After four decades with the world’s most prominent engineering firm, Arup, Cecil Balmond recently announced plans to set up a studio of his own. Balmond has been a major force in international design. His experiments with geometry have greatly increased the possibilities of contemporary architecture, and he has worked on some of the most important structures of the past decade, including the Spiral at the Victoria & Albert Museum (with Daniel Libeskind), the 2005 Serpentine pavilion (with Alvaro Siza), and the CCTV head-quarters in Beijing (with OMA). The Sri Lanka–born engineer joined Arup in 1968 and rose through the ranks of the company, founding the firm’s Advanced Geometry Unit in 2000 and becoming the deputy chairman of the Arup Group in 2003. Metropolis’s editorial director, Paul Makovsky, spoke to him about his new practice, balancing business concerns with creativity, and his thoughts on the next generation of architects.
We heard the news that you’re leaving Arup, and we’re all curious: What are your plans from here?
I have a studio I set up, and it’s basically my own work that I’ll be working on. I have a lot of important research that I’ll be spending more time with and that I hope to publish next year. My sequel to the Informal book is com-ing out soon, but I’d like to get the other one done because it is very important research.
What kind of research?
It’s what I always work on—generative ideas on form making and form finding. This re-search will be very clear. At the moment, the architecture debate is stylized or split into two: morphogenetic form or morphodynamic form. And basically my interest goes beyond making form. I’m interested in the principles of organization, so it can go into architecture or into other media. I’m also interested in how things go together in new, interesting, and contemporary ways without compromising—being functional and, to use some old-fashioned words, being beautiful. I’ve always been pursuing that. There’s something in the end—even if it’s not something you are used to—that is a contemporary aesthetic with an internal rigor and some underlying proportional things that work for it. The Romans, the Greeks, and the architects and engineers from the Renaissance all had proportional theories. There’s no reason why we can’t have our own proportional theories. The principles are the same: there’s planning and principle and order, and it yields some more beautiful functional parts.
You’ve had a lot of great collaborators in your
career at Arup—OMA, Shigeru Ban, Alvaro Siza, Toyo Ito. Moving forward, how will you continue those collaborations?
I think it is on a project-by-project basis. It’s complicated because in architecture, people don’t share much. You try to claim the whole thing for yourself. In the last five years, more and more people have been coming to me for product design, and that’s been interesting. We are in confidential agreements because there are products on the market.
Do you think this will be a new direction
for your studio?
Yes, but my fundamental passion and excitement is in doing big things. I design special buildings—in collaborations or with my own studio—that are not mainstream. Essentially, it’s really what I’ve always done, but I’m refining it a bit more. Of course, if I get a big project, the engineering and all that will go to Arup. There’s no change.
So it’s not so much a separation as an evolution.
Yes. I’ve been thinking about it for some time.
When you were at Arup, a company of 10,000,
were you spending more time in meetings than on being creative?
I never had that problem. I always thought the whole organization of the company was part of the creative. The way we organize the groups is always changing and evolving. It’s only as strong as the smaller groups that run it.
You’ve been involved in architecture and design
for 40 years. Are you seeing a generational shift in the way that students are approaching the field?
Definitely. The positive thing is that people are going back to certain abstract start points, which makes it so easy to start anew. If you start abstract, you have to rethink the program and the construction materials. You have to rethink quite a bit, which is good. The negative part is that you may be losing some of the basic skills that are part of the traditional method—like getting the function of it right, or thinking about how you get to or enter a building.
Is the door clearly marked? Is the orientation right? Do people lose themselves in these buildings?
The danger is that you can lose these basic things. So if you start with abstraction and move forward, how do you get back the old skills? You have to somehow straddle both.