CECIL BALMOND is a structural engineer, author, and man of ideas; he is deputy chairman at the global design and engineering firm ARUP, and director of its think-tank, the Advanced Geometry Unit. Architects Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Toyo Ito, among others, are indebted to his groundbreaking structural work. Both Cecil Balmond and artist WOLFGANG TILLMANS have dismantled the very architecture of their genres – Balmond’s genre being architecture itself, and Tillmans’ being the representational genres of portraiture and still life.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: You were saying you were writing a book at the moment.
CECIL BALMOND: I started writing about my work and then I actually got more interested in asking a question. If the work was a certain shape, say, as a metaphor, as an object, I was interested in what is it that causes that shape. I became interested in the things that were behind the work, the concepts that drove the work and the thinking. So I started investigating that and started writing and researching and I found, actually, there was nothing on the market to refer to these things that were running through me, so I started to write about them and articulate them. About a year and a half into it I got exhausted and one of the chapters there was on the number nine; I took that out and published my first book. Another chapter was a theory of the informal, and I took that out as well and published that. Another chapter is on nature and will come out soon as Element. And now I am writing a new book, on theory.
This new book on theory – one of the things I have always been fascinated by in your work and also our conversations is your very strong link to science and your dialogue and conversations with scientists. A lot has been written and said about your conversations with architects. But much less has been written about your conversations with scientists. Will that also be a focus of the new book?
It was going to be a new book. But I got caught up by the tsunami and, for whatever reason, I couldn’t write or do anything after that. And then around October of last year I started getting the urge again to write and do things and I thought I would revisit the old work to see what there was. I found some very interesting, radical thinking in there. Now, of course, ten years on, I have matured in different ways of my thinking. But it’s still about the concepts behind the work. So it looks at symmetry, it looks at equilibrium, at invariance – which I think is a very interesting concept: “What is invariant?” You know, what varies? What is changeable? What doesn’t change? So it is a theoretical book into the background of the thoughts, and of course it looks at aesthetics. Essentially it’s an exploration of aesthetics. Because a lot of what I do is creating through tectonics, a new kind of aesthetic, against the classical-derived typology and inventions from the box form. But I am not so keen on making, say, a blob structure for the sake of it being sensational or something – Okay, but what is it? I am more interested in probing the inner fibers and structures of organization itself.
Otherwise they are meaningless shapes.
What creates the meanings? Of course, “meaning” is a loaded word as well. You don’t need meanings in one way, but if there are inner structures at work, inner rigors at work, deeply embedded; it comes through, the work has more resonance, something happens. In fact I had a conversation with the leading cosmologist, Lee Smolin.
Who is in quantum theory …
In fact his theory is in quantum loop gravity. He is trying to combine what Einstein couldn’t do: gravitational theory with quantum theory. What was amazing is – for three hours we were talking – that we had a common language. I was dealing, of course, in a macro world of big spaces and creating big things, and he deals with the micro world, the unseen world of the quantum, but it is amazing how the language came together, which was very strange. He, too, was commenting on it, how we felt very natural, like we understood each other, yet actually we didn’t in one way. He did not understand architecture the way I was doing it and, of course, I didn’t understand quantum theory, but it was interesting that we had this common intuitive understanding of how things get put together. I am also interested in biology. This goes back ten or fifteen years in terms of cell theory. I have always been interested in the structure of blood, hemoglobin; there are intuitions there that I use; they are not perfect, they are not systematic, but they are intuitions and there is a sense of formation going on in science, which I use. But I am mainly interested in the overlap zone between art and science. So art encompasses architecture in one sense, engineering is kind of embedded in the science approach, and art and science’s overlap-zone is very interesting. What are the commonalities in a theoretical sense?
Is it related to previous endeavors of that sort, like Gyorgy Kepes and his “Vision and Value” series? There have been in the 20th century a lot –
Oh yes, there have been a lot, but I think it’s fresh because the nature of algorithms has not been understood very well before. The analyses have been more qualitative in a way. The idea of algorithm and a non-linear basis for beauty is really an interesting thing and that is what I am looking to investigate through architecture. I am also doing – and I might coalesce the books – an easier book, on the juxtaposition of patterns. “Pattern” has been a derogatory word in a way. In architecture, gradually ornament, decoration, all those things fell away in a streamlined aesthetic of the ’40s and ’50s. But complexity is irreducible – it is not reductionist. And this is the conviction I have and it has grown with all the work – you embrace it full on, which means you cannot categorize, you cannot compartmentalize, you have to embrace the entire thing. I haven’t got the answers, but I keep investigating in there. So the idea of the other book I am working on is patterns; the narrative for the visual may be the theory book, which is also interesting.
Is the pattern book also about a new approach to ornament?
Yes, it falls out of it because ornament – I think there was some very eminent work done in the 1890s to 1920, 1930, in the German school – ornament as a positive, as a kind of driver, is something not understood. It’s fallen into a reductive sense, of ornament being decoration in our language. In architectural terms today you would think of ornament as decoration, and yet it never was, it was an animated source of an aesthetic drive. Those forms had layers of interpretation. For me ornament is a dynamic, it’s a capital “O,” it drives your eye through patterns. It’s like steering a course; you are voyaging through space, essentially.
It’s a navigational tool, for me. In all the work I do I always travel with the eye in its response to the form, in a very traditional way, through its rhythmic, episodic structure, and they all get wrapped up. I don’t make the distinction – coming as a complexivist, if you like – between skeletal structure and architectural form. I mean, they can be reduced to that in the end, but I am interested in rhythmic punctuation, intersection, interruption, disjunction. All of this is part of rhythmic space, or rhythm, and in it its smaller cousin is ornament; it’s a device, if you can get it right.
I think we should talk a little about your previous books because both Nine and Informal have had a considerable effect on the art world – if it’s Olafur Eliasson or Ku Shung Ah, to Anish Kapoor, a lot of artists have admired these books and taken inspiration from them. Could one say these are like generators or driving forces?
Yes, because for me numbers constitute the ideas of sequence and series – serialism. Like the Fibonacci series. All of them; they are sequential. A number per se, as a cipher at its root, is interesting because it has got mythological power. However educated we are, if you say a number four or seven – just say any number – there is no one on this planet it doesn’t resonate with. They have private meanings to people – it could be the day of a death, it could be your own birthday; who knows? But there are resonances with numbers as symbols, as almost imprimatur, they are sort of a stamp which has no intellectual meaning – it’s got a primal meaning. That has its own kind of emotional power. But then in an investigative sense what I find about numbers is they strip out all my prejudice – I use them as abstract starting points. So to answer the question, “Why numbers?” Numbers have enabled me to experiment deeper, definitely; it strips away my prejudices completely. It gives me no option of a past. It does things; when I look at them then they take me somewhere, into new journeys.
To the future?
It takes me to a future, even if they have come from the past. I have used such sequences to great effect on tiling; the V & A tiling is a Fibonacci sequence, which I would never have imagined would happen when I started looking at it. That an ancient sequence has a contemporary power may be obvious in hindsight, but at the time it seemed like a discovery. It is to do with rhythm, it is to do with association, it is to do with recursive ideas at different scales. I find that with the golden ratio there is nothing specific about the Fibonacci series – there is an infinite number of series that have the same properties. That was a revelation to me; I thought there was something specific in Fibonacci. But actually I found that it’s a certain rule, it’s the algorithmic move in the Fibonacci that is fundamental, not the Fibonacci values themselves. That was an important step for me, years ago. I found that out about fifteen years ago when I was researching this. And that gave me confidence that numbers were a fundamental source of inspiration. I wasn’t taking them at their literal signage but I was using them to take me into a fresh area. Then sequences of numbers, grids of numbers, start taking you into whole new directions, which I found very interesting. So numbers are very important. And it has resonated with artists. I get mail from all over the world. I now have a very strong relationship with Anish Kapoor and we are working on five new projects now. Antony Gormley also works with my creative unit at Arup, the AGU. I have also been looking at, “What is the post-Platonic?” It is an intriguing question. The Greeks stipulated five objects that pack space. I have been asking myself, “What is the contemporary sense of that?” A 2,000-year-old paradigm which is true in three dimensional space, but what about multi-dimensional space?
Yes. I would be very interested in that projection. What we look at, always, is a reduction. So the three-dimensional space we look at is a shadow of the four-dimensional, and so on. Four-dimensional is a reduction of five.
Exactly. It never allows you to assume you know, therefore. I think that is fundamental. I feel I don’t know anything, I feel I am always looking and that there is this other dimension that I don’t know about that would open more doors, if I could look in.
But that is very much a Gödel argument, the unknown. That is something I wanted to ask you – I had wondered if Gödel was important for you, with that unknowable element.
Yes, Gödel absolutely because I always thought mathematics was unshakeable, that it had a rigor. I had two kinds of simple beliefs: that medicine was powerful and that there were pills and sources that could fix you, until my son got very ill long ago and I found that medicine was powerless to help him. That was a huge shake-up and he had to heal himself. That was an amazing shock to my system. I had just assumed, like a lot of people, that medicine could fix you, in a way, if you were seriously ill.
That was similar in a way to the tsunami – a shock to your system.
Yes. And then the next one was Gödel because I thought mathematics was a rigorous thing. But I completely identified with what Gödel was saying, which liberated me. Also, the music of Bach did. I studied Bach because I would say listening to Bach is one thing, it is an aesthetic pleasure, but actually playing Bach is more vital. When I started playing the Chaconne in D minor, from the partita for violin solo, which is one of the great monumental works, it all fell into place for me: the fact that you could follow a linear progression of notes and that one note just slips out, the chromatic sequence adjusts, and a new forward movement takes place. The analogy I had was climbing a mountain – you knew it was up there somewhere, but you climb and you suddenly have a new vista that you didn’t know. Bach, the genius – and it is genius – somehow managed with rigorous structures to continually change the panorama. The Chaconne has basically a four harmonic beat underneath, and yet the invention is phenomenal. Why? Because it keeps moving within little moves that suddenly create new associations. The adjustments are local, building up to an assembly of form that seems universal.
At the end of the day maybe it is nothing other than being on a walk, so on every walk through a park we always have these new vistas.
Yes, a walk. A humble one that can change everything, like a walk on the mountainside. It is like going to Switzerland in the summer where you break through the clouds and new vistas happen. The idea of structure being made, organizational structures, is my principle interest. Out of it drops numbers, music, architecture, and my philosophical aims.
Your second book, Informal, is again very influential to artists. That whole Gödel description from the formal/informal element – the art of informal is very related to a movement which is kind of ’50s, and what is interesting is that in some kind of way the informal movement in the art world of the ’50s became very immediately a mannerism, but that’s not the way you use the term, I think.
No. The opposite.
It’s completely opposite. When I started using the term I came across the work in France of Bataille, called L’informe. In the ’50s it was influenced by the (post-war, I think) idea of detritus; they photographed chimneys that collapsed and found the distribution of the brick as kind of beauty in the informal. Autumn leaves falling, natural waste as beauty, that’s what Bataille saw. Rosalind Krauss wrote a book in the ’70s at Harvard, a closer look at the “informel.” Yet I approached it completely the other way: I took it as a structured movement that starts with a local dynamic, the local pulse, and then builds up in a creativity of assembly, so it is actually a “quantum theory” of sorts, in a design approach. If you look at quantum theory, it just says out of nothing comes something, which is an extraordinary statement. Is that not our creativity?
It is the opposite of economy.
Yes. And it fundamentally challenges the idea of the second law of thermodynamics, of a run-down world. It is always self-creating.
Yes. It’s quite different. So the local idea travels because it has influence. When it travels it comes under confluence; things happen. So the juxtaposition of the local ideas then creates hybrid moments. In a way working with Rem Koolhaas long ago was helpful in the kind of way he just embraced hybrid conditions, let’s say impure conditions. So in a simple way, instead of things being ironed out and being neat, we let things collapse and collide, but at those moments we celebrated the junction and made things happen. In my work at the time professionally, years ago, I was also finding synonymity or resonance in what I would call the classical idea of what was impure. My main take, in a way, is that the non-linear is the fundamental, and generic. In the conventional language of disorientation, disfigured, destruction, deformed, are always assuming that the sense of stable order is the given, whereas I actually find that the order we want is very hard won and that there are several states of order, only one such state is the one we pick. So that was a big moment when I found through my own research that the generic, the one with the so-called impure conditions, were the pure conditions which embraced the Cartesian order we wanted – and it can. And that was important for me. Informal, the book, came from that and illustrated that the ideas of free association weren’t so free; the moment you began you were locked in and things happened, but you had to be generous and open and you go with the ride, holding back your own personal emotional instincts until other instincts are primed. And that is what the work does: it actually primes your instincts. In the end your choices are instinctive – your interpretations, your judgments – but it’s a primer. I get letters saying, “You have liberated our thinking. We take this now as a guide. We think this way.” That’s nice to know because that’s actually what I wanted. I feel I never know the answers but that I can take you on a path and show you these vistas – it’s the mountain walk again. You look at this path, look at this move, and there’s another path. That’s interesting.
It’s the Foucault notion of the toolbox, I suppose, which is beautiful, that many people can use the book. You said something before which is very interesting in terms of your dialogue with Rem because you have had very intense dialogues with all kinds of practitioners, with scientists, with architects –
– with artists.
Artists. We spoke about Kapoor, we spoke about Eliasson, we spoke about Libeskind, but with Rem it was something very special because you have known each other for more than twenty years and there have been dozens of projects. I don’t have a count here but it was already years ago, maybe 30 and including the forthcoming Serpentine Pavilion maybe 40, in Bordeaux and Rotterdam and Seattle –
And also the work in the ’70s.
So to begin at the beginning, I was curious how it all started. How did you and Rem meet and what was the first collaboration? I think it is more interesting to see this whole collaboration in a more complex way because usually it is written up as the buildings were built, and the people wonder who did what. But I think it is also an intellectual kind of friendship.
Absolutely. Rem came to see me one day. I was in the office. If I remember correctly, with both his partners at the time, so it was the very beginnings of OMA. He came with Elia Zenghelis and with Alex Walsh; the three came and I did not know who Rem was at the time, so this must have been 1984.
This was at Arup?
At Arup. He came to see me in the office because one of my young men was teaching at the AA and Rem was at the AA and somehow, I don’t know how the conversations happened, but this guy phoned me up and said, “There is a Dutch architect, Koolhaas, who wants to come and see you about a competition in Holland.” So Rem came over and there was a kind of instant rapport with his nervous energy in a way – and he looked very fresh and open and he invited me to enter a competition straight away. I went to Holland and worked with him a couple of times.
On the spot. That was a Morgan Stanley Bank competition and it was an outrageous proposition we were making. We didn’t win. I think Rem sensed as well in me some kind of – I don’t know what. In fact many years later, I think five or six years later, he vocalized it by saying maybe it was my Asian background and that he had an Asian background.
Yes, he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. What about your tsunami project in Sri Lanka?
We have done a master plan for upgrading a university on the east coast, an area that was hardest in not just a physical plan but also a curriculum. I have people who are educators, Muslim educators as well because the area is quite Muslim, which also intrigued me beyond the simple polarity of Hindu and Buddhist of the country – about 50 percent Muslim, 30 percent Hindu and 20 percent Buddhist, a very interesting mix. It became a cauldron of all the ethnic groups that I wasn’t so aware of before, so by doing this project, we have drawn attention. Now, of course, the government is interested, and everybody is, in that it is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic project, and trying to identify in a Third World situation what kind of teaching facilities you need.
It is also about the knowledge of the future.
It is indeed.
It is knowledge production.
It is what is needed for the future so this could actually be a model for other emerging countries, not necessarily hit by a tsunami, but by impoverished funding scales because the big capital cities take the funds. How do you do this? Also we found that because of trauma the students didn’t want to go and study. People who had lost their whole family and their belongings didn’t want to go back to study. So we are looking at a cultural program to awaken – and it is the deepest thing, culture. We find that people can engage back with culture – drama, we are thinking here, drama therapy, awakens thoughts that will then in turn lead to them wanting to be educated again. Half the students haven’t come back. And then from that I found that by being there, just down the road, ten miles, twenty kilometers down, is a big canal system that was flooded with sand from the tsunami. For a few thousand dollars, which we will give, we will dredge it out and get water back to 20,000 acres, which gives livelihood for a lot of people who are relying on that. We came across orphans and we are helping by collecting charity on a private level from people around the Arab world. If our staff – there are 7,000 people – gave only two pounds per annum, we could also build this orphanage a new building.
So basically it is not only about repairing, but it’s also about rehabilitating.
And reconstruction pushes the lab condition into the future and makes virtue into a necessity to actually define the next step, or something like that.
Yes. For instance, there is no biology in that school. We are creating biotechnology as a first step, which will lead ultimately to a molecular biology course in twenty years. But we start with a hands-on technical idea of biotechnology for in vitro fertilization, which has not been done. And we also find by chance or serendipity that one of the world’s leading in vitro experts in the world is Sri Lankan and he would lend his backing to us. So all of a sudden these things are happening by taking an open view about the problem. It’s finding a new model for a university of 2,000 going on 5,000 students. It could hold for other emerging countries that are, on the face of it, impoverished at a particular location. You find the capital often gets a lot of money in funding and all the best brains go there. How do you get a good brain to go to what looks like a non-advantaged place? So that is also part of what we are working with.
One more thing I wanted to ask you is the only standard question in all my interviews, it is always present; it is about your unbuilt roads. We have talked about this whole panoply of things you have realized so far in your life and I was wondering if there are any projects so far which have not yet been realized, which you dream of being realized. They could be unrealizable, utopic, or they could also be projects which you still would wish to be realized.
I think it would be a world of “charmed” grids. In Informal, at the back, I wrote 27 of what I call “Templates,” and number 18 – I think – a lot of architects have come back to me on that simple half-page I wrote. I believe there is an unrealizable – this is not a new idea, it is an old idea – but I think there is a procession of the unbuilt surrounding what we realize and causing us to keep inventing. They are imaginary but possible. Take a small column, the generic is Stonehenge, Cordoba Mosque, Pilotti, stalks fishermen stand on in shallow waters, and the twisted funnels, vortices, filigree stalks, etc.
Could one say like an imaginary museum?
Yes. I don’t think they are ephemeral. They are real for me. I know I will never build them, they will never be realized, they will never be seen, but I know they are there. Before I ever built a fabric structure – the first fabric structure I built was Marsyas, with Anish Kapoor – I wondered what I would do against the usual language of fabric and I found strange forms, even creatures rising from the dead. I call it Lazarus. The fabric turned to butterflies, and I pleated them. Then came the work of Marsyas, a giant conduit self-supported by its own shaping, very different from the traditional fabric structure.
It was the opposite, even.
Completely, yes. I find that the idea of fabric being stretched under tension with all the wires and all the masts sort of denied the fabric anything. I was interested in what the fabric did and didn’t do in those early experiments. And so when you see Marsyas you do not see any wires, tensions, nothing; you just see a curving, 1mm-thick fabric over 140 meters, and 30 meters high. It makes its own structures, not only of the physical, but of the imagination.