Cecil Balmond

“Solid Void” has invaded the Graham Foundation’s 1902 Prairie School Madlener House in Chicago. A survey of London-based artist-engineer Cecil Balmond’s work with the Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU), the multidisciplinary research practice he established in 2000 at international engineering firm ARUP, the show (through Feb. 14) also includes site-specific installations executed with IIT students. H_edge, composed of more than 6,000 aluminum plates suspended from 5,000 feet of stainless-steel chain, weaves through the foyer, living, music, and dining rooms without ever reaching the ceiling. Filling the upper floor is Danzer, a rosewood-and-mirror crystal structure. The Sri Lanka-born Balmond, 65, who trained as a civil engineer, serves as ARUP’s deputy chairman and collaborates with the likes of Toyo Ito, Anish Kapoor, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Álvaro Siza. I.D. spoke with the builder, teacher, and author.

Why did Arup need the AGU as an in-house multidisciplinary group?
I wanted dedicated time and budgets for a place for pure research, for pure speculation. I wanted to create an animate instead of static sense of geometry, not with moving parts but with new thinking about serial forms…. Doing the shows is, in a way, part of our speculative research.

What enables the AGU to engage the design and art-viewing publics?
We’re not making architecture, that’s a program-driven discipline, into art; the idea is to make an interesting typology more interesting. So, we collaborate closely with Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. In that sense, we’re involved with the artistic public. People often don’t understand how we make form; it’s not whimsical, a lot of thought is behind it.

What math is involved in the H_edge pattern? And does it have real-world applications?
The starting point is a cube, through which holes are drilled. Through the solid parts left over, you drill more holes. Then I turn the solid parts into chain and plates. The voids, you walk through. There’s no math involved, it’s simple geometry… In theory, the principle is strong enough to hold up small constructions, but I haven’t yet applied it.

How do your installations relate to the Prairie Style at the Madlener House?

I didn’t want to create just objects in a room that have nothing to do with the house, I wanted to celebrate the house, give the house its own value, without bowing down to it. The contemporary forms contrast well with the house but have resonances. I projected a cut on the window planes in Danzer, and used hard timber to reflect the timber of the house.

A lot of us think there are only so many ways to make buildings stand up. How much creativity is really involved?

Architecture is really an open-ended question. Of course, it’s adapted to the client’s decisions, the functionality and budget, and there are limitations to the materials that one uses, unlike a painter’s palette. Glass comes in certain sizes, concrete in certain strengths, it’s most economical to buy off the shelf. But there’s also enormous latitude, various ways to make things interesting. Is a box a box a box? That’s the tough part. The choices are all up to your imagination. And poetry can come from the sense of structure embedded in the architecture, from refinements in the material connections, proportioning and detail.

What were you trying to communicate with your most recent book, Elements (Prestel, 2008), which is spare but rich, with few words but evocative imagery?
Elements is about nature, both outdoors and inside us. I map the external characteristics of nature out there to the nature in us. I start with a panorama of Italy and end with a desert panorama; I gradually change the orientation from horizontal to vertical. I take you from abstraction to the ultimate abstraction, which is words. At the heart of the book is an essay with a circular argument that nature is part of us. It’s striated, layered, constructed, like the evolution of the human mind, and the book itself is a product of my mind. The best way to read this is at 10 in the morning with light falling over your shoulder…

How does the CCTV building measure up among your most iconic buildings?
In a purely technical sense, it’s immense, one of the world’s largest buildings, with five million square feet. And it’s pyrotechnics, 16 stories that launch into the air! That’s “virtuoso” technology, if you like. But we know you can do that already, that’s a done deal. For me, the interest is how do you engage your eye with the extremity of the form? I was looking at it at midnight on a fax, thinking, how will this work? Instinctively I felt there should be a skin that shifted, that was the key moment.

At the end of your career, by what measure will you judge your success?
I think by the influence I have on people appreciating a new aesthetic of form, a way of thinking about form that brings back humanism with the richness of pattern. The way we’ve made and thought about forms is really not different from how the Greeks thought. It’s slightly more embellished and dramatic maybe, but I think within the next 30 years we’ll be thinking in a whole new way. We’ve reached a watershed moment in organizational principles, affecting economics, architecture. It’s a dynamic process of decision-making, a dynamic sense of organization, that will grow, consolidate, be effective for another 50 years.

Shonquis Moreno is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.