Balmond takes your breath away
Cecil Balmond is a structural tightrope artist who engages in feats of apparently breath-taking daring. One senses that the architects in league with him, including Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, have made a big and frightening commitment, well expressed in Koolhaas' cryptic faxed comment: 'Hoping for a smooth hovering...'
This is especially so as the culture of litigation gathers strength, and the slightest slip promises ruin. Yet Balmond is also the architect's - or some architects' - ultimate fantasy, the man who can make the wildest dreams come true.
He launched his lecture at the AA last week with an image of a pavilion designed with Alvaro Siza, featuring a single drape, 16m across, formed in 2000 tonnes of concrete. A cut in the concrete reveals the cables which constitute the structure, and provides protection against earthquake damage by increasing their flexibility. But why go to such lengths to simulate paper and deny the weight of concrete above your head? For Balmond, it is about 'a sense of levitation, of lift-off' which is 'what everyone aspires to'.
He objects to 'freeform for its own sake', which, he suggests, is an effect of computer-aided design, saying it is intellectual weakness to subscribe to freeform and then entrap it in a conventional structure. Balmond's philosophy is based on a rejection of the normal language of structure, 'one of entrapment', and its replacement by a concept of 'network'. Structure, he says, is 'not about locking things in, but releasing them.' Once this principle has been understood, we will, he believes, 'move into different kinds of spaces from the ones we have inhabited'.
This unsettling utterance had an echo in the three further projects presented by Balmond. Koolhaas's house in Bordeaux has only two vertical supports in its footprint, with an elevated box apparently balancing in space, designed to give 'a feeling of launch', but also to exaggerate the sense of instability: 'not about a cantilever, but a series of interdependent offsets ... equilibrium stretched to its absolute limit'. A stadium in Germany is an essay in the 'correspondence of simultaneous states of stability', with three different orbits traced by the roof, the seating and the running- track. The roof, a cable net, has 'a longitudinal sense of movement - it ripples'. This is achieved by letting one part drop down with gravity, so pushing up the other end.
And then there is the Spiral design, for the V&A, developed with Libeskind: 'If you take away the boundaries [of space], just leaving the trajectory, you get the V&A', Balmond explains simply. He points out that references to fragmentation and deconstruction in the critical commentary it has attracted could not have been less accurate; but his analysis of the structural design and its 'fractile' cladding in terms of simultaneous 'arithmetic control and geometric jump', the power of feedback and repetitive loop, eventually soars off out of comprehension into a higher realm which most architects will never experience.