Advancing Geometries
Cecil Balmond (Balmond Studio)


Cecil Balmond

©Arup Associates

I grew up in Sri Lanka, I was born in Colombo, and my father was half English on his grandfather's side. And so English was also spoken in the house, and there was my father was university man so he ran the university. He was a historian and academically very bright and so the house was full of books, and he didn't have much truck with science: he was an arts man, and that was what life was about. My mother was a classical pianist, and so I was surrounded by, let's say artistic things, or pursuit of the arts, and friends who came to our homes were similarly minded. So, at the age of thirteen, at school when the Master Vice Principal came round and said Balmond - arts or science? I sort of put my hand up and shockingly said "science". And the reason I said that was I'd had a sort of Damascene moment I suppose. I was struggling with geometry and Euclidean maths really, but there was this amazing moment from being middle of the class or something. I suddenly was top of the class because I was, suddenly saw the whole meaning of the theorem I was looking at. It really was a moment. I went back home that day thinking I can see everything in this geometry and that empowered me and also I knew in Sri Lanka at the time the only future jobs were for doctors and engineers - that's what you heard. And so I started following an engineering course, and in trepidation because the other Vice Principal (we had two), who was my English master, said "Balmond, you're making a big mistake, you will regret this with time". And that was a terrible thing for a thirteen year old to hear. And somewhere around the age of fourteen/fifteen as well, I can't believe it now, but at that time, late 50s, there was the thought that some of the devil was in science. I don't know where we got that from but that was there and I started rebelling inside against that. I somehow felt that wasn't right. I was quite religious when I was young, and I served in church, and I didn't know what God was but somehow I felt there was such stunning beauty in science. By this time I was very fluent in pure mathematics. I was top of the class every time same with geometry so the abstractions were very strong in me. I didn't realise that at the time they were just a subject that I get one hundred percent in, so why not? And I looked sadly at the, or happily at the, arts people who had to write huge essays and could never get one hundred percent because you get seventy or eighty. So anyway that went on and then when I looked through the microscope and started finding the structure of materials and the beauty of these things I was looking at, I was quite convinced that there was a real lodestone of beauty, whatever that meant to me. So I pursued physics and chemistry, and did well at all of that, and then applied to the engineering school, and that was a very tough moment for me because my father ran the university. There's only one university at that time. A thousand people would sit for the engineering, and only a hundred places, and the medicine, it was even tougher from what I heard. And I was petrified that I would fail my father by never getting in and he was as I said an outstanding academic anyway and unfortunately I was brought up in his own school where he had won all the prizes. So I used to sit in the main room and look at his name on every board and wonder whether my name would ever be there. I never really thought of it that way, it was more like trying to I suppose satisfy your father in some way. And I did get in and that was fine and I was bent on a science career and I very quickly in my first year of university got into a group of physicists, and I found that their learning was even better than mine; that their power of maths and they would talk fluently about Einstein, and Cauchy Riemann integrals and things that were way beyond what I was studying. So I bought the books and then found that I could understand this stuff, and I began to understand the beauty of Einstein, at a very tender age: twenty one, twenty, without quite understanding the full implications, but I realised that I could probe deeply into science because I had the language of mathematics to understand. Meanwhile, of course, I'd kept up sketching and painting and all the things I used to do, and music. I began to my long love with music started about then, partly because my father was a musician; my mother (he was an amateur, she was more pro). I never really played anything for a while, and it's only after I left a home and things, I picked up a guitar and began to think of music. But at the same time I was in Colombo; we were Christian, my family, and as I said, not English, but Western background and English was the first language at home, though we all spoke two to three languages in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese or Tamil - I spoke Sinhalese. And then the ethnic trouble started. It had started when I was thirteen. There was one terrible two to three weeks when there was anarchy in the country, and it destabilised me in that the very fabric I thought I was born into was torn apart, when Sinhalese kill Tamil. And our ethnic group was outside that, but it was very worrying. My father had to sort out student mobs, and I saw him disappear into the mob one day and we thought we never see me again. So, but then I grew out of that as you do when you're young I forgot about it. But it all came back when I was about eighteen, nineteen, twenty when the troubles were starting again. And then my father was, he was not of the right mix, being a Christian and western background, they wanted a Buddhist with a more Sinhalese background. He was eased out of his position from government pressure, because it was a top job, and he was pretty pissed off with that, and left. And he was known enough so he left and I was left behind, and about a year later in the middle of my university career in Sri Lanka, I just looked up I think it was like looking up at the sky again, and feeling this is very small place. And my father and mother were sort of thousands of miles away; maybe I should see the world. And I wrote to him and again he was marvellous he said you're throwing away something that's very difficult to get in Sri Lanka you're in the middle of your training and study, but if you want to leave it and take your chance in the world, I won't stop you, but I can't guarantee you anything. Whereas where you are you are absolutely guaranteed a great career in Sri Lanka. So I left, it was the first huge personal decision I took in my life I think; it was totally foolish from every point of view at the time. My grandmother was appalled, and all my uncles said they could not believe it. I was the only one of my cousins being educated like that - others had not got into university - so it was like throwing away everything you work for. So, but anyway as a young man you sort of set, put your face to the wind, and off you go. And so I landed in England where my father knew Sir Ivor Jennings from his university, who was Chancellor of Cambridge. And I talked to Sir Ivor who we knew quite well when he was running, he was the Chancellor of the University of Ceylon at one time; so anyway he advised me and he said, yeah well engineering was the choice degree, and these were the good universities: Edinburgh, Durham, Belfast, Cambridge. And I had to wait another year for Cambridge, for the tripos exam and I'd already lost two years so I went into Southampton, where a young man called Professor Maurice I was told was breaking ground with new thinking in engineering and structures. And so the reason I took engineering as well I thought it's something I could travel the world with. Being brought up in a multicultural island like Sri Lanka as well I just felt the world was a big place, and I wanted to travel. I wanted to be in Africa building dams; I wanted to go and build roads across Australia whatever you know the sort of huge romantic 'Brunelesque' feeling of doing big things over there, you know, and working in great places. There was such a feeling. And I suppose that instinct was there for civil engineering. And in fact that was the degree in Britain, there was no degree for structure, and I didn't know what structure was, I just did civil engineering. But I graduated and then went to Africa, part of my quest, and immediately plunged into a whole world that I had not known. I looked around for a job, and I'd heard of Arup, and they had a small outpost in Africa in Nigeria so I joined them there, very much as an apprentice taken on at a low scale of wages, a locum almost, not any privilege there. I did that for a couple of years but felt limited, and I came back and I thought where do I go next, and London seemed obvious. And I came here to London, and within about, I was interviewed here by the head office and in about six months I met Sir Ove Arup (at the time Ove Arup).


Sir Ove Arup

©Arup Associates

And within a few months of this place, at the time when I came to England I was terrified because there were Teddy Boy riots going on, and people were being beaten up in Piccadilly Circus, Asians and blacks and all that. So I was very scared but nothing happened to me. When Arup was this very friendly place where I was settled, and I remember going to interviews with Sir Halcrow and other sort of big engineering firms, and it was very stiff and formal and people wearing ties... They were here too but although I don't think he had a tie, I can't remember anyway, but I was settled within a day you, know. And I remember meeting him in the lift sort of a week later and he said "Hello Cecil" and I thought that's very impressive, you know, he remembered who the hell I was. And I loved this Arup sort of place - whatever this was. It seemed a great place and it was full of ideas, and people were working - and in fact we called the university of ideas at the time. And I thought I haven't joined a company, I've joined something else. Coming from a university background this was the perfect words for me to hear, and I thought yes, this is a good place. And then I thought, well what is this thing called engineering now, you know, what is this thing? And I soon decided... they gave me bridges, and I did roads and things and I thought, I like the look of buildings. And I started doing some buildings, and then realised I needed more training, but I wanted to learn more in a way. And at the time Arups was heavily influencing Imperial College of Science on their post-graduate training, and one of my bosses said you know you should go to Imperial College and do a Masters, and do a PH-whatever. So I went for interview. Arups wanted to sponsor me, and I decided not to - I didn't want to be owned by the firm. I went and did it myself, and got a bursary and got a sponsorship. And so I did some postgraduate training. By this time a pragmatic feeling of practice was sort of growing in me slightly, and so from being more text book like, which scientific training does. I came into the idea of buildings being more of an art form than science, and gradually got involved. And of course in the early days I was soon with Fry/Drew, and within a year I was suddenly in Boston with Gropius's old firm The Architects Collaborative because my senior wouldn't go - he had some problem - so I was sent as a very young man and I met Serge Chermayeff.

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