Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Rhythm king

Music, sculpture and number theory have shaped the way Arup deputy chairman Cecil Balmond designs structures. Ruby Kitching met him.

I used to play guitar with lots of bands in Nigeria? I even had my own TV show there, ' says Cecil Balmond in passing when we meet at his Mornington Crescent office This and other throwaway comments during our conversation, mark out Arup's deputy chairman and head of global building as no ordinary engineer.

He is the brains behind some of the most innovative and eye catching structural designs of recent years - Anish Kapoor's massive red ear trumpet style sculpture at the Tate Modern, Beijing's China Central Television building and Frank Ghery's distorted glass spiral extension proposed for the Victoria & Albert Museum (see boxes).

Balmond is currently overseeing the construction of his first footbridge and this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London's Hyde Park.

The common theme running through all these projects is their strong sculptural quality, born from what Balmond puts down to simple geometry and a prominent sense of rhythm.

He was born in Sri Lanka in 1944 to a mother who was a classical musician and a father who played jazz. Balmond subsequently took up classical and amenco guitar.

'But I found that I was good at maths which streamlined my career towards the sciences'.

When Sri Lanka's racial problems intensified in the late 1960s, he moved to Nigeria to continue his studies in chemistry.

Never one to limit his learning to text books, Balmond also soaked up all that African culture had to offer - in particular African drumming and sculpture. He explains that the experience developed his appreciation for three dimensional design and an obsession with rhythm.

His next move was to study civil engineering at London's Imperial College in the mid 1960s 'because I wanted to travel the world, and being a civil engineer was the best way to do it'.

He chose a good time to enter the profession. Structural engineering was shifting from the conservative theories of elastic design to limit state design where material strengths were considered in more detail.

With these new analytical tools, the young Balmond felt that he was on the cusp of a purer form of engineering which went back to fundamental principles. Later, understanding these principles helped him push designs beyond the constraints imposed by text books and codes.

The young Balmond never lost his love for music while his engineering expertise developed.

When he first moved to Arup in 1968, he was gigging around the country and teaching guitar to colleagues after work.

His passion was Johann Sebastian Bach's Chaconne in D minor arranged for the guitar.

'I used to get up every morning to practise it. I was amazed at how such a small shift [in notes and timing] takes you to a completely different place. It's the same in design, ' he says.

But it was only when he reached his 30s that the strands of music, rhythm, architecture and structure came together in his own mind. Working with architect James Stirling on the Stuttgart Art Gallery in the late 1970s helped him combine these passions.

'I learned from them, ' he says. 'Structure is about punctuating space; it has a rhythm. And architecture is the assembly of spaces and movement through spaces.' But rst and foremost, Balmond is an engineer - 'It's just that I want to take the creative force behind engineering to a higher level, ' he says, adding that all which could be perceived as geeky about engineers should be celebrated.

'It's engineers who make things happen. We are ideally placed to solve the problems of urbanisation - water shortages and energy needs.

'Society needs us and we've got the thought processes to solve these fundamental problems - we just need to see a civil engineer in the Cabinet Office, ' he says excitedly, adding, 'but it's still a big turn off to tell someone at a party that you're an engineer'.

Balmond also heads up Arup's Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU) which looks at advances in mathematical and finite element analysis, to progress structural engineering design. The group comprises scientists, architects and engineers who are currently working on the gravity-defying glazed atrium which will form part of Battersea Power Station's redevelopment.

'It used to be that architects pushed [building design] forward and engineers made it work.

That's changing now, ' he says.

Balmond explains what inspired him to start up the Advanced Geometry Unit.

'Architecture used to be fixed about a centre with lots of symmetry, but once they started displacing that and then shifting the x and y axis, they found a way where space could order itself.' The unit investigates this area from an engineer's perspective.

Balmond has carved a niche for himself in this area, perhaps because many other engineers are too blinkered to understand this field, often, because of their training (see news).

The respective approaches of architecture and engineering to training are among Balmond's frustrations. He dislikes the fact that architects are trained to be creative and more open to new design techniques, while engineers are taught formulae and design to building codes.

'Architectural schools are going beyond engineering schools, ' he says regretfully.

This is probably why Balmond's cv contains many professorships of architecture ?Yale, Harvard, the Architectural Association but no affiliations to university engineering departments. 'I've never been asked, ' he says.

The engineering community is surely missing out.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.