They are very intriguing and at the heart of our logical system, math, and number.  That’s a nice subversive element. 

MF  Is the pattern you designed for the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum simply a surface decoration and not structural?

CB  It is tiling in one sense.  But the pattern can turn into structure.  The mathematical hidden lines that organize the pattern are conveniently rectilinear grids.  They can be structural and you can build the walls out of the tiling pattern themselves if you want to.  It maybe a little more costly but we are looking at that.  Certainly at the top of the form you can have steel follow the pattern and have the tiling turn into the glass.

MF  You seem to have a great deal of interest in combining structure and ornament.   

CB  I like to bring back the baroque sense of movement in the space.  Ornamentation has gone away in our vocabulary of architecture and I like to bring it back. 

MF  Is nature a relevant model for you?

CB  It’s an inspiration in the sense of its organizational system.  However, I recognize the dynamic process in nature is beyond our tectonic process.  I am not interested in copying nature literally, that’s would just be figurative.  My son is a biologist and sometimes I look at his books to try to understand how molecules or how blood protein works.  That has always been very interesting for me because they are structural; things being built.  I am interested in how unit molecule ideas start to make multiples. 

MF  The canopy you did with Alvaro Siza is the odd project in the book.  It is actually very formal with a singular line of space.  It is also symmetrical and appears to be very high-tech.  How is it an informal project?   

CB  It’s informal because of the cut in the form towards each abutment.  The assumption was that it would be a high-tech canopy with cables and bars.  In fact, I sketched something like that in the beginning.  Then working with Siza I realized it was not the way to go forward.  Instead, I proposed to use concrete, which is a very strange thing for a 200-foot canopy.  But concrete was going to appear heavy so I just cut the form at the ends. That denies substance and offers lightness.  But the cut, the absence, was what made it informal.  I am conscious of that fact that it is symmetrical but that led to an investigation mentioned in the book about the interpretation of aesthetics, in what you directly see and what may be a larger hidden pattern at work. 

MF  Why are you more interested in using familiar materials in new ways or hybrid construction than creating new materials for your projects?

CB  Like everyone else  I am always interested in new materials, but I am conscious of the urgency in using what we have in interesting ways.  I think there are a lot of things one can do with hybrid material, for instance in the Lille project with Koolhaas we used a hybrid beam of timber in tension and steep in compression.  There is a lot to be done and we have hardly touched the area of hybridization of materials.  I am more interested in geometry that will force me to do things with materials I have, than to forecast and invent an ideal material for something not planned yet.  

MF  You seem to have a very specific idea about how to structure curved surfaces. 

CB  I think every curvature of a blob is potential structure.  Hence I emphasize a rigorous starting point that would lead to a folding nature where every fold has meaning structurally; the shape itself has certain efficiency.  I am advocating some new techniques but I haven’t published the full sources of my work.  That will hopefully come in the next book. 

MF  How is your new book structured?  What’s the reason for the off center alignment?

CB  The book is a personal journey of my evolution and interests.  Although there are juxtapositions and breaks in the story, it is essentially a personal thread, my awareness of informal procedures as a theoretical basis and my struggle with it.  I very much wanted to create a book that was not dogmatic.  I didn’t want a book that looked like an engineering manual nor did I want pretentious glossy pictures everywhere.  I wanted a book that had a real feel of depth and substance yet with surfaces that entertain.  Hence I went for real strong colors.  I worked with two young designers, Michele Jannuzzi and Richard Smith, for two years on making every page and story count.  They learnt about the informal.  We created an off-centered, internal alignment that controls.  The informal is fundamentally an in-to-out process, concentrating on the local and interior conditions and then moving outwards.  The result is the moving margin on the page rather than a boundary.  If you have a boundary, you would work from outside to inside, like the classical works. The page would look like any other book.  The informal works in the reverse, and surprises!  The book itself is a piece of design and has its own architecture and structure.  For me it is a project like any other projects.

MF  Why do you think that engineers working today have become so formal?  Is it because of the training?

CB  The ascendancy of architecture and the promotion of architects have not opened the door as much for engineers.  I believe training is a problem and I had to fight my own training very consciously; a long process of not trying to fight the prejudices of traditional assumption.  I am hoping that many engineers out there will read my book and say, I think that way as well or I am going to do my own book about it.  I hope this book will open the door so that others will emulate the book.  There are a lot of engineers who do similar things, but for some reasons are not writing about them.  I think the future of engineering is a good one.  More and more engineers will be coming up, developing their own agendas, and publish their work.  

The interview was held on November 16, 2002 in New York City.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.