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CHICAGO — With its unforgettable light-meshed oval, Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and engineered by Cecil Balmond of London-based firm Arup, has quickly become one of the world’s iconic structures.
Yet the stadium is just one of many edge-of-the-envelope buildings developed over the last two decades by Balmond — part-engineer, part-architectural designer, part indefinable tour de force. Now, Balmond is mounting the first major U.S. exhibition of his work at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Fine Arts in Chicago, running until Feb. 14.
Not since Victorian times has an engineer achieved the global status he has, given that Balmond, 65, continues to confound traditional definitions. “These labels we give ourselves — I’ve always found them confining,” said the Sri Lankan-born Balmond, with a wry smile. “I just enjoy doing what I do.”
Simultaneously structural engineer, architect, artist, designer, writer and lecturer, his role is indeed difficult to pin down. Working with some of the world’s most highly regarded architects, including Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, the late Philip Johnson and Daniel Libeskind — the latter two heavyweights referring to him as mentor and mystic, respectively — it’s impossible to understate the influence he’s had on the changing forms in building today. Drawing from pure mathematics and non-linear science as well as music and art, Balmond’s wizardry and out-of-the-box thinking about the experience of space makes the seemingly impossible happen. Take the Portuguese National Pavilion, designed by Alvaro Siza; a fine concrete skim, resembling the gentle swell of a mainsail, spans a breathtaking distance with effortless grace. Or the incredibly delicate cobweb of Toyo Ito’s temporary Serpentine Pavilion, in London in 2002 — ephemeral, lacelike and with no obvious support, it belied integral strength and has been described simply as one of the most beautiful structures in recent times.
However, when asked about the rigors of the mathematical theory or feats of engineering that produce such structures, Balmond’s reply is endearingly candid: “It’s just the experience. There is no engineering at all; it’s purely experience. I never think in terms of engineering, it’s all about how it feels. Then I build it.”
Most notable is Balmond’s remarkable relationship with Koolhaas, soon to be making its mark on Manhattan, with Office of Metropolitan Architecture’s residential tower planned for East 22nd Street. Koolhaas has been working with Balmond since 1988, and now apparently won’t embark on a project without his friend. “It was a case of like-meets-like; Koolhaas was rejecting the traditional architectural brief, too. And so that developed as a new friendship and an interrogation,” says Balmond. He’s involved at the conceptual stage and is as much a part of the design process as the lead architect; it was he who suggested the “scaly” surface of Beijing’s CCTV building, for instance, soon to be the largest building on the planet, which he also engineered to allow its amazing off-kilter, zigzag form.
In the Chicago exhibition “Solid Void” at the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House, a prairie-style mansion, Balmond attempts to dazzle and demystify the cerebral nature of his work. Working with the building, which dates from the early 1900s, Balmond installs his cutting-edge forms without obstructing the period features. “I wanted this to feel like I was playing with these new aesthetic forms, contrasting the old classical with the very new contemporary,” he said. “I wanted to push the two together, so that what you see, really, is not the old, and not the new –— but a dialogue in between.”
A perfect example is the gravity-defying feats of his piece “H-edge,” a metal network that magically fills the spaces, expanding in height and width with no obvious support and raises itself off the ground like the Indian rope trick. The work forms a sparkling thicket that plays off the heavy wood panels and Art Nouveau stained glass windows of Madlener House.
The “Danzer,” the largest piece in the exhibition, fills out the final room. Resembling in form and structure a giant crystal, its rosewood exterior is hewn in two, revealing hundreds of mirrored facets, bouncing light all around the room. Each facet replicates exactly the larger panels, which make up the form itself — this endless replication is the principle of fractals, but the wonder it creates is immediate rather than intellectual. As Balmond says, “It’s a human delight. Then if you do understand the theory, it adds another layer.
“I am full of the sense of mystery of the world, every moment,” he adds. “I’m always refreshed by it. To do good work…you have to touch the poetic.”