Balmond: Making the impossible possible

Tuesday, 14 October 2014 00:32 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Architecture for many is about defining a building but for world renowned Designer and Architect Cecil Balmond it is much more than that. Daring to be different and breaking all boundaries,  the Lankan-born designer, also an artist and writer, has put up across the world some truly ‘impossible’ buildings such as the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London and the CCTV building in Beijing, to name a few. To him it is as simple as drawing accurate the first line.   It is because of his creative storytelling through complex design and new forms that has him bringing to life Sri Lanka’s biggest private sector investment, the Waterfront by John Keells Holdings (JKH). With the project being amongst the top three in his most outstanding work list, Balmond is confident the Waterfront will be “nothing like Sri Lanka has ever seen” and is an opportunity to put the nation on the world map. In an exclusive interview with the Daily FT, the renowned architect who is proud of his Lankan roots spoke at length about his work, inspiration, Sri Lanka’s largest project and much more. Following are the excerpts of the interview: By Shabiya Ali Ahlam                           Q: Tell us a bit about your work and how it has been for the past 10 years? A: My work has been widening from architecture and planning into public artwork. I have my own venture ‘Balmond Studio’ which is a research-led practice of architects, designers, artists and theoreticians. With its presence in London, UK, Colombo, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong it has a global reach and fast growing influence in the fields of architecture, art, design and theory. In addition to full architectural and consulting services, including project management and cost consultancy, the studio offers multi-faceted experiences through public art, exhibitions and publications. As for how my work has been in the last 10 years, it is certainly evolving. It has gone from planning, to master planning, undertaking of large urban projects such as the Waterfront by John Keells Holdings in Colombo. We are also hoping that in Colombo we can soon start building prototypes. Q: Balmond Studio has its offices in three countries and that is quite a spread. How much are you involved in the projects undertaken by the Studio? A: I am hands on. I provide the strategic direction so with that I am engaged with the projects. Q: Architecture as a profession, how has it evolved? A: It just gets more and more exciting because the scale is just getting bigger and bigger. Much to the surprise of many I still do small scale projects. With technology having grown so much, we have taken the most of it by using highly advanced techniques, that way Balmond has advanced its product. We have our own software writers and by doing our own coding we imagine architecture in our own way. A lot of the artwork is done that way. Q: Would you say that the use of advanced technology is what makes Balmond unique? A: I would say that we are unique in two ways. Balmond embodies research as a real driver and it also has a broad front from architecture to art, and these are two defining parts. Other practices do some of that, but not all. We bring it all in together; research informs the art and also the architecture. It is a full package. We try not to be too corporate. We call it a studio because it has a studio culture. It is an academia of ideas; it is an idea factory; that is what Balmond is. Q: What are the current trends in this area? What is done differently now? A: One that has emerged in the last 10 years is sustainability. Now it is more about using intelligent materials and the orientation of buildings, it has a lot to do with ecology. That is a new trend. The other technique is computing in a new way, coding and all the young architects study this in USA, I teach it to my students. Then is the thinking in a non-linear manner. It is not a classical way of thinking when making an architectural form, landscape or even city planning. There is a whole new trend in thinking about it in a non-linear manner. It means to not have straight logic but have simultaneous ideas. It is about having a new and fresh look. In the past it was about having foundation, columns and roof, so what happens when there are no columns? What can you do to make the roof stand up by itself? My background in structural engineering, art and architecture allows me to think differently and the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London is a good example. It just works and that is revolutionary. The way we are creating forms is new. Even with the Waterfront, the façades, it is done in an entirely new way. So the techniques are changing where it is done through coding and sustainability is becoming more interesting. Q: What is your take on the architectural practice in Sri Lanka? A: Sri Lanka has a lot of talent and I think they never had the chance to do big work. With large projects such as the Waterfront the technology will transfer. In China for example they were previously seeking outside assistance for putting up the infrastructure for the Olympics and they took that opportunity to learn and they did it fast. Now they are doing it on their own. A country like Sri Lanka that is emerging after the war needs to get a big foreign input, they will then learn from the technology transfer. It is our duty to do that and that is exactly what Balmond is doing by involving young architecture talent in Sri Lanka. Q: Could you share details about the Waterfront by JHK. It is by far the largest private sector investment in Sri Lanka. What new things will we be seeing there? A: The Waterfront is very unique. It will be big icon for the region and not just Sri Lanka. It is interesting that having seen the design of the Waterfront, many countries now want something similar; they want that type of architecture. So Sri Lanka is on the spotlight, and I am very proud of being a Sri Lankan. The Waterfront is certainly different since for Sri Lanka it will be a mini city within a city. It has 850 bed hotel, lovely retail centre, conference facilities and 400 apartment units. These are just few of the elements it would consist; it is much more than that. From an architecture and design point of view it will be a composition of several forms. The retail centre is a new one for Sri Lanka as it will have a curving double roof. It will be like nothing Sri Lanka has ever seen. JKH wanted an iconic project. They wanted something special for their largest investment. They were looking at other people as well to take this up but we got the job because of our ideas. I sketched a different piece all together. When you look at the form it takes the pattern of the Beira lake, puts it up and then shoots out to the horizon which is very much like the ambition of JKH, which is there is no limit to it, to be the biggest, and I thought this form would best express that. It is certainly wow. The time frame of the project is six years where two years is for design and four for building. For this project we have about 8,000 drawings. That is what we bring, the western technology of no shortcuts. This is something Sri Lanka has to learn more, about rigorous methods when the project is big.                         Q: What is the challenge in putting up what would be one of Sri Lanka’s largest projects? A: The scale. Nothing this big has happened in Sri Lanka so the scale is a big challenge. That is why we had some of the finest talent from our UK office come here. Balmond Studio is responsible for project management, all design and site supervision. We are handling the total package. Sri Lankan ability is good but they have never been exposed to a multi-scale project where all is happening at one time. Here there are three towers, with a hotel that is as big as the three towers, a retail centre with a curve roof, something that has never been built in Sri Lanka. For the necessary infrastructure such as electricity and sewage treatment we had to meet with the local authorities and the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has been very supportive. I work all over the world and I am very pleased the way things were handled by the UDA. It is not easy to get a job this big done. Q: Will the Waterfront involve local talent from outside the Studio? A: We have a senior Sri Lankan architect who used to work with Geoffrey Bawa with us for this project. We are in the midst of recruiting young people. It is a Sri Lankan office here apart from two or three expatriates. Sri Lanka certainly owns the project. I must mention that there is a Burma project that we will be doing in Sri Lanka. That is the next step, to export. We will improve the catchment of our projects here by working with the locals and then export the idea. Sri Lanka can work abroad. That is one of the fundamentals we want to work from here in the region. Q:  Could you tell us about your project in Kalpitiya?  What is unique about it and why are you close to that property? A:  Kalpitiya project I began it with John. I gave the conceptual ideas and then John took it from there and brought it to completion. It is a vernacular architecture mixed with western ideas of accommodation and materials from Sri Lanka. We developed the property based on how the villagers were living. It has been in operation for nearly four years now and has been a real hit. This then led to another project deep in the jungle of Gal Oya. What is best about this project is that it was built by the people of the two villages. With these projects we are going mega modern and then back to the basics of Sri Lanka, it has a local theme. Q: As for art there is a story behind every piece, is it the same for architecture? A:  Well behind the commercial project of JKH was the story of icon for Sri Lanka, it is a narrative of success, which is that Sri Lanka is emerging big from the war. It is a world statement. The construction alone is just $ 650 million; it is major by any standard in the world. My own personal ambition is to put Sri Lanka on the world map, and the Waterfront gives me that opportunity. Kalpitiya the story is different. My family was caught in the Tsunami of 2004, we were in Nilaveli and we all survived. When we came back to England we wanted to give something back and do something for the country. We gave charity and I did the master-plan for the Oluvil University for free. But then we also wanted to identify this with a land. We had a plot in Kalpitiya and thought of building a little place for visitors and help bring tourists into Sri Lanka using my name because the world will be surprised what Balmond will be doing in a village. We will also be running an architecture school there. Once a year we plan on having a two week seminar there where I myself will be teaching. So there is a story there. The idea is to bring in tourism through our band of architecture because the philosophy is that if the design is good people get happier and will like to come. It is much about the place. It is a secret of design to bring happiness in, it is not a formula. It is how you position the elements. It is quite a lot of meticulous planning that goes into our work. Q: What is your inspiration? A: I like people to come inhabit the work and feel happy. It is simple, you do it for other people, you don’t do it for yourself. You get recognition and all but the pleasure we get is when people enjoy our work. In Kalpitiya it is rewarding to hear when our guests say they redo their entire travel plan to visit our property. We will be extending our work since we want people to enjoy Sri Lanka in our place. I enjoy in a bigger sense when people are part of the buildings that I create, weather it is in America, Hong Kong or Sri Lanka. The success is in what I call footfall. If people keep going there is something in it. That gives me the inspiration, people interaction. Q: If you were to pick three of your outstanding projects, what would it be? A: One would be the Serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park in London; it has become an icon in the world now. The other will be the CCTV building in Beijing. It is a big monster building, it was an impossible project, and it has 16 floors that have nothing underneath. And the Waterfront, definitely, it is outstanding and new. Q: What is the message you have for Sri Lanka? A: I am very proud of Sri Lanka at this moment. During the war it was all bad news, we didn’t want to come back since there was nothing to comeback to. I was in UK at the time making a reputation. I visited the Arcade building in Independence square and I must say that it is beautiful. I am very proud of it. The thing to say seriously is that Sri Lanka is in the beginning of a great wave. All the talent is there but needed is rigorous methods to come in to harvest that talent. I learnt the hard way. I had talented teachers but I worked really hard. What the West gave me was training in rigorous methods and we need that in Sri Lanka. That will come when it opens up. When project like the Waterfront happens it will come, engineers will be more adventurous and the architects will work with new coding. Architecture is really testing of prototypes, and if you are looking to advance in that profession you need to continue to do that. It is about thinking out of the box, and going back and making one in a different way. I am very optimistic about Sri Lanka.