What Lies Beneath
Cecil Balmond: Solid Void

Beneath the dense and multidimensional appearances of our world lies an endless cascade of numbers, an irrigating flood of numerical updates, cross-references, algorithmic feeds, averages, and distributions; they do not interact with one another through the predictable linear protocols of classical geometry, but behave more like the mysterious webs and catalytic reactions of chemistry. That is the cosmological premise of The Matrix, the 1999 film whose depiction of an unending tide of numbers suggested that physical reality, far from being the brute guarantor and foundation of all other realities, is itself the result of a complex set of mirages provided by the hydraulic pressure of numbers surging and organizing behind it. The lived world is fragile, magical, and unstable, but most of all, the movie showed it to be a secondary effect contingent on a relentless calculus of relations. Individual numbers may well be pure abstractions—false or “misplaced concreteness,” as the philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once declared them—but their interactions within moving streams are entirely real. 

The current exhibition of work by Cecil Balmond at the Graham Foundation in Chicago provides just this kind of improbable excursion into the metaphysics of numbers, as well as into the invisible but intensely active plenum that is space. But most of all, it is about the art of making buildings stand up in entirely new ways. Solid Void is primarily an installation: a three-dimensional metallic filigree “sprouted” on a simple isotropic (eight-inch or so) grid that propagates itself like a repeating digital flora—hence its name H_edge—throughout the ground floor of the Graham Foundation. The work is intended to invoke digital modalities of assembly, patterns of biological propagation and variation, as well as the more architecturally familiar mechanical-tectonic principles and especially their limits. Balmond’s H_edge is at once marvelous to look at, to press on, and to contemplate, and it concisely and clearly sums up Balmond’s entire project within a simple, almost homemade structure—a notable feat given that he inhabits the rarefied stratosphere of magician-engineers.

H_edge demonstrates to all who visit it that a building does not have to “stand up” in order to maintain its erect dignity and stability; it can snatch its structure elsewhere than from the clichés of gravity and its classical counterpoint, the post and lintel. H_edge posits the idea that tension and compression are present like a foam in space, hidden by nature and disposition within every point and molecule, waiting only to be harvested by some ingenious trick. With astounding simplicity, H_edge transposes the compression members into tension ones and vice versa: The “matrix” of cut aluminum plates flexes against the limits of the chain link’s potential for expansion along its length and converts the chain into a taut and scalable column, like in the famous Indian rope trick to which Balmond refers in his commentary on the work. More accurately, H_edge abolishes the compressive column entirely by showing that counterpoint is discoverable everywhere, and can be tapped to hang one’s coat on anywhere one wishes. It is, of course, not magic at all, as every one of his demonstrably stable structures clearly proves. Void is solid; solid is a type of matter or “materiality”; and matter is rife with counter-forces that need only be selected and put at the service of global structure. Sailors, for example, know that sailing close to the wind delivers more efficiency than sailing downwind. Balmond is the first to have brought this counterintuitive insight into the world of solids as well. 

The second floor of the Graham manse provides an extended documentary storyboard of Balmond’s intellectual trajectory, a kind of Natural History Museum of the history of numbers and forms that is no less imaginative than the great metafictional displays of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. The display is saturated with exquisite demonstrations and concrete architectural details, models, video clips, animations, algebraic demonstrations, and speculations on the nature and future of form. It also contains the room-filling quasi-crystal structure Danzer, in which every glyptic facet connects with, and participates in, the articulation of every other in an unstoppable, but this time imploding, fractal cascade. But Balmond’s world is not exclusive, and while his deepest current inclinations tend toward dissymmetry and disequilibrium (extreme architectural performance), he does not shy from including loyal reflections on classical proportion and balance, or even on the numerological curiosities of quasi-science (which, to be fair, did not frighten Newton either).

Balmond is one of those rare engineers with a license to speculate, to experiment and invent, and not only to solve. His emerging specialty is the architectural “thought experiment”: As director of the Advanced Geometry Unit at Britain’s Arup engineering firm and now as an independent designer himself, he is a collaborator on high-profile “hypotheses” such as the Libeskind, Koolhaas, Ito, and Siza pavilions for London’s Serpentine Gallery, and he designed the Coimbra pedestrian bridge in Portugal, his first solo project. While his business is numbers, his vocation is form. And he knows that the relationship between the two is where the openness of life and nature reside. His exhibition is a form of scientific autobiography for the generation of designers—curiously, mostly in advanced phases of their careers—that is just beginning to emerge revolutionized and reborn. Young computer-based designers ought to take a long, soul-searching look here to be reminded of what density of insight they may be forsaking in the name of the hastily-conceived radicality they have proclaimed for themselves, which may not be all it’s cracked up to be. 

Sanford Kwinter

Sanford Kwinter is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, and the author, most recently, of Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture.