Cecil Balmond

A renowned structural engineer, Cecil Balmond has over the past three decades played an instrumental role in the work of architects such as Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas, and Daniel Libeskind. His unconventional approaches to engineering problems and structural geometry have aided those figures in realizing some of their most daring ideas and, in the process, radically expanded the realm of possibilities in architecture. Though also—and increasingly—an architect in his own right with notable projects to his credit, Balmond will likely remain best known as the engineer whose structural ingenuity allowed the most extravagant autographic gestures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to leave the sketchbooks and cad files of architectural offices and become structures in space. Not quite a product of architecture or engineering, though certainly related to both enterprises, H-edge, 2006–, a work recently installed at the Carnegie Museum of Art, represents a third, more nebulous point on the evolving spectrum of Balmond’s practice.

The installation sees Balmond emerging from the long shadows of his formidable collaborators and shrugging off the related mantles of engineer and architect to enter a discursive field resting between sculpture and design. Overall, H-edge takes the form of an easily navigable maze, whose walls are composed of curvilinear Xs cut from aluminum plates and suspended between metal chains that are held in tension. Here, the installation was flanked on one side by a series of mirrors with vaguely distortive effects, and on the other by six light boxes featuring sound, text, and video that offer an exhaustive account of Balmond’s influences, ranging from the Fibonacci sequence to the designs of R. Buckminster Fuller.

As the introductory panel and brochure point out, the installation hinges on a “trick,” namely the impression that the Xs are hanging from the chains—a supposition that soon gives way upon one’s realization that the chains in fact stand rigidly on the ground. Unsurprisingly, then, there remains a heavy emphasis on engineering, but H-edge is not a building and so the imperative of utility has vanished. The work is, in the Kantian sense, a useless object that implies an internal necessity and disavows function. It is not a result of engineering driven by a dialectic between form and function, but rather what might better be termed engineering expressionism: engineering in the service of a purely aesthetic effect.

With this leap, H-edge begs evaluation as sculpture, but unfortunately it does not hold up well in that regard. The engineer’s sleight of hand, cleaving the structure’s appearance from its actual physical makeup, is just that, a trick. Once the wonder of realization has subsided, the structure of the work is apparent, and the form itself—absent trick—is not enough to compel interest. More acutely problematic is H-edge’s resemblance to a now-familiar brand of muscular, unvarnished metal ornament—the kind of decor often seen in boutique hotels, such as the W or Sofitel, and in high-end retail establishments, like Comme des Garçon’s Tokyo flagship. For consumers, being surrounded by such cutting-edge, opulent designs lets them feel as if they belong to a privileged world. One’s progress through the glinting hard steel of Balmond’s installation brings forth similar flattery. Balmond is not honor bound to critique—far from it—but his installation’s con- juring of the consumer’s experience limits the capacity of his work to speak any other language.

Christopher Bedford