James Balmond

Dalibor Vesely, a great architectural historian once stated in reference to preserving cultural heritage in the workings of present architectural processes, that “In its origin sense, poetics refers to a way of making, in which the result preserves continuity with the conditions of its origin”. The art and science of designing and constructing buildings are perceived as a symbol of accomplishments of humanity. While many renowned architects of past decades innovated the phenomenon of skyscrapers with technological advances, revolutionized mechanisms in functionality and demands of modern lifestyle, the demand for cultural identity in architecture consequently resurfaces. In conversation with James Balmond, Designer and Creative Director of Balmond Studio, we address the role of cultural paradigms in architecture.

James is an award-winning Creative Director whose aptitude lies in the fields of Graphic Design and Interior Design, who graduated from the University of Nottingham, England. His leadership spans across monumental projects from Sri Lanka’s iconic scheme ‘Waterfront’ to a narrative bridge in Coimbra, Portugal, ‘Pedro e Ines’ and many more. Blurring the boundaries between art and structure, James has also been highly influential in a raft of renowned projects including the CCTV Tower with Rem Koolhaas and Serpentine Pavilions, with architects Toyo Ito, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura. By evaluating the design processes, concepts and outcomes and upholding a design philosophy which supports the integrated approaches of revitalizing heritage values of the traditional communities, James Balmond illustrates the cultural context of preserving the roots of local architecture.

Q | In your opinion, how does architecture contribute to the growth of culture?

A | I think the first thing to realize is that architecture as a discipline doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s inextricably linked to things such as socio-economic factors, personal agendas, the economy, society’s morals, values and ethics. So by default it’s multi-faceted so by its very nature, it’s a reflection of culture and tradition straight out of the gate. If you look at everything from the Colosseum to the Empire State building, they’re all a reflection of the times themselves because they exist in this nexus of all these different factors. I think we can’t really make a distinction between the two essentially because they’re intertwined.

Q | How does architecture fulfil the needs of the modern society and how does it, while including aspects of functionality, reflect character or esoteric that’s relevant to heritage?

A | There are different ways to look at this. In terms of functionality and architecture, the human is at the core. Architecture has to serve the needs of the people otherwise it becomes redundant. But a lot of the time, it depends on the client’s brief. Some clients will want something that evokes heritage while others will want to stay well away from it. If you take the Waterfront project by Cinnamon Life in Colombo for example, it may look very contemporary but the actual design is based on Sri Lankan culture. The guard-stone is actually a very ancient symbol, so how can you take that and interpret it through a modern lens? Obviously the whole point of the project is that it’s functional, to be a city within a city. I believe, that by actually looking at the past you’re creating a new cultural space where everything is self-contained, a city within a city yet the roots of it come from the past. So I think, culture and architecture are very fluid concepts of which the interpretations of the past and the present contribute greatly. The present is informed by the past in good architecture, they’re not distinct.

Q | What are the other cultural symbols that you have used in your architectural projects?

A |  On a very literal level, the lotus sculpture that we’re doing at the World Trade Centre is symbolic to the national flower of Sri Lanka. We have the Lotus Tower – the connotations of what the lotus signifies was something that we took and created via a process of abstraction. These layers of stainless steel frames when looked upon from underneath, is an abstract of a lotus. It can be very literal but what’s very interesting is our design methodology. It is very contemporary to a degree, but the actual philosophy in the approach behind it goes back to the very roots of this process of what makes us human, and how the world really is around us. These factors and perceptions affect our understanding of culture, they are in fact catalysts for culture. What I mean by that is, when we see the world, it isn’t just a surface and it is not about objects.

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3rd September, 2019 Applied Art