Cecil Balmond: Architect with Many Attributes and Accolades

Tina Edward Gunawardhana.  whose preferred title is  “Cecil Balmond. Sri Lankan born internationally renowned architectural maestro”

Cecil Balmond OBE of Sri Lankan origin is feted as one of the world’s leading thinkers on form and structure and widely considered to be one of the most significant creators of his generation. Pioneering a new approach in the crossover between advanced art and science Cecil heads Balmond Studio in London, a research led practice of architects, designers, artists and theoreticians who apply Cecil’s revolutionary non-linear, generative methods to create extraordinary designs that fundamentally reorganise space. Responsible for creating spectacular buildings and public art works, which appear to defy gravity such as the renowned ArcelorMittal Orbit for the London 2012 Olympics, Pedro e Ines footbridge in Coimbra, Portugal and the CCTV Tower in Beijing to name a few, Cecil Balmond remains one of Sri Lanka’s honoured progeny.

The early days:  Born in Sri Lanka, Cecil travelled the world at the age of 13 with his parents who were posted overseas. Travelling abroad at a young age fuelled young Cecil’s passion to learn and succeed. A pivotal moment during his student days came when he grasped with ease complex mathematical formulae. This gift for mathematics swayed Cecil to opt for a career in engineering. He attended Trinity College, Kandy and thereafter the University of Colombo where he studied civil engineering. After a brief sojourn in Nigeria, Cecil moved to Britain and continued his studies in structural engineering at the University of Southampton and also at Imperial College London.
Career highlights:
Known for making the impossible possible, Cecil has challenged the limits of industrial fabrication and transformed the relationship of designers to the built environment. In a career spanning several decades Cecil has worked as the Deputy Chairman of Arup. He was also Global Leader of Buildings for many years as well as Chairman of the Europe Division. Currently he holds the Paul Philippe Cret Chair at University of Pennsylvania as Professor of Architecture where he founded the Non-Linear Systems Organization (NSO), a material and structural research unit at the prestigious university. He has also been Kenzo Tange Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Architecture, Saarinen Professor at Yale University School of Architecture and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.
Receiving recognition: He is a recipient of several prestigious awards including the 2002 Japanese Gengo Matsui prize for the Serpentine Pavilion he designed with Toyo Ito, the RIBA Charles Jencks Award for Theory in Practice in 2003 and the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize for his book, informal in 2005. More recently Cecil Balmond has been appointed Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to design and architecture.


Contribution to public art: Famous also for his large scale public art, Cecil Balmond’s sculptures include the Orbit which he designed for the London Olympics in 2012, the proposed Star of Caledonia to mark the border crossing between Scotland and England and also the award winning Snow Words in Alaska which was named as one of the top public artworks in the USA for 2013. New public art projects include commissions for the Chicago Transit Authority and landmark public sculptures for the Mesa Art Center, Arizona; Iowa City Pedestrian Mall, Iowa City and the Common Centre Plaza in Syracuse, New York.
Balmond’s art has been exhibited internationally to critical acclaim in galleries such as the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Graham Foundation in Chicago, Artists Space in New York and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Cecil has also created several Serpentine Pavilions in London. The most noteworthy being the Ito- Balmond Serpentine Pavilion created in 2001 was crafted in glass and white painted aluminum. The product of an algorithm designed by Balmond, the pavilion is now located at a luxury hotel in the South of France. Cecil Balmond has also collaborated with important contemporary architects and artists such as Anish Kapoor, Daniel Libeskind, Alvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura and Rem Koolhaas to create extraordinary buildings which are a combination of art and structure.
Cecil the innovator:  While working at ARUP, Cecil founded the Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU) in 2000, a research based design group which comprised of architects, artists, engineers, and scientists, to pursue his interest in the genesis of form using numbers, music, and mathematics as vital sources. Under Balmond’s direction, the AGU worked to develop new typologies for known building programs, as seen in the Weave Bridge at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, Coimbra Footbridge, Mondego River, Portugal (2006), the office building Twist, London (2004), the Battersea Power Station Master Plan, London (1999-2007) and the Ranchi Cricket Stadium in India (2008). Balmond has introduced innovative structural concepts that have resulted in some of the most challenging buildings in the canon of contemporary architecture. His long standing collaboration with Rem Koolhaas has yielded an array of groundbreaking projects such as the Maison a Bordeaux (1998), the Seattle Central Library (2004),
Casa da Musica (2005) in Porto, and the new CCTV tower in Beijing (2009).


Connecting with Sri Lanka: In Sri Lanka during the boxing day tsunami in 2004, Cecil, his wife and children had a miraculous escape. Faced with such trauma Cecil was unable to talk about it for two years afterwards. He attributes his survival, and that of his family, to having studied the water and perhaps being helped by his instincts about forces. Post tsunami Cecil begun to spend more time in Sri Lanka working on various projects including the creation of Palagama Beach – a boutique hotel designed in collaboration with his eldest son John Balmond. John now heads up the Balmond Studio Colombo and is expanding architecture across Asia.. Frequent trips back to Sri Lanka also helped Cecil form a strong working relationship with John Keells Holdings who have sought his expertise to design Waterfront, their new flagship building development in the heart of Colombo. To use Cecil’s words ‘The design projects to infinity, to the ocean with the city marching up to meet it’. Cecil believes his Sri Lankan heritage has played a role in the design process, with the main structure organically echoing the shape of the Sandakadapahana.
Cecil is also designing the interiors which will be a spectacular addition offering a truly integrated world class creation. Waterfront will be a new centre point for Colombo, a new iconic landmark propelling Colombo into the upper echelons of architectural brilliance.


Cecil the visionary: A visionary in his field, Balmond sees his work as an open-ended visual application of theory, following the principle that “structure as conceptual rigour is architecture”. His approach to structure is derived by theories of complexity, non-linear organisation and emergence. Recognizing that the universe is a constantly changing array of patterns (both random and regular), he also draws on ancient wisdom and non-western mathematical archetypes. Taking structure to be as much a verb as a noun-as structuring, organizing and patterning-Balmond redefines the relationship between structural engineering and architecture beyond the ethos of rationalism, efficiency and optimization, which has characterized not only high-tech design but modern architecture in general.
His experimental, constructive and algorithmic methods open a rich territory for design at different scales and in different media and regimes of matter, extending the horizons of both reason, beauty and possibility.
Soft spoken Cecil Balmond who shows no signs of slowing down, through his long and distinguished career has sought to transform the role of the creator in contemporary architecture with his unorthodox and visionary approach that merges architecture and engineering. A respected and revered luminary in the field of architecture, design and art, the name of Cecil Balmond commands much respect and remains an icon in his genre.

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Filed under cultural transmission, landscape wondrous, life stories, sri lankan society, unusual people

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