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Rethinking the building, inside out

The patterns that architect Cecil Balmond creates in his buildings, could easily serve as a metaphor for his own intellectual criss-crossing

The Serpentine Pavilion of 2002 that Cecil Balmond created.
The Serpentine Pavilion of 2002 that Cecil Balmond created.

A Middle-Eastern mosque, an English summer pavilion and a mega mixed-use Asian commercial complex may not appear to have much in common, but for Cecil Balmond these three disparate building typologies can express a shared design principle—the idea of emergent or fractalized architecture. In other words, geometric and abstract buildings that are hand-drawn through sketches, and detailed through complex computer-generated algorithms.

In a keynote presentation at the 10th edition of 361 Degrees, one of India’s largest architecture conferences, the London-based, Sri Lankan-British architect captivated his audience with his radical notions of architecture. Balmond, 73, is the founder of the eponymous architectural practice Balmond Studio, and one of the best-known global architects of Asian origin. He unpacked his design thinking process in a detailed lecture on his work at the conference, held from 24-25 February in Mumbai, and shared insights with Lounge.

Radical experimentation

“The hallmark of a fractalized building is that it doesn’t have a fixed border, and it’s more of a network of form and structure, where everything feeds off everything else, like a mosaic of architecture. It’s a different structural paradigm. The scale and the material give the function." In other words, the same algorithm can apply to the design of a bangle and the design of a building—it depends on the scale and the material, he says.

This approach is intuitively easier to grasp with smaller-scale buildings, but Balmond is busy evangelizing this architectural technique for all sorts of uses, in all parts of the world. Any structure—a commercial building, a summer pavilion or even a mosque—can be “emergent", he says. He shares images of a mosque in the Middle East, where a network of cubes and voids has been employed deftly to create a climate-sensitive space, without the need for windows. One of his largest ongoing projects is an ambitious mixed-use commercial project in Sri Lanka that rests on a huge cantilever.

The Serpentine Pavilion of 2002 best captures the idea of exploding the geometry of the sealed box through algorithms and networks. The prestigious commission is awarded annually to an architect to build a temporary summer pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens. Balmond collaborated with Japanese architect Toyo Ito to create a structure that was a complex web of mutually reinforcing steel lines and crossings, interspersed with glass and aluminium panels. “The design went straight from sketch to computer and then to site. Not through traditional architectural drawings. And only two men put it up," he says.

The result is not just decorative in its façade, it is human in its intent. “The experience for each person seated in the pavilion was different, because of the light and shadows. People didn’t want to leave. There is a new humanism in pattern as an organizing force," he underlines.

What is a building?

Balmond arrived at his view of emergent architecture by questioning the existing notions of buildings, and examining their strengths and weaknesses.

There are three fundamental approaches to designing buildings today, he believes. First, the one with which we are all familiar, the idea of the building as a sealed box, with a rigid border, “which goes back hundreds of years. This is the traditional process of designing a building, based on a grid, with emphasis on symmetry and harmony", he says. Its longevity speaks to its universal acceptability, spanning both history and geography.

Second, a “post-modernist, deconstructivist approach, which breaks the limitation of the legacy of the box, allows for distortion and is euphoric with effects", he explains. For example, the asymmetric, striking structures associated with prize-winning “starchitects", such as the iconic Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. One building like this can redefine an entire city’s landscape and transform its sense of identity—for example Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Having worked for over four decades with Arup Group Ltd, the global structural engineering firm, Balmond has seen plenty of these. He worked on the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion while he was with Arup. As Arup’s former deputy chairman, and as the former head of its European building division, Balmond was well-positioned to understand how these “deconstructivist" buildings were designed and constructed. He believes they have had their moment, and are losing currency. “Architecture has to regain something, architects lost their way in becoming too precious, too style-conscious, and not knowing how to build. Biologists and economists are now shaping our thinking about values, not architects," cautions Balmond, a point which also highlights the challenge of balancing creativity and commerce in the urban arena.

The third kind of emergent architecture is thus about rethinking the building from the inside out, Balmond says, in order to devise more meaningful ways to experience the built environment.

Cecil Balmond. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Networks of thought

The patterns and networks that Balmond constructs in his buildings could quite easily serve as a metaphor for his own intellectual criss-crossing. He attributes his design approach to several distinct influences, which allow him to have an “open mind and a flexible idea of space".

First, he sees the computer as an ally, but not a decision maker. “It can turn sketches into complicated patterns and designs. But algorithms can continue, so where you stop is an aesthetic judgement," he states.

Next, he traces his interest in geometry back to the Greeks. “Thirty years ago, I began thinking about the origin of our work as architects. I thought: Why am I using these forms and what do they mean? And I read books and realized that there was a whole rich thinking that began in architecture long ago, which got lost along the way. And so I began thinking, with the computer and modern techniques, how would those ideas come to life in modern ways?"

The interior of Serpentine Pavilion of 2002 that Balmond created.

He realized that architecture served a larger purpose, more than just commercial concerns. “Greek geometry was metaphysical, it was art, it was harmony. We have reduced it to numbers and dimensions, but it was all about ratios and relationships. That was the fundamental thing I learnt. There was a liveliness in the thinking, it was not static," he observes.

These ideas of the fundamentals of architecture intersected with prevalent notions of nature as an inspiring force for design. “Nature is a strange thing. Nature has models of efficiency, because it’s been existing hundreds of thousands of years, the ones that we see are successful. It’s about organization. It’s about certain rules. I studied that. Those kinds of ideas are useful for buildings. For example, how to organize yourself to get maximum output with minimum effort—that’s nature. It’s not a bad thing for a businessman! Designers can use those ideas for better buildings," he concludes.

Finally, having lived in Sri Lanka until he was 20, he says “that the richness of the vegetation, and the rich saturation of the ancient culture, embedded a layer of complexity in me". Fractalized buildings thus reflect a blend of seemingly different perspectives—Greek geometry, the natural world, Asian culture, and modern computing technology, woven with empathy for human behaviour.

Balmond’s work illustrates a fundamental, but sometimes neglected truth about design: Design has always been as much about thinking as it has been about sketching; as much about employing our thoughts and emotions as it has been about leveraging our hands. A designer’s world view is based on her individual perspective, her values and her experiences, all of which inform her design sensibility and influence the creative process. How we shape our thoughts, then, is, in fact, how we shape our lives.

Balmond also embodies an additional adage applicable to all of us: You are as old as you think you are. Itinerant and jet-lagged, he travels every few weeks to both Asia and North America for projects. “I’m always searching. If you think you know everything, you’re finished. It’s the work that keeps me going," he insists.

361 Degrees

361 Degrees has established itself as a place where you can listen to leading architects, especially overseas practitioners, and speak to a large audience in India. Held in Mumbai in late February, the two-day conference is organized by the ‘Indian Architect And Builder’ magazine, and attracts both students as well as experienced practitioners. The conference also recognizes and felicitates young designers.

Key speakers this year included renowned architects Cecil Balmond of Balmond Studio and Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, as well as Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency, a UK-based audio-branding consultancy, who pointed out how “designers should design with their ears" and pay attention to audio-related concerns, alongside the visual experience, when designing a space.

In a first, this year saw the “critical review" panel, with a group of senior architects reviewing each other’s work. The architects who took part were Samira Rathod, Arjun Malik and Soumitro Ghosh, in a session moderated by experienced landscape architect Aniket Bhagwat. Rathod says the panel was a “learning opportunity. Projects were reviewed in the right spirit—honest, blunt, and humorous".

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