Interview by Patrick Steffen, for KLAT Magazine, 18 November 2011. Photograph: Balmond Studio
Mr. Balmond, let’s start from your presence in Los Angeles, what brought you here today?
The reason for this trip is a project in collaboration with 3M, the giant materials and technology corporation. They have invented a new material that transmits daylight and they have asked me to work on a new concept for buildings. We are testing out prototypes lined with a very special material.
Exploring new materials that could change the World of Architecture is an important part of your research?
The materials change and I’m more interested in moving faster and rechanging the way we organize our activity. All my work is related to the philosophy of design. It’s above architecture and that’s where my vision focuses. Throughout the years, I have found that I can go faster and look at new ways just by rethinking. But I’m not looking necessarily for new materials for new ideas. I’m just looking for new ways of how we organize and take decisions.
In this regard, what obstacles do you encounter in the building industry?
I work mainly in the building industry, which is very slow to change. Steel is steel, concrete is concrete and these materials don’t change. Over the last 10 years, computer technology has been promoting new ideas. Now it’s possible to cut the materials to your own specifications. But that’s just the technology of cutting that has changed, the materials are still the same.
Are you currently working on other projects here in the U.S.?
We are still competing for a new art public installation in Miami, Florida. And there are other projects in America which have to be realized, like the Gateway Galaxy installation at Casper College in Wyoming, which will create an inspired place of learning for students. I’m also working on a light sculpture in Anchorage, Alaska, that will be finished by the end of 2012. The last building I did here was the Seattle Library, a collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, but I don’t work that much in America, I do teach here. America is a good place to teach, especially the East coast which has always been a hotbed of ideas: traditionally it’s the intellectual edge of architecture, language and art, even if it is now facing competition from L.A. and Chicago.
As a teacher, you have a particular relationship with the new generation. Is it a specific choice?
Yes, I’ve made a special agreement with myself to always work with young people. Even in my own practice, in my studio and companies, I tend to work directly with young people. Because they are not experienced, they can suggest strange ideas that an experienced person wouldn’t give you. It’s a constant exchange. I started teaching in Germany, in Frankfurt, at the Städelschule in 1978. So, it has been 30 years of teaching, from Frankfurt, to England, to America. We have a research center at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, the Nonlinear Systems Organization (NSO), and in London I set up another research institute called Advanced Geometry Unit (AGU), founded in 2000.
How important is for you to share your knowledge and visions with the new generation?
It’s important and it also allows my thoughts to retain a certain abstraction. My teaching is a part of my research. I have always researched all my life. It is something I have always done and it helps my vision. I have never just practiced, I did that to earn money, I have always written books on research and research is the core of my activity.
Why is research such an essential aspect of your practice as an engineer, architect, and artist?
We live in a contemporary society where values, culture, and inventions are constantly changing. The only way you can keep your antennae open and get new information coming in, if you have an open receiver, is to be in touch with these areas: pure abstract research and research with students.
Would you define yourself as a researcher?
To be honest, I have never had a definition for myself. People always try to categorize me, as a designer, architect, writer, mathematician…
As a musician…
Yes, I was also a musician during my younger years, earning money with it. I played piano and guitar professionally. I grew up in family of musicians, my mother was a piano teacher. For me all is an exploration, I constantly find interest in anything. If you give me a medical book, I will sit and read it and find interest in it that will come back to me in some way, in my work, maybe later, even 20 years after. I have notes that I have kept for a long time. For my most recent research project, I used an idea that I wrote on a piece of paper 20 years ago during a holiday in Seville. I kept looking at it and I knew that it was something interesting… Suddenly a year ago, I felt that I had matured enough to see it in a deeper way. And computing has advanced to such a degree that now it could be cheaper to do this research. If I had it done 20 years ago, it probably would not have happened, people were not skillful enough to do it, and computing hadn’t reached that level. But today’s technology is helping me. And it’s a remarkable research that I will publish next year and it shows some amazing results; a fundamental insight into how things are made. The research goes to the heart of a big architectural debate between morpho-genetics and morpho-dynamics systems. This research checks both sides and it shows that they are actually the same thing, it just depends on how you are looking at it.
And how could we have access to this new research? Is it going to be published in a new book?
Yes. It has to be an entirely new book. It will be a pure research book, focused on that aspect and it will be released maybe at the end of next year. I’m also preparing another book that follows Informal, and it will be for early next year.
(Cecil Balmond takes out his tablet to show some new images of an entire chapter of the new book)
What is interesting, and I can observe it also in your new book, is your attention to details. It seems that writing a book is for you like creating a whole new artistic project. Is that correct?
Absolutely. Writing a book for me is a whole project, like an exhibition, but I hadn’t thought about it like that, until the critic Hans Ulrich Obrist said to me: “Your exhibitions are projects.” And then I realized. And a book is also a complete and independent project. I design every page, every aspect of it, and it takes time! I don’t just accept any old standard graphic. I never give a book to a publisher to do their own graphics, never.
Every time that you start a new project, be it a public art installation, a building or a book, do you follow the same path of creation?
What is the first thing that you do to start the creative process?
I try to be aware of the situation the project is in. If it’s an exhibition, I look at the space. If it’s a building, I sit on the site. If it’s an abstract research project, I go to a mental space. The first thought is always instinctive and is related finding the appropriate solution to that space. If it’s a book, I try to understand what is appropriate for someone to read in this context. How much argument versus how much exposé, how much balance between graphic and content, which is also a crucial thing. We live in a magazine culture, it’s a disposable culture! And there is the tendency to think that people will not engage with something deeper. But I don’t think that. So, I always find an appropriate solution, not the minimum, not the excess. But it’s hard to explain, it’s a pure instinctive thought.
And how do you feel when a project is finished?
I have the feeling that I don’t own it, it passes from me. Let’s take the example of the Bridge in Coimbra, Portugal. It was a very popular project. Everybody loved it instantly. I remember the crowd at the opening, the children were playing with their mothers during the celebration, the mythology of it, the legend of Ines and Pedro and the big puppets… The whole event was like a Fairyland Extravaganza. I just sat back and was part of the audience, I didn’t think that it was my bridge. This attitude comes from a constant investigation. A completed project dies with certainty, but when you have something that has not yet been built, it lives forever and it always pushes you. The inbuilt, like a little piece of paper with an idea or a sketch, is always pushing, is rich, but at the moment you realize it, you are dead with certainty. This is what I said in my first book, Number 9. The mystery it’s poetic. I’m not sentimental about my projects, I leave them.
Exactly. I disappear and I move on before the project is finished. I check everything professionally to keep the original vision and idea, then I move on and by the time it’s finished, I’m already writing a new play. It’s a constant refreshing process. I don’t even go back to look at my projects.