Clare Melhuish reviews Cecil Balmond's views on 'what's new in the box'
'Meditation on geometry' or 'wow factor'? After looking at a whole series of Cecil Balmond's twisted, turning, writhing structures, it is hard not to feel a longing for simplicity and clarity.
Balmond himself admits that in this world of computer-generated form, 'what's new is the box', but even the box must be translated into 'a new language' if his ambitions to release structure from the straitjacket of straight lines and orthogonal angles are to be fulfilled.
Balmond's collaboration with Toyo Ito on the Serpentine Pavilion last summer used the geometry of an extended algorithm to create a 'spiralling mesh'which, interestingly, turned out to be lighter in terms of its structure than a regular gridded mesh would have been.
It also had the intriguing effect of solving the 'classic problem of box typology' - in other words, the question of how to deal with the corner, which the Modernists faced when they did away with load-bearing perimeter structure in favour of internal columns. The geometric meditation of the Serpentine Pavilion revealed a new box typology in which the structure of every corner was naturally different.
Balmond's work is all about reinterpreting structure 'as informal networks not caged, centred, fixed more of a trace, a story unfolding'. He has made a name working for himself with architects such as Ito, Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas, whose CCTV tower in China he is now engineering to create a sensational landmark in Beijing - or, as Balmond puts it, 'a new typology of high-rise' which at the moment is largely unknown.
'We're getting to find out, ' he says, how it will work as architecture. However, few are consistently impressed by these buildings which, in the case of the Philip Johnson/Studio BAAD shopping complex in Liverpool, end up looking like 'a strange animal'.
In this case, Balmond admits, 'the wow factor didn't impress the planners'. And CABE was also concerned that the extraordinary roof structure was insufficiently integrated with the rest of the project to ensure it would actually be built if planning permission was won.
Balmond certainly challenges our deeply ingrained assumptions about the relationship between horizontal and vertical in form and structure. The idea of the roof at Liverpool, plunging down into the retail mall, was to counteract the horizontal sprawl of the development, and in the case of the Beijing project, the concept of the 'closed loop' tower attempts to address the problem of the 'stand-alone backbone' in modern high-rise.
But it is difficult to be sure whether such creations really represent a strong intellectual and aesthetic, architectural idea, beyond the ingenious and compelling exploration and solution of particular geometric problems.
Cecil Balmond was lecturing at the Architectural Association, on 'Informal Networks: a Radical Approach to Breaking Down the Cage'.