Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Artist and Architect Cecil Balmond

Aired November 22, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): Cecil Balmond is a man intrigued by the possibility of structure. A master of engineering, captivated by all facets of design.

RAJPAL: I don't know how to describe you or to define you.

CECIL BALMOND, FOUNDING DIRECTOR, NON LINEAR SYSTEMS ORGANIZATION: I'm a designer, basically, I think. I'd like to design anything.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And during his 40 years at the engineering firm, Arup, that's exactly what he did.

BALMOND: Gosh, middle of next year. Fast.

RAJPAL (voiceover): Collaborating with some of architecture's biggest stars - he worked with Rem Koolhaas on the gravity-defying CCTV Tower in Beijing, with Toyo Ito on the 2002 Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and Daniel Libeskind on the proposed spiral extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But his insatiable curiosity of structural form and logic lured him away from Arup, and saw him start up his own eponymous design studio three years ago. He has since created mind-boggling structures, like the Coimbra Bridge in Portugal, the controversial Orbit, with famed artist Anish Kapoor, and is now spearheading The Star of Caledonia sculpture that marks the Scottish and English border crossing.

BALMOND: Look at this density.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This week, on "Talk Asia", we're with the multi- disciplinary genius in Hong Kong, who reveals why his knowledge of space, science, and physics probably saved his live. Plus, he takes us to his native Sri Lanka and gives us a rare glimpse into a special project he's building with his son.

BALMOND: Wow, it's bigger than I thought. Massive.


RAJPAL: Cecil Balmond, welcome to "Talk Asia".


RAJPAL: I don't know how to describe you. How would you describe what it is you do?

BALMOND: I've been always interested in organization - patterns of organization. And that goes into architecture, goes into pop design - graphics - music, even some maths. It's just that I trained as a scientist and also did architecture, later. So I can - I straddle both disciplines, in a way. And overlap of art and science has always interested me. So, I would say, "What do I do?" - I'm a designer, basically, I think. I'd like to design anything.

RAJPAL: So, do you think, perhaps, then you are creating a whole new profession, where there's a bridge between architecture, art, and engineering - structural engineering? Creating a whole new language, if you will.

BALMOND: Well, you know, it's not for me to claim anything. It's for others to say, I think. Because you never quite know what you're doing, really. All I do know is that having an instinct for structure, in a deep sense - I understand physics, I understand gravity - intuitively. But also as a designer, then, you get the two in some kind of symbiosis that works.

RAJPAL: See, what's fascinating to me is that you have art, which is up for interpretation. Then you have science - mathematics - which isn't up for interpretation. It is what it is, as it's defined. Art isn't. And yet, here you are. You're working with the two. And is that space between art and science where you are?

BALMOND: Well, yes, the popular idea of mathematics or science, as you say, "It's what it is", right?


BALMOND: But, if you probe very deeply into science, at its root, there is a mystery. So it's rigorous, it's superstructures. But underlying, there is a sense of mystery. And I've been investigating this for 30, 40 years, really. Like, take prime numbers - at the heart of everything we do in calculation are the numbers, 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13. They cannot be divided by any other number, but no one knows how they come.


BALMOND: You can't predict them. No one has been able to - it's an unknown. So, I had an exhibition in Tokyo about five years ago, which I put in place the graphics of what I'm now telling you. I took prime numbers, I abstracted them, I did a floor that zigzagged its way through. I did the - I put these things into pattern - into graphics.

And everybody - you know, it was a strange room. As Toyo Ito said, he said, "I can smell and hear the abstraction". Which is a wonderful quote.

RAJPAL: So, do you believe that set the stage for "Crossover", for you? That, not just the book, but that kind of thinking, in terms of crossing over into a whole other realm - a whole other body of work.

BALMOND: "Crossover" and the projects in it are a series of negotiations between the virtual and the real - between my idea, which is fantasy, and the restrictions under which you make something happen. The bracing of the CCTV Tower that goes around, you know, building that goes up 240 meters, goes off into space for a hundred meters -

RAJPAL: Or working with Anish Kapoor on the -

BALMOND: And Anish and I on the Orbit -

RAJPAL: But then again, it comes back down to that space between science, math, geometry -

BALMOND: And art.

RAJPAL: -- and art.

BALMOND: Yes, and it's not a space that supplies between.


BALMOND: They actually overlap. If you look at all artists at work, the good artists try to understand their medium as well as they can. I mean, Titian, da Vinci, were unhappy with the paints they had, so they went and invented paints - they found the technicians how to make new kinds of paint, so they could paint a blue the way they wanted the blue. And so, there is this urge, always, to understand your technology to the essence of what it is, if you're an artist. And then create - express yourself. Because, how can you express yourself unless you understand your medium well?


BALMOND: Look at this density.

RAJPAL: If you're walking around in a city like this, then do you look at what you could do? What you would want to do?

BALMOND: Yes, first I always just look and get an impression of the city.


BALMOND: And absorb it. But then, obviously, you look at certain thing and think, "Why did they do that there? What would I do?"


BALMOND: And start to think that way - it's inevitable.

The Chinese have a willingness to learn and apply, I think. And I'm always amazed by the work ethic in China. Also, when I work in China - in Beijing - the openness to take on stuff.


BALMOND: They're not afraid.

RAJPAL: But there is a willingness to push the boundaries from the technological -


RAJPAL: -- and scientific perspective.

BALMOND: I mean, the bridge engineers are doing the bridges across the Yangtze and all that -


BALMOND: -- I mean, they're amazing.


BALMOND: I mean, they're the world's best, but no one knows about them. But they're the world's best, I think.

For structural engineers, I think this is an amazing challenge in Hong Kong, for sure. And for architects, too, there is a challenge. Because, how do you make your own building stand out from all the other buildings right cheek-by-jowl, in everything, right up against everything.

RAJPAL: So what are the factors you consider, then, if you want to stand out? What do you have to --?

BALMOND: The only thing is, from external, would be an appearance of styling.


BALMOND: But equally, the form itself could do certain things.




BALMOND: So here comes the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.


BALMOND: One of the world's leading buildings when it happened.

RAJPAL: Probably one of the most iconic structures in the -


RAJPAL: -- skyline of the city.

BALMOND: Still is.

RAJPAL: Well, let's go into the atrium and look up.

I guess, the structure - you just think about - you just look at the aesthetics.

BALMOND: Yes, well the structure is this big brace that's going up, as well.


BALMOND: This kind of thinking, where structure is exposed to also be part of the aesthetic, is part of the high-tech school in a way. Exposing structure, showing it's a function in an explicit way. And then, of course, then the structure is the aesthetic.

RAJPAL: Fascinating, isn't it?

What's the prevailing ideal for structures - the new structures that you're working on, in Asia?

BALMOND: Well, I think the problem with Asia is that it's all been copied models from the West. Badly copied. And no one's thinking of how an interesting bespoke -


BALMOND: -- aesthetic can be commercially effective. So they assume, as I see around in Hong Kong everywhere, generic forms rising. The idea, for me would be to just change the way people see even their own, in a way. You know, everything gets done the same way. But you could just change small things and make a big difference.


RAJPAL: Your approach has been described as non-linear. Especially when we are looking at architecture - building design. It's also been described as complex. I'm curious to know - we're here in Hong Kong - what does the skyline, like this city - what kind of impression does it leave on you?

BALMOND: Well, the idea of non-linear is simply something that's not causal. In the old logic, you did A, then you went to B, then you went to C. And you had a planned logic, let's say. Non-linear means there is no linear logic. It can be here, it could jump around.

So, I'll come back to what that means in buildings. But Hong Kong, itself, is a non-linearity. I mean, it's a crazy place.


BALMOND: Full of juxtapositions, full of sudden invention - that's typical.

RAJPAL: The interesting thing, though, if you look at non-linear from its - I guess, from a literal definition and you look at it from a building perspective as well - is that it goes up this way. And that's the only way it goes, especially in a city like Hong Kong, because it is so small. Yet, from an aesthetic perspective, you're right. It is non-linear.

BALMOND: Traditional architecture is linear, in that sense. You get a block and up you go.


BALMOND: And people think everything's the same. And that's linear. But you could do a tower building that looks linear, but even inside, the positions of spaces change and change relative to each other in an interesting way.

So, in the traditional way, the architect is like God - says, "I know everything. I'm going to plan everything". I tried to twist it the other way and just say, I don't know everything, but I have a feeling for it. So I will try this, and see where that leads me to. So it's a kind of improvisation.

RAJPAL: That kind of approach - I've read that you've used, especially in the design of bridges, whether it's the one at U Penn, or the one in Portugal - in Coimbra. Tell me a little bit about the one in Coimbra. Because, when you look at it, it looks like a lightning bolt from above. But, if you're standing from one side, it's like it goes on.

BALMOND: Well, Coimbra is interesting in that I've always believed that you have to do a site-specific kind of design. You can have an idea for a bridge, you know. And I'd never done a footbridge before. And I had this commission. And I went down and stood on the banks of the river. And I just sort of stood there and I suddenly had this crazy idea that this bridge wouldn't meet. So, I mean, that was a complete crazy thing to think about. A bridge is something you go across.

RAJPAL: Yes. It's supposed to "bridge" two sides, literally.

BALMOND: Sure. So I just drew - the first sketch was one line that went that way, from one bank, and the other line that went that way, so they missed. And that was the concept - that the two halves miss each other.

RAJPAL: You won people over, not just by with the design, but because of what they thought it represented.

BALMOND: In the process, I found out this huge legend - the story of which I didn't know about. That there was a prince, who fell in love with his lady-in-waiting, had four children by her, and then the court decided - she was Spanish, he was Portuguese - that she had to be killed, so she was murdered. And her blood runs, still, in the fountain, they say.

But the idea was, they never met in real life, because he was a king and she was a commoner. And he could never marry her. And so, when I did this bridge, would I object it being called "Pedro and Ines"?

And I said, "Well, who are they?" And then they told me the story. Of course, now, no one believes that, because everyone at the opening went around like this, with the bridge that didn't meet. Pedro and Ines didn't meet.

RAJPAL: And you didn't know anything about them?

BALMOND: I had no idea. But now, no one believes that.

RAJPAL: But you do have a philosophical approach to a lot of your work. There are those that have described you as the power behind the throne, thinker, mystic, a teacher, and a mentor. And this person, who said that you were a teacher and a mentor, is the acclaimed American architect, Philip Johnson. And then, Rem Koolhaas -


RAJPAL: -- has said that, because of you, he started to rethink architecture. Have there been those where you've said - where you've felt you weren't meeting in the middle and didn't raise your game?

BALMOND: Well, there were one or two, but my antenna kind of fine- tuned, I think. You know who you can work with, in a way. And so, I gently move aside and not let it happen before you even get anywhere. I could not design with someone who was in a partnership with you. And so, Rem Koolhaas, one great architect - also great thinker - so it's not just about the design. It's about philosophy of thinking - what do people want, what do cities need? All that sort of thing.

Toyo Ito, the great Japanese architect, he said the same thing when he read "Informal", my book. And he and I had a great collaboration on the Pavilion, which -

RAJPAL: Serpentine?

BALMOND: Yes, Serpentine.

RAJPAL: Which is complete non-linear building. I started with just a line in space, and then I repeated the line over and over again. And we extended it, cut it, chopped it, and suddenly, there was a pavilion. That was amazing, that it just emerged out of an abstract idea.


BALMOND: Wow, it's bigger than I thought.

This project is an iconic project that I think would brand the city as something vital and new in Southeast Asia.




BALMOND: Wow. It's bigger than I thought. Massive. Huh. We keep drawing these little things.

It is important to have this kind of project in Sri Lanka now, because the war is over, there is - it has not been built up, the main capital city. And this project is an iconic project that I think would brand the city as something vital and new in Southeast Asia.

I'm interested in having this as the first big project that would establish a high agenda of architecture and planning. And so, it's important for me to be doing this project.

I hope Sri Lankan people will take away from this project, a transfer of technology, first, because there is good expertise in the country, but the building scale has been small. This scale of project is going to be big.


RAJPAL: Is it true that, when you were 13, when it was time for you to pick which path you needed to take - you were very good with math, very good with science, physics. But your vice principal in your high school said to you, "You're making a big mistake. You belong in the arts". Is that true?

BALMOND: That's true. And it affected me for years.

RAJPAL: What would you say to that vice principal, today?

BALMOND: Well, I wanted to see him, and unfortunately, he died three years ago.


BALMOND: I've always thought about that, because, only 13, and I was - I had won the art prize, but I was good at math. And, in a young man in Sri Lanka, the only choices were medicine or engineering.

RAJPAL: So, very Asian thinking, isn't it?

BALMOND: Yes, yes. And so, I didn't know what to do at the age of 13. My uncle was a mechanical engineer, my father was a classicist and historian. And I just - put your hand up, kind of thing - just choose, you know?


BALMOND: For what would be the O-level. So, I kind of put my hand up for science. And I didn't know. And then this principal took me aside and said, "Balmond, you've made a big mistake. You should belong to the Arts". And that stayed with me for years. I don't think I shed that 'til I was in my middle 20s or late 20s. It was at the back of my mind. Had I made the wrong choice?

RAJPAL: But it's interesting, though, because it's -

BALMOND: You can't tell people like that, "You're meant to be this".


BALMOND: You know? Because I didn't know -

RAJPAL: There is a huge artistic element to what you do.


RAJPAL: But he - in a way, he was right.

BALMOND: Yes, but had I abandoned science, I don't think I would have got the rigor which has helped me push to improvise.

RAJPAL: Bear with me here, as I veer off a little bit, but understanding - having that kind of rigorous understanding - do you believe that, perhaps, as we approach, you know, the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, that's what saved you? That understanding of how space, science, physics work?

BALMOND: I think so. I've always wondered about that. You know, the water was - I was on the east coast of Sri Lanka, didn't know what happened, and there were three tidal waves that came with the tsunami. The first one had come and gone, and the second one was coming into the bedroom on the first floor. I didn't know what had happened.

And then, I opened the door and looked out and saw chaos. And there were boats up - little three-story hotel - the boats were pushed up on the roof. This terrific sound, which I will never, ever forget. You know, unbelievable sound. But I looked at the water, and I thought it was - I just felt that it was going to be receding. Just felt it.

I think, just dealing with natural forces and, I don't know what it was, you know, it was an instinct to go at the right time. And it was right. As I started going in, the water started moving down. Less force. Just got a foothold and could just get out at the right time.

And then, the third wave came. As I got out, I heard the roaring sound again and that took the whole building. So the hotel disappeared - three story hotel. So it was, you know, I can't talk about it much, because it brings back terrible memories. But I can only think that people keep saying, "How did you know when to go?" You know. Well.

RAJPAL: If you look back at your career - if you look back to that 13-year-old boy, would you do it differently?

BALMOND: Well, there were one or two moments - I don't know. I'm at the age about - I picked up a guitar late in life, when I was 19, 18. And I loved flamenco guitar. And I wanted, in my early 20s, to give up maybe everything and go and live in Spain and learn it.

And I didn't do it. So there was slight regret there, thinking, "Hmm". But basically, I think, looking back, as a 13-year-old boy taking a choice, I'm glad I chose science. Absolutely.

RAJPAL: I'd like to know what role music, then, plays in your life and in your work.

BALMOND: Music is fundamental to me. I mean, my mother was a pianist and I grew up in the womb, probably, listening to Chopin. My father was also amateur musician and he was a historian. And I took to music, myself, when I was about 19, just to win the girls over, in a way.


BALMOND: That was a cheap trick to get to the girls.

RAJPAL: Did it work?

BALMOND: It worked.


BALMOND: And I didn't learn any more music after that. But sticking with Western music - it has melody, rhythm, and chordal harmony. Now, what is a building? A building is all about passageways, which are melodic.


BALMOND: Room compartmentation to each other, which is rhythm. And the chordal is the ensemble effect of one room to another when you see space relating to space.

RAJPAL: And the flow.

BALMOND: So, they say architecture is frozen music. I never kind of believed it. And it's not literally frozen music, but deep in its structure are melodic, single line movements through a building, coming and going. Juxtapositions from one small room to another big - what you see, and how.

RAJPAL: Fascinating. Cecil Balmond -

BALMOND: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much for your time.

BALMOND: Thank you very much.