Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cecil Balmond - Element.

Cecil Balmond Element. New York: Prestel Verlag, 2007.

Element is the latest book by Cecil Balmond, the first one after Informal. However, it is significantly different in content and scope from the later. Someone that expects to find here information on his latest projects or on the algorithmic processes and techniques that he employs will be disappointed. Element is primary a ‘photo album’. Cecil Balmond is capturing with his camera elements of the space around us and then he sketches on top of them trying to point out what might not be visible at a first glance: hidden structures and patterns. Text and diagrams are only complementary and they remain in an abstract or poetic form avoiding becoming more systematic or explanatory.

Cecil Balmonds approach to the generation of form is almost a metaphysical one. And this book is definitely reinforcing this idea. The observation of nature and the subsequent use of algebra and geometry are leading to the discovery of what was always there. That seems to be the thesis of the book; what this collection of photographs and sketches is trying to point out. Nature is understood in the context of this publication as an endless ‘book of learning’, that we have to study and observe in order to understand and discover its deeper structures.
Of course one can question that approach: why should we look at nature as the ultimate reference, and consequently try to discover what is hidden there, and not employ instead generative methods in order to invent new, artificial or manmade, structures and patterns that maybe never existed before. A rather deep philosophical question, that seems to be also in the core of contemporary architectural discourse. This book is showcasing a version of the first approach in a very poetic and abstract way, which is relaying heavily on photography in order to make its point. However, knowing Cecil Balmond’s work, I would expect that the book would go deeper in that direction. Because, no matter how beautiful the photographs are, I am afraid that the book does that which it is advising the reader not to do: it stays on the surface, never taking a step further, and ultimately is not saying something new; it just repeats things that are already known. But then, maybe that was the intention.

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