Fresh perspective

Cecil Balmond turns the dreams of visionary architects into structural realities. Hugh Pearman talks to an inspirational engineer who has made a career out of bending the rules

I first met Cecil Balmond years ago, in a smoky room full of other Arup engineers. Young bloods like Tony Fitzpatrick and Chris Wise were the stars: Balmond, who talked fluently but quietly, tended to work with Postmodern architect James Stirling, and seemed less exciting than the hi-tech boys with their clever skyscraper ideas. How things have changed.

Today, with Fitzpatrick (and Stirling) sadly and prematurely dead and Wise now a TV fixture who runs his own consultancy, Expedition, there is no doubt where the celebrity now lies at Arup base camp. The urbane Balmond, with his dazzling number theory and flair for pushing the boundaries of the structurally possible, manages a difficult balancing act. He runs a big division of a large business with hundreds of people under his control, and next year will do more, when he becomes deputy chairman of the Arup empire. At the same time, he is fêted as a leading designer, almost an architect, in his own right. He recently won the inaugural Jencks award, endowed by architecture critic Charles Jencks: possibly the first time an architecture prize has immediately been scooped by a structural engineer. But everyone understands why. Balmond, like Avis, tries harder.

Engineers are traditionally the people who pour cold water on the creative ideas of cutting-edge architects. Balmond works the other way round – he pushes the architects to attempt more, to try what ordinary mortals might think was impossible. This is probably because he is undoubtedly a bit of an architect manqué himself. He mentions that he was once offered a partnership by one of contemporary architecture’s biggest stars, Rem Koolhaas. I’m not a bit surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’d also been offered partnerships by Daniel Libeskind or Toyo Ito, given how crucial his role has been in helping them develop their ideas.

‘When Rem first rang, I liked him immediately. We did the competition for the library at Jussieu in Paris. We started with blank sheets of paper. The relationship was different then. He hadn’t built anything; I’d built lots,’ he says.

They achieved the (unbuilt) library design by tearing and opening out one of those sheets of paper to form a square-plan spiral. This was the first of Koolhaas’ fractured-floorplate buildings such as you see in his recently opened Dutch embassy in Berlin. The buildings they conjured up together were to become a lot more audacious, a lot more ambitious.

But Balmond is Arup through and through. The group gave him his first real job after leaving college – initially in his native Sri Lanka, then Imperial College. He had abandoned his first love, music, to study engineering. His father was a professor of history but, he says, what his country needed back then was engineers and doctors. Besides (thinking of dams and airports), he saw engineering as a way to travel. So he joined Arup in 1968, and on his second day met the person always referred to in the organisation as ‘the old man’ – Ove Arup himself. Arup was interested in design, not just in making things stay up. It was Arup who had worked with fellow Dane, architect Jorn Utzon, on the agonising, protracted saga of the Sydney Opera House, then in its final throes. ‘The Opera House was the Big Bang for Arup,’ Balmond remarks now. ‘I came in as a young man after that, but you could still hear the echoes. The Old Man took design as an imperative: he defended the Opera House concept.’

Indeed, were it not for Arup, the world’s greatest architectural icon would and could never have been built. Nobody can ever take that achievement away from it. That experience steadies the nerves when other high-profile controversial projects crop up, such as the Scottish parliament building by Enric Miralles (a Balmond job) or the once-wobbly Millennium Bridge by Norman Foster (a Wise/ Fitzpatrick job).

Balmond knows the exact moment he was first fired up by design. It was 1971, and the first big job he was to lead was the Carlsberg brewery in Northampton by another Dane, Knud Munk. One of Arup’s right-hand men, Jack Zunz, told Balmond to go and talk to the Old Man again. So he did. ‘I had design sessions with Ove. It was totally marvellous. The Old Man could never finish a sentence, but he had this pocket full of coloured pencils. He went through all my drawings, but he also talked about what architecture meant, the effect that structural decisions would have on architecture. That anything I did affected the building. That has continued, to the point now where I see structure as punctuating space – not just dividing space.’

A few years later, Balmond met Stirling, his second great architectural mentor, whom he regards quite rightly as a radical genius. ‘I loved all the quirkiness he had. He wasn’t mainstream at all.’ The Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart (1977-84) with its tilting wall, was the defining building of that relationship. Then came Koolhaas. And then Libeskind, Alvaro Siza, Miralles… By which time, Balmond was becoming famous in his own right, as the man who worked with a new generation on a new kind of engineering that he describes as ‘informal’. We have had, he points out, more than 2000 years of Cartesian, rectilinear, post-and-beam buildings. Only now are the possibilities opening up to do things differently. An example is the Serpentine Gallery pavilion he designed with Toyo Ito, where architecture and structure were one and the same, derived from an algorithmic sequence. He is now working with Ito on a new Selfridges in Glasgow. ‘Ito is the only architect who has completely championed the algorithmic approach to form. His office is totally converted,’ he says.

Eclipsing that hugely in scale is the new headquarters for Chinese State Television in Beijing. This is a Koolhaas project: 500 000m2 of floorspace in one building, conceived as something like a looped rope of structure, hanging implausibly in space. Balmond reaches for a card model of the building on his windowsill and unfolds it to explain the mathematically derived mesh-steelwork principle it is based on. This being China, it will be built by 2008, in time for the Olympics.

Balmond is lucky to have the support of a large organisation, while also running what is effectively his own elite practice within it, the Advanced Geometry Unit. This ten-person cross-disciplinary outfit, including among its ranks experts in games theory, quantum physics, mathematics and architecture as well as engineering, is a significant fee-earning research division within Arup that thinks about structure in an entirely new way, whether that is the idea of weaving rather than assembling buildings, or translating Islamic geometric patterns into three dimensions.

Balmond is the genial leader of this disparate activity. Now he has designed his first building in his own right – a deceptively simple £3m pedestrian bridge with a folded-plate structure in Coimbra, Portugal. ‘I always thought that what would challenge my ideas would be a bridge – because a bridge has always been a traditional breaking ground for engineers, going way back to people like Maillart and Eiffel. I didn’t know if I would find an interesting solution.

‘But I think I have. I wanted a bridge that meanders a bit. A bridge that doesn’t quite meet, doesn’t have a direct logic. What does that mean? I think it will look interesting.’

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