Structure as natural philosophy

by Julian Worrall

“Cecil Balmond is seen as being almost divine in Japan,” says Shino Nomura, the curator of the latest exhibition at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.

Titled “Element: Cecil Balmond,” the show is a dive into the mind and work of perhaps the most celebrated structural engineer alive. Though not quite a household name, Balmond, a Sri Lankan-born and London-based director of storied engineering consultancy ARUP, is revered among architects and engineers not only for his virtuoso collaborations with pioneering architects on iconic buildings but also for his revolutionary, almost spiritual understanding of structure and space as emerging from latent generative principles hidden in the forms of nature. Part science, part art and part philosophy, his thought evades easy categorization, weaving its own connections to produce mesmerizing creations.

At the core of this show is an exploration of the relations between the forms created by nature and forms created by man. The “element” of the title refers to these two fundamental realms of existence. In Balmond’s words, there is “the element of nature, out there; and the element that is within us, our artificiality.” These two realms are allocated to the two main halls of the gallery.

The first hall is filled with a colorful labyrinth of tall banners, displaying photographs of nature — landscapes, clouds, flames, ice, waves — overlaid with fluid sketches. The sketches, which look like abstract diagrams, are Balmond’s drawings of the patterns he perceives in the photographs. They capture abstractions of nature, filtered through an intricate mental sieve, woven fine enough to catch the most fleeting of perceptions to reveal a deeper logic.

“In the general landscape we see,” Balmond observes, “we usually have branching systems, folding systems, and underneath it all, packing systems. And we begin to abstract from this, creating geometry, and abstract further still to create the symbols of mathematics. With these virtual codes we can then invent external facts (such as buildings), and when we make those external facts, we look again, and speculate about abstracting again. So, it is like a cycle. What connects the two, are systems of organization and patterns.”

For Balmond, mathematics provides the language through which these patterns are grasped, and algorithms the means of spinning these into new forms. The rhythms and symmetries of numbers encode those of nature. For example, the branching patterns of leaves around a plant stem reveals the Fibonacci series and conceals the Golden Ratio. Such analyses are gathered in “Reciprocal Grid,” an installation consisting of transparent acrylic panels bearing cryptic diagrams. Feeling something like the crystalline notebook of a Leonardo da Vinci of the future, it is a dense and rather inaccessible piece, whose content is encoded in symbols rather than enacted in its form.

The show really comes alive in the second hall, when these patterns and rhythms sourced in nature are recombined into large installations within a space of “pure abstraction.” The pieces here, named “H_edge” and “Danzer,” are the most tangible manifestations of Balmond’s thinking, and form the experiential heart of the show. Both are developed algorithmically from systems of packing volumes based on fractals — those mathematical figures of uncertain dimension that display endlessly unfolding complexity at whatever scale they are viewed.

“H_edge,” in particular, is a bewitching manifestation of this idea. A roughly cubical construction consisting of 7,000 aluminum pieces held aloft by slender stainless-steel chains that climb rather than hang, the work condenses Balmond’s insights into nature’s hidden logics to a magical apparition both stunning and baffling. Neither the enigma of its form nor its scintillating beauty are diminished by the ready explanation in terms of prestressed structures: that the chains are stretched and held in tension by the cross-pieces under compression. Both an aggregation of elements and a concatenation of holes, neither solid nor void, “H_edge” presents a revelation of the invisible forces that suffuse and order everything around us.

“Danzer,” the other installation in the hall, consists of two truncated tetrahedrons — one black, the other luminous white — whose volumes are formed from the packing of four tetrahedral pieces at different scales. These cascading scales of fractal composition are revealed in the splintered and mirrored faces of the forms, the manifestation of a conception of space as a nested packing of self-similar volumes at an endless chain of scales.

These works are distillations of Balmond’s quest to recover the animating principles governing space and form, and reveal their limitless generative potential. “All my work,” says Balmond, “has been looking for an animation in the sense of making space.” This capacity to articulate a dynamic conception of space has drawn leading architects to seek collaborations with him on some of the most celebrated buildings of our age. Balmond’s structural imagination is manifest in the elegant tracery of Toyo Ito’s 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in London, the muscular audacity of Rem Koolhaas’ 2008 CCTV Tower in Beijing, and numerous other projects. A selection of these collaborations are presented as the coda to the show, in wall posters and videos.

In his work and persona, Balmond comes across as the living embodiment of a certain type of thinker that has almost been lost to the modern world. The implacable advance of specialization and professionalization has resulted in standardized working methods and narrowly fragmented fields of expertise. Balmond’s mind works synthetically, metaphorically, musically, spanning from the mathematical to the poetical. “I have always thought of myself as more of a natural philosopher than as an engineer,” he tells me, using the old term for thinkers who devoted themselves to the elucidation of nature’s mysteries before the emergence of modern science. This show — dense, occasionally cryptic, often beautiful and always fascinating — offers a beguiling glimpse into that mind. I can’t help but imagine what kind of world we could make if such minds were once again the norm.

“Element: Cecil Balmond” at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs till March 22; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (till 8 p.m. Fri, closed Mon.) For more information, call 03-5353-0756 or visit