Call it the 40-year itch. At age 67 and after four decades building a global reputation for and at the UK-based engineering firm Arup, Cecil Balmond has announced plans to set up a studio of his own “to make more things.”
Reached by phone as he crisscrossed London in a taxicab, Balmond was happy to discuss his options. After successful art installations in Chicago last year and in Tokyo this year, Balmond said that he felt encouraged to do more installation work exploring “seriality as it relates to forms, ratios, and ideas,” perhaps expanding it to the scale of modular housing.
With more exhibition offers in the pipeline, he has been approached as well about product-design opportunities by a large European manufacturer, who came to him after seeing the 2006 bridge with kaleidoscopic panels that he designed in Coimbra, Portugal. Of this he would only say “it’s under wraps.”
Rather than restless, Balmond seems simply eager for the widest range of design work possible, as if working on the Seattle Library and CCTV with Rem Koolhaas and the Imperial War Museum with Daniel Libeskind, among other celebrated buildings, did not offer variety enough. “I’d like to design letterhead,” he exclaimed.
Asked if he had modeled his own career—which has included teaching, writing (his manifesto Informal is now in its fifth printing), and collaborating—after some distinguished figure in engineering history, he said, “No, I don’t follow anyone. There’s a whole collection of wisdom one has gained and absorbed. I get what I can, and move on.” Informal 2 is coming out next spring.
Balmond has garnered co-authorship from architects (Koolhaas at CCTV; Alvaro Siza at the 2005 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion) and artists (Anish Kapoor on the sculpture Temenos and a tower for London’s 2012 Olympics), a feat perhaps unprecedented in contemporary architecture. “I didn’t have to fight for it,” he said. “It just happened as part of the flow.” But he doesn’t see the roles of architect and engineer melding, suggesting it’s a matter of “scale and ambition.” On routine projects, each practitioner naturally and necessarily remains distinct, with one bringing “scientific rigor” and the other an awareness of “program and past references.”
As for his legacy at Arup, Balmond spoke of his role in expanding the firm’s European presence and in pioneering a relationship with the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, now an influential rite of summer in London. Though Arup employees number thousands in over 30 countries, Balmond’s studio will remain small and concentrated, a maximum of 14 to 16 people with different skills; he already has a philosopher from Oxford on board. “Now that I am free from corporate duties, I can concentrate on my agenda,” he said. “It’s a very good place to be.”