Cecil Balmond

Artistic catharsis of prolific creators is the driving force behind their creations, the cell of inspiration stemming through innate sensibilities and inherent qualities. Cecil Balmond OBE is one such artist whose works are often culminations of this cathartic process, an intertwining of the allegorical, axiomatic confrontations with the physical implications and connotations of the intrinsic capacities that this catharsis allows. His celebrated presence in the international industry and influential footprint in the locality of Sri Lanka are subsequences of his systemic influences both in the Western landscapes and society as well as the conventional Sri Lankan customs. From his collaborations with renowned artist Anish Kapoor to the simplistic yet visceral stimulations of his adolescent timeline, the curation of these cells compose to create the canvas of Cecil Balmond’s inventions and architectural works.

As you swift through the pages, you will lay your eyes upon ARTRA’s curation of Cecil Balmond’s selected local and international architectural works, including art installations and exhibitions, wherein a fluid juxtaposition invokes a visceral magnificence grounded in the physicality of its complex engineering, denoting architecture’s elevation to works of art. These nuances are in-built characteristics developed through Cecil Balmond’s philosophy of following a scientific tradition substantiated in the abstract. His circular thinking and non-linear ideologies are reflected in many of his works specifically that of the Arcellomittal Orbit, showcased on pages 14 and 15, where the conventional concept of a tower as static ascension between two points is reconfigured as a cyclical orbit. The narratives of multiplicity and overlapping strands are notably evident in public art pieces across the world, each work an end manifestation of alternating and diverse practices. Strange Attractor, an exhibition sculpture commissioned by Ferragamo, resembles the tracings of hybrid orbitals in the midst of hybridization, showcased on pages 16 & 17, the piece signifies an alteration in energy and the dynamic of balance. Moving up in scale, Temenos (Britain’s largest public art piece), showcased on the cover of ARTRA Magazine Apr/May E59, is a structural exploration of the nature of materiality, specifically the perceived oxymoronic relationship between the fragile and the robust. The massive steel structure stands as tribute to Middlesbrough’s rich industrial heritage of shipbuilding. 

Before setting up Balmond Studio in 2011, Cecil Balmond was Deputy Chairman of Arup. He was also Chairman of Arup’s European Building Division, and ran the critically acclaimed design group, AGU (Advanced Geometry Unit). His pioneering work with the AGU, and collaborations with internationally renowned architects, brought Cecil Balmond's unique design philosophy to the global stage. Balmond has also taught at some of the world’s most influential design and architectural institutions, including being a Visiting Saarinen Professor at Yale University School of Architecture, as well as a Visiting Kenzo Tange critic at Harvard Graduate School of Architecture. He was also formerly the Paul Philippe Cret Chair (2005 to 2015) at Penn Design, University of Pennsylvania, where he founded the Non-Linear Systems Organization (NSO). Throughout his career, Balmond has been the recipient of many awards including: Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture (2016); Officer of the Order of the British Empire for Services to Architecture (2015) and more. 

Celebrating his identity as a Sri Lankan, his cultural values and heritage bleed into the multiplicity of his work, creating structures that are non-conventional and yet inherently local. Jetwing Surf, Pottuvil takes on the narrative of Tropical Modernism through vernacular architecture and traditional materials as it draws inspiration from the natural movement of waves and contours of the land. The architecture of Cinnamon Life, Colombo is a reflection of the Sri Lankan heritage where vibrations of the innate values resound, combining with a more modern architectural aesthetic. This dichotomy epitomizes Balmond’s life journey to a degree. His upbringing and experiences influenced his perspectives and observations, consequently making his design process somewhat of a mirror of the routine and disciplines of old Sri Lankan principles, fused with contemporary methodologies and mindsets – a multifaceted approach inspired by his liberal thinking. In our conversation with Cecil Balmond, we explore the premise upon which his artistic philosophy is based, while reflecting on the magnificence that it embodies. 

Q | Tell us about your time growing up in Sri Lanka  

A | I grew up in Borella, and went to school at Royal College. My father then had a job offer to run the university at Peradeniya. We left Colombo then, and moved to Peradeniya where I attended Trinity College for the rest of my education. I only returned to Colombo for university, staying with my grandmother in Havelock Town. My memory of those times were happy times, playing cricket down the lane where we lived with friends. It was a dead-end lane off Kuruppu Road, with only about eight homes on either side, and at the end were grass fields, and a small marshland. It was safe playing cricket because only one or two cars would come, and we would move the wickets and carry on. It was great fun. 

In the Colombo years, there were many offers, traders and sadhus coming to the door. The whole variety of Sri Lankan trade and religion was on my doorstep.  This little house on Kuruppu road was the gateway to something bigger. It was sometimes scary as a little boy but highly interesting being involved with the direct selling and buying of things. My mother had a penchant for bartering. There was something fundamental about this experience that I think I have carried all my life and abstracted into other things. The push and pull of negotiation. A dynamic of tension. Hybrid forces working together. These concepts have definitely permeated my work over the years. 

When I got to Peradeniya it was wonderful because the campus had just opened. Our house was halfway up a hillside with great views and buried in nature. My love for nature grew from being there and seeing the elements at work, the great thunderstorms that would come over during the monsoon, the wonderful light and all the greenery, the jungle behind the house and the lone (manabras). I loved it in Peradeniya on full moon nights, seeing the silvery lights on all the palm fronds and the trees around. It was magical.

The playing fields for the university students were about 400 meters away, to which I used to run down the hill, after school, and then run round the racing track or take part in field sports or play tennis. I represented my school in athletics and later on I represented my university in tennis. My sporting skills grew while I was in Peradeniya as well as my love for walking and running through the wild surrounding. After school I used to go for runs from the age of thirteen onwards, which helped with endurance. Doctors tell me I cope with stress well due to all that early training, which works on your whole system to be calm and handle the stresses of adult life. 

Q | From growing up in Sri Lanka to studying in London and travelling across the world, how have these upbringings and experiences influenced your design and architecture? 

A | For my first years of training I immersed myself in Western values. The teachings, the books, the references were all from Western Europe. But gradually I felt more restless and prescribed, so I wanted to branch out. In my mid-thirties, I realised that I was more than the summation of academia and vocation. Apart from my studies and learning, I also was a musician, a writer and a Sri Lankan. I decided to open myself up to these avenues of identity. To embrace knowns and unknowns. This brought new life into my thought process, actions and perceptions, which in turn bled into my work. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but this shift was a liberation of sorts. It allowed me to be free. 

As this internal transition progressed I became aware that the multiple images of Sri Lanka, (the various ethnic groups, the different iconic images of religion) were all influencing me in a notion of simultaneity rather than the prescribed effect of causation, which is a more of a Western philosophy. To put it another way, Western training led me to think in a linear fashion, whereas my upbringing led me to think in a more multilateral way, and in a more circular logic that was more liberating, and could reach a wider threshold of imagination. I began to feel that simpler linear thinking was more reductive. Multiplicity and overlap was expansive. Being a Sri Lankan and growing up in my culture gave my mind more of a holistic quality that created new possibilities when searching for design solutions, such as designing buildings, artworks or products. So I believe I owe everything to how I grew up and my inheritance of basic and fundamental Sri Lankan values. 

Q | What of the Sri Lankan aesthetic and its cultural symbols seep into your work and conceptual thinking? 

A | From a young age, I was very much influenced by the architecture of the ruined cities, which I visited often. I enjoyed the guard stones and the moonstones and the fine brickwork of the Polonaruwa monuments. I went many times to the famous Buddha statues in Polonaruwa, feeling so impressed with how these massive forms were so life-like and natural, and yet carved from stone. It’s hard to be specific in terms of the mechanics of the cultural osmosis, but these images of Sri Lankan architecture and iconography seeped into me from the age of about eight onwards. The various temples that I passed on the road, the dagobas, the shapes are within me. 

For example, when it came to designing Cinnamon Life, these images influenced the design and I saw this project as being a welcome to a new threshold of Colombo – much like the guard stones and the moonstones. The main scallop form of the building echoes these ancient forms, welcoming people to the growing new Colombo. These ‘symbols’ if you will, were in my mind when I began the design in 2011. But like with all design, the outcome is not directly representative, but it’s inherent in what you see. When I designed Cinnamon Life, it was looking at a functioning hotel, residences, podiums, conference centers and so on. The horizontal projections and forms that jut out of the main form of the project are all part of an architectural adventure, nothing to do with the Sri Lankan inheritance per se, yet the overall project I feel is very Sri Lankan. I believe that a foreigner could not have done that. Keeping it modern contemporary and yet having a vibration of Sri Lankan values. 

In a more general sense, in the design of the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, or the CCTV in Beijing, the Freedom Sculpture in Los Angeles or any of my other buildings and Public art pieces across the world, there are several strands or narratives (as I like to say) in the work. There is no one singular reading of the work. Rather there are simultaneous and syncopated readings on multiple scales. I think these overlapping strands are a basic inheritance of my upbringing. The multiplicity of the images and feelings I grew up with. 

Q| Can you tell us which of your works you most connect with and why? 

A | Due to the visceral and experiential potency of the present, I find that the latest design is the one I connect with most. Then comes another design and the immediate connection is there again. Looking back at one’s work, and seeing which one you value the most, is hard. This is because each project made me discover some new part of myself. 

Good design I believe is risking knowledge of yourself as you progress to make ideas work, even though there are functional restraints in architecture. Nevertheless the way you organise, plan, exit and entry into a building, occupying adjacent spaces, is all part of a study in sequence and series, and how one puts it all together. It’s always a risk because generally the projects I have done are one-offs. They are like prototypes. They are not designed to a formula. I do not repeat simple blocks that go up and down. Even that can be done with different podium adjustments, different breaks in the elevation, and different dynamics in the facades. All of these elements in each project seem to be a do or die moment and I’m not sure how it will work out, but at the time the invention is so immediate, I connect most with what I am doing at that second. Having said that, there are some of my projects that have been celebrated for breaking the mould. One of them is the Serpentine Pavilion 2002 with the crossing lines, the CCTV project in Beijing. I believe Cinnamon Life will become one of these projects in time because the typology is new and the mixing of the typologies is unusual, including the algorithmic work on the facade. But it’s hard to be choosing because each project as I say, has a part of myself in it, and it’s hard to choose one part of myself over another part. It’s all me in the end. The whole body of work. 

Q | Who are some of your muses and how they have inspired you?

A | My muses have not been literal applications to architecture. But rather those who inspire me every time I engage with their thinking, or work. Artists like Bach, Chopin, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein, Da Vinci, Bob Marley, Elvis, John Coltrane and so on. They come from the arts and the sciences and this is the most fertile region for a designer to partake in. The ideas are so strong. They help you aim for the best kind of thinking when you attempt your own solutions. 

Q | In your opinion, how does design and architecture enhance one's state of mind, and daily lives? 

A | Good design and good architecture I believe, makes life more enjoyable. We do not know what good design is because it is not written in a book or prescribed, but when one engages with it (an artifact in your home, a car, a computer, furniture or a building) one feels better. Design is a reflection of human creativity, ingenuity and endeavor. These aren’t works of nature, rather they are human invention manifested which sparks some psychological reaction in all of us – especially when the design is ‘good.’ Again, the subjective nature of reality is such that we can never definitively say what good design outside of our own experience is. In other words, we feel good when we engage with certain designs. Great buildings and great works of art and literature and music can make our spirit nobler. 

Q | What does design mean to you? 

For me, design is everything and I don’t mean that from a deliberate, obvious, artistic point of view, or signature point of view. But it is how I choose to live. I would choose things that make me feel better. Using those things, and choosing them from what’s around, is part of design for me. When it comes to your profession, these wider cultural ideas of how you would like to associate textures, configurations, adjacencies are then abstracted into the work and your deepest values go into how you approach the design. Instinct guides the expertise you learn through your profession of how to detail, draw and build, compose, write, paint, dance or make a film. It’s a wide concept for me. It’s not a specific. It’s an everything. 

Q | In terms of your perspective and your way of thinking, how much overlap and simultaneity, as you call it, is there between art and architecture? 

A | In the past years I have been fortunate enough to participate in some major public art, in Canada, the USA and the UK and associated design exhibitions in Denmark, Japan, USA, France and Italy. For me, the art is quite different from architecture in the sense that one is functional (buildings have to work) and art does not need to do that. But art performs at another level, at one’s psychology and perception. It is more wide ranging in art to observe the fact but have a large proliferation of feelings that come into you. In other words, art is more of a cathartic release of sorts compared to architecture. However architecture has grand visions and visceral feelings of height, depth, physical location, physical feelings that also generate interpretation, but in my experience they are of a different nature to the release one can get from art. 

A | In the past years I have been fortunate enough to participate in some major public art, in Canada, the USA and the UK and associated design exhibitions in Denmark, Japan, USA, France and Italy. For me, the art is quite different from architecture in the sense that one is functional (buildings have to work) and art does not need to do that. But art performs at another level, at one’s psychology and perception. It is more wide ranging in art to observe the fact but have a large proliferation of feelings that come into you. In other words, art is more of a cathartic release of sorts compared to architecture. However architecture has grand visions and visceral feelings of height, depth, physical location, physical feelings that also generate interpretation, but in my experience they are of a different nature to the release one can get from art. 

I have been lucky growing up around a scientific tradition of rigour. This created a referential framework of feasibility that in turn always grounded, even the most abstract of my ideas, in some form of realism. I had an understanding of physical laws and forces that allowed me to harbor ideas and metaphors, transforming them into something tangible happen. Over the last forty years my work has been a reflection of a synthesis of ideas rather than an analysis of a particular problem. 

Balmond refers to the mechanisms of life as a systemic multiplex that is ‘always on’. In other words, the world as he sees it, is irreducibly complex, but not necessarily complicated. With this outlook, Balmond’s design approach naturally defies the notion of the omnipotent creator.  Rather creation is about engaging with the inner organizational systems all around us – a process of negotiation versus deterministic self-will. To work in this coded matrix requires a deep understanding of number, pattern, data and how they translate into abstract ideas of form and geometry. Balmond has spent over 40 years investigating this systemic realm, developing a nuanced and rigorous scientific methodology, allowing his artistic consciousness to create alternative realities. The multiplicity of the methodology mirrors the multiplicity of his upbringing, musings and artistic influences. The fluidity of ideas is liberating, allowing Balmond to re-invent the ways through which geometry, form and structure can be perceived, and ultimately given meaning.   

21st April, 2021 Applied Art | Architecture