Contemporary practices vital for Sri Lankan architecture

Thursday, 19 February 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The once-ridiculed building ArcelorMittal Orbit, which was even criticised by some as a ‘monstrosity’ when it was in construction stages, has evolved into an iconic emblem of the London Olympics. It even became one of the key milestones in Cecil Balmond’s career, bringing him recognition via the UK’s 2015 New Year’s Honours List. Balmond, who created the Orbit with Anish Kapoor, proved that challenging traditional ways will not be welcome at first, but when it’s accepted, the result becomes a masterpiece. This is exactly what Balmond is putting to paper through his revolutionary designs. Balmond is a radical personality in the field of design; his idea of ‘making the impossible possible’ has taken him beyond being a mere architect and given him the role of an inventor. He embarks on new innovation in the public eye. Algorithms, cellular structure and fractals are just his regular bread and butter. Lankan-born Balmond is on a mission to place Sri Lanka on to the world map on an architectural platform, giving life to one of the biggest projects undertaken in Sri Lanka – The Waterfront by John Keells Holdings (JKH) In an exclusive interview with the Daily FT, the renowned architect spoke about the Order of the British Empire award (OBE) award he won recently, about Waterfront and other significant projects he is undertaking around the world and much more. Following are the excerpts:         By Shehana Dain Q: Why do you think you got this award? A: Well, I think at the moment in the country there were two major monuments. First, the Orbit for the Olympics which I worked on with Anish Kapoor; we worked together as artists and then the same year I won the National Monument for Scotland, which is a big project on the Scottish border. The Orbit is a fantastic creation; it created a whole new landscape, people are going up there and getting married, it’s very popular. Furthermore, my books are very influential; a book of mine is the first major book on architecture in all the universities. You never know who recommends you; somebody recommends you to the committee and the committee recommends you to the Prime Minister. I think probably my profile was more publicly recognised with the Orbit because it’s iconic, but if you make another office building in London, the Londoners won’t know about it.   Q: Is it the most significant award you have got so far? A: No, I don’t think like that. I think in terms of British culture, the OBE is a big deal; the Beatles got the OBE after 30 years. It is a big recognition in Britain because you get many rights and privileges in the country. It gives a status in America and India. Every award I received is special in its own way; the Charles Jencks Award for Theory in Practice was very special for me and the prize Japan gave me, the Gengo Matsui Prize, is a very prestigious award in Japan which only goes to a very few people. They are honours and doesn’t really change what you do; you still have to keep on working hard.   Q: What are the new developments in relation to the Waterfront project? A: We’ve been on site for the last 10 months; it is going well and will take another three to four years to finish. The initial design was done in Europe and we bought it here; Sri Lankans are implementing it.   Q: Are local human resources actively engaged in the Waterfront project? A: Yes, in the Sri Lankan Office we have hired professional senior architects and we have junior architects coming from Moratuwa University. Administration is done in the Sri Lankan office; the mechanical engineers are from the country as well. Except for one Italian architect, everyone else contributing to the project is Sri Lankan.   Q: Have you engaged local talent in foreign projects? A: Yes, that’s happening. I have two major projects in Myanmar – one is the size of Waterfront – and we’re also doing a very big housing project in Myanmar in Colombo. The design is from here; Sri Lankan architects are involved. I’m putting some people in Bangkok and I think we might get some work in Vietnam as well.   Q: Has the regime change affected any of the projects you’re undertaking in Sri Lanka? A: No, none of my projects are affected. It’s still the early days and I think the country needs to go through change; this change after years is needed. It’s same with my staff; after you have someone for a long time, it feels good to go for a change. I hope the new Government will be good.   Q: What sort of new technology have you introduced to Sri Lanka through the Waterfront project? A: Well, we bought organisational skills for big jobs; Sri Lanka hasn’t had big jobs so we hope that people will get trained. The technical design of certain parts of the building; the retail centre roof is a very special innovation that’s a first in Sri Lanka. The rigour of doing big jobs is a thing we bring and the main form and big projections are new to the country. Sri Lanka wants to learn we are here to transfer technology as well. When Sri Lankans get used to this, they will be able to do bigger projects on their own and this will happen as the country is opening up and investments are coming in.   Q: Do you think Sri Lanka has the potential to undertake projects of this nature and scale in the future on its own? A: Sri Lanka has a few big opportunities that are coming up and it will grow with people who can lead these big jobs. A country needs big projects. Sri Lanka hasn’t had the chance for that because of the civil war for 26 years. The country never had a big world class project but now it’s getting around three such projects that I know of; in another 10 years there will be another five such projects.   Q: What are the research areas you are currently working on? A: Mine is one of the few practices that actually has genuine research so I always pay for research. It’s not just looking up books, it is original research looking into certain techniques. There will be a book coming out on my research on ‘making of form and organising’; a lot of my work is about the principals of organisation because we have been thinking in a very old way, it’s a very linear way of thinking. My research will talk about a new way of thinking. I’m interested in non-linear theory which governs stock markets and weather patterns and also surprisingly, you can use that in your day-to-day work. It’s about how things come together, how things get organised; it affects how you decide. It’s a different contemporary concept of thinking which I started engaging in 23 years ago. I saw the world as complex but not complicated whereas up to now the world has been seen as difficult and they make it simple and you lose a lot of information. If you try to make it simplistic, you lose what is really complex. As human beings we do it naturally, but when we try to think we make it complicated.   Q: Why should big investors coming into Sri Lanka choose Balmond studio? A: They see our brand as something excellent which stands for quality. Furthermore, we are familiar with Sri Lanka and its operations. With Waterfront, we are doing all parts of the project – project management, cost consultancies, design, site supervision; it’s a one-stop-shop which is rare because normally architectural practices will only do design or site supervision. We are doing everything. Most foreign customers will say ‘make this project happen for X million amount; here’s the land, here’s the brief’ and then you design it. We can guarantee it finishing on time, so investor return is also guaranteed.   Q: What do the clients expect from you and architectural practice as a whole today? A: What we do really, unlike other practices, is that we are not purely a design practice alone; because of my background in running major companies, I know the business, so clients like to come to us with their investments because we understand the bottom line, we understand the money, the investment profile. We can help through design to improve the bottom line; that’s what we have done with JKH. We advised them on the brief and all aspects. Money is the main thing in architecture; you can have nice designs, but that is limited. Clients today, especially clients investing big money – well, architecture is big money, even $10 million is big money; for rich investors it’s not but still it’s significant money – if they know their money is handled right and if we can add value to the design, if we can come up with a project that saves money, that’s when the client gets what he wants. This is now happening in Sri Lanka. A lot of people are coming to us and saying ‘this is the money, here’s the site, we are thinking of this, can you advise?’ We are helping them make the correct investment decisions.   Q: How can the Sri Lankan architectural practice improve? A: Well, Sri Lanka is a very exciting place to be now, and for me the country has always been about the ‘art of the possible’. People here are quite innovative, they have just not had the exposure and experience with big projects and been able to organise themselves. I think Sri Lanka should embrace contemporary practices. There’s still a lot of looking back at the old ways. Also there’s still a bit of small thinking going on; they like their old ways, they’re comfortable with them, but there has to be a much more rigorous way of working, certainly in my area of work. Sri Lanka has not been exposed to contemporary ways in certain designs for a long time. It’s still the Bawa tradition in architecture that is more commonly practised, which is an old formal tradition. It’s okay but it doesn’t serve Sri Lanka today; there’s new talent around and with computer technology, the world has opened up with information. I think the country’s IT skills are good, but the design skills need to embrace bigger scopes of work, which will come with time. It’s not the fault of the country, it simply has not had the opportunities.   Q: Do you think you have built the dream project of your lifetime? A: If you’re a creative person, you always think the next project will be even better; you’re always looking for something. Even if you are a financial engineering person – I know a lot of people managing the markets in London – when you talk to them and ask them what their best deal is, they will always feel there’s a better deal to come, more structuring and more manoeuvring to be done.   Q: How has 2015 been so far? A: We have a new project down south in Galle, a small high-end boutique hotel which we got two weeks ago from rich investors. They are interested in Sri Lanka as they see stability; even after the regime change, they want to invest in Sri Lanka. We are also doing a Jetwing hotel in Arugam Bay. Some clients are asking us to design some villas in Kandy as we undertake small projects as well.   Q: What are the other major projects you will be undertaking around the world? A: Right now I’m concentrating more on the Asian region; mainly the two major projects in Sri Lanka and Thailand and also Vietnam and in India maybe, but I’m not quite sure about it. In Europe and in America I have a lot of public artwork – in Chicago, Iowa city, Phoenix Arizona and Los Angeles. So I have four major artwork projects. – Pix by Upul Abayasekara