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Engineering by numbers

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Arup’s Cecil Balmond brings mathematical principles to building design, using this to free it from imposed symmetry and grids

Born in Ceylon, educated at universities there, in Africa and Southampton, Cecil Balmond’s background defies those neat cultural definitions which are the legacy of the European colonial adventure.

He looks for guiding formal principles in mathematics and the relationship of numbers to forms and materials. Is the modality of the discipline of maths irredeemably westernised? It is certainly more universal than modernism, classicism, regionalism or any other -ism which happens to be applied to building form. It is an approach to structural engineering which has kept the international avant garde from Koolhaas to Foreign Office Architects knocking at Arup’s door. Balmond’s engineering skill and intuition make Libeskind’s designs for the V&A and Imperial War Museum buildable.

Slight, dark-shirted and a persuasive talker, Balmond could be the more radical type of local-authority architect, or, with a dog-collar added, an evangelical vicar. It is only over time, as he speaks and sketches, that his precisely shaped sentences start to coalesce around his subject of structures. The way he teases an order out of his aura is a trope of his professional work, starting with something random, apparently chaotic, and using an analytical mathematical skill to find an underlying order, the numbers and logic which ‘are exciting to an engineer because that means it can be built’.

Balmond believes we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift about the way structure works. ‘The great universal plan within the border which I can control - which is mediaeval and comes from the Christian ethic’, is over. His own dissatisfaction with rigid skeletons became explicit in the mid-1970s, when he worked with James Stirling on the Staatsgalerie, his first ‘big-name architect’. Stirling’s interest in the richness of form was a catalyst for Balmond; it encouraged his skill in mathematics, brought to a head by a professor from the Sorbonne who taught him in Africa; it reawoke his days at Southampton with Professor Maurice, who developed limit-state analysis of structure, ‘the first big break with classical analysis’; and it rekindled his sense of beauty in science.

Arup’s provided a niche where such interests could be developed, and Balmond was among the founders of the building group which he now heads - 78 people dedicated to working not with big-name architects, but with those whose structures interest them. Having set up offices in Spain and Germany for Arup’s, and being responsible for Holland and Portugal, his list of collaborators includes Álvaro Siza (the Lisbon Expo), Isozaki and Toyo Ito (in Germany), van Berkel & Bos, and Erik van Egeraat as well as Nick Grimshaw in the UK. It could well include the stars of the future; one of his colleagues runs a ‘Clerkenwell initiative’, an incursion into that throbbing cockpit of radical architectural thought.

If Stirling started Balmond questioning the rigours of orthogonal space, it was Koolhaas who first brought his searches to fruition. ‘We had a chance meeting’, and collaborated on a competition for the Hague City Hall in 1987. They found each other congenial, giving Balmond a chance to try his idea of informal structure, in which members could slip or lean, or be missed out altogether. The grid was redundant; instead, syncopation and richer geometries took over. Two years later, there followed the ‘wonderful summer’ of 1989, when they won three out of five competitions -– Rotterdam Kunsthalle, ZKM in Karlsruhe and the Zeebrugge Terminal. The paradigm shift, in structure as well as architecture, had arrived.

Balmond gives two descriptions of it. Structure is conceived as a trace rather than a skeleton, and ‘the minimum path of least resistance through local mutual instants’. The structural system should respond to difference and variation rather than assume constant demands expressed through a uniform grid, and what Koolhaas calls ‘the zebra’, the conventional layers of space, servicing and support in a building. Computing power, advances in materials and other technical developments complement, but do not create, the approach. That comes from intuition, experience and an ability to find order in randomness, the essence of chaos theory. When he and Libeskind looked at the V&A design, asking if it could be built in mud or salt, Balmond exclaimed, ‘A vibration should run up the form’, knowing as he said it that he was implying a mathematical mosaic based on the Fibonacci series and a limited number of tessellated forms. An intuition framed a mathematical function, and from then on it was only a matter of time before deciding on the terracotta tiles.

Many of the mathematical functions, Balmond claims, are ‘laughably simple, the sort of thing a kid could do with a PC’, overlooking the fact that many people still find computers mysterious. He promises a book next year on number theory, which may help to demystify the oscillation between the intellectual and the intuitive in his approach to design.

But another oscillation will always be present, because for Balmond ‘structure is the meeting point of the practical matter of building and the anti-matter of theory’. Now we know that anti-matter exists, and that Koolhaas’s and Libeskind’s buildings indeed stand up, we should all take notice of the possibilities Balmond opens up.

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