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Repost: The Architecture of Imagination: Life lessons from the world of design

A. Thomas/Wikimedia Commons

It was glowing from within. Red. Continuous. Insistent. It became a beacon, drawing our attention to potential dangers ahead. And then it was gone. In less than an hour, the spire atop the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was devoured by the heat, this version finally giving in after standing for 167 years, collapsing into the already burning roof of the 850 year old landmark, a landmark entrenched in France's history. And we watched it all unfold. Live. In disbelief. And heartbroken. I wondered, 'Why would a building, and what happens to it, make us feel so deeply?' A structure made of stone and wood evoking in us a grief often felt for loved ones.

On April 15, 2019, as we witnessed what is the core of French culture, regardless of your religion and ethnicity, vulnerable and choking, it made us feel a visceral vulnerability of our own, a reminder of our mortality and questioning our raison d'être.

For those of us who had the chance to visit and soak in all the grandeur, we are left with wistful memories of what once was and a time when we felt part of something bigger. And for those who didn't get to see "Our Lady", we feel a sense of regret of not taking that trip, not taking that chance to be in a place and time that we would remember forever.

Of this immense structure that has withstood time, weathered wars and (at one time) neglect, French President Emmanuel Macron said, "It is our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our greatest moments." And when such a structure that holds such resonance for a nation is on the verge of crumbling, it leaves us feeling a sense of loss, of what we always expected would be there, a sense of security that even though much can change in life, that iconic sight would always be there for us.

Architecture has the ability to communicate one's thoughts and emotions, the ability to reflect a moment in time and history, and the ability to create something that becomes an icon, synonymous with defining the evolution of people and culture. Buildings in our cities and towns are central to how we see and define ourselves. The Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Shard in London, the Bank of China building in Hong Kong, the CCTV building in Beijing, the Burj al Arab, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Empire State Building, and once upon a time, the Twin Towers in Manhattan to name a few. They are buildings that have created a skyline and skylines are significant in identifying a city or town's past and future potential. Design is storytelling in multiple forms. And the stories that are often told are of humanity, our flaws, our feats, our collective desire to power through fear and into the possibilities of the unknown. Perhaps that is what I love the most, the freedom in design to illustrate who we are and what we are capable of; designing what sometimes we can't say in words.

I have had the privilege of interviewing some of the most renowned architects of our time and I have always viewed those moments as a means of trying to soak up precious nuggets of wisdom on how to live daringly, how to question the norm, and how to offer to society a version of oneself that doesn't bow down to anything--not tradition, not rules, not perception, nor pressure--except perhaps to the confines of our own imagination and 'what could be'. Martha Thorne, the Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize (the prestigious award given to an architect who has demonstrated "talent, vision, and commitment"), was quoted in an interview with the journal Thought Economics saying, "Good architecture is intentioned. It somehow touches the people who use it and live in it… it somehow touches the human soul. I realise these phrases sound somewhat utopian, but truly good architecture has the ability to relate to individuals in a very profound way. That is a quality which cannot be deciphered into scientific terms or quantified- but is something we all know when we experience a quality building or a space that somehow goes beyond being functional and is- somehow- very special." She would go on to refer to the esteemed architect Renzo Piano (the man behind the Shard in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris), who said that in architecture, in addition to its functionality, there had to be a sense of "magic".

It is that magic I would feel when talking to architects and their ability to see and challenge that part of human behaviour where we work within the parameters that have already been defined even by nature, whether it is physics, geometry, and mathematics. It is within their DNA to keep pushing the boundaries by asking/saying, "why not?" Renzo Piano once said, “Architects spend an entire life with this unreasonable idea that you can fight against gravity.”

One of the leading architects whose life's work continues to be questioning the constraints of any discipline is the Sri Lankan born Cecil Balmond, a designer whose training as a scientist and structural engineer has led him to work with some of architecture's biggest names such as Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Philip Johnson. As the structural engineer on their projects, Balmond, often described as "the power behind the throne," was the one who challenged these architects on what they thought was possible, and what they thought wasn't. Philip Johnson, the acclaimed American architect, who died in 2005 at the age of 98 called Balmond a mentor and a teacher, while Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect who Balmond worked with on the CCTV tower in Beijing (the CMG Headquarters) said it was because of Balmond that he started to rethink architecture.

I interviewed Balmond in Hong Kong in 2013, the city that illustrates his "non-linear" approach to design, and we talked about how he uses his expertise to bend and challenge the rules of nature. He tells me (in response to his book 'informal'), "Structural engineering is based on static principles and I had met lots of good engineers who were artistic, played music, inventive, yet they built the same boring things or they got stuck in that static-ness...I was urging engineers in that book to put aside their strictness and take the pen and write or do something more...I want them to feel brave enough to start to explain what they do even, and on the other hand (the book) 'informal' is really aimed at architectural students to relook at how you formulate buildings in prescribed ways, to improvise more."

Cecil Balmond would go on to tell me that that ability to stretch what one has been taught can only come when one has a deep understanding of the fundamentals. Only then, can we discover what hasn't been defined before. He says, "...all I do know is having an instinct for structure in a deep sense. I understand physics. I understand it radically, intuitively...I think that's the synthesis in what I'm doing that I know instinctively it's going to work. I might not know how, but I know it's going to work and so you kind of experiment further and reach deeper and further." He goes on to explain, "The popularity of mathematics is, it is what it is. But if you probe very deeply into science, at its root, there is a mystery...Its base, its roots are assumptions. There are mysteries there. Popular imagination doesn't know that. They think it's a rigorous thing. The structure is. But its foundations are shaky and art is full of mystery."

Pedro e Ines bridge, Coimbra Portugal. Photo: Balmond Studio

It was with that thinking that Cecil Balmond approached an ambitious project in the university town of Coimbra in Portugal back in 2006. There he was tasked with building a bridge linking two banks framing the Rio Mondego. But what he didn't want do was build a bridge in the traditional sense where the objective of the people using it would be to just rush across it, take them from point A to B in a straight line. He wanted to build a structure where people could meander and enjoy their journey. From one end it looked like the bridge just dropped in the middle, that it didn't meet the other side of the river. And that was the twist in his genius. In describing for me the idea behind his design, he says, "I went down and stood on the banks of the river. I looked at the water, looked at the old city, the river was flowing very slowly. And I suddenly had this crazy idea that this bridge wouldn't meet. I mean that was a completely crazy thing to think about, a bridge is something that you go across. I just drew the first sketch where there was one line that went one way from the bank and the other one that went the other way, so they missed...So then you've got to join up the middle with some kind of a plaza. And so when you take these two curves, put a plaza in the middle, it straightens out into a lightening bolt...It's like a zig zag across the water."

With the challenges the bridge posed, Balmond had to think in different ways on how to support the bridge that would be both sound structurally and aesthetically. It would be a feat that Jonathan Glancey would describe in The Guardian as, "revolutionary, yet rather than showy; it is effortlessly elegant. It is also the stuff of engineering sorcery." From a magical perspective, and unbeknownst to Balmond at the time of designing the bridge, there was a legend in Coimbra, a story, about a young Portuguese prince who fell in love with his wife's lady-in-waiting, a relationship they solidified after the death of his wife. But it was a relationship of which his father, the King disapproved. With mounting pressure from within his court, he ordered his son's new wife be murdered. When the prince eventually became king, he called for her body to be buried next to him when he eventually died. The legend had it they were buried foot to foot. The bridge would be named after them, Pedro and Ines.

Like human nature, architecture and design sit on the crossroads of change. On the one hand, a structure, a building, would want to stand the test of time, yet on the other hand, it is important that design evolves with the space it is commissioned to be in and would want to move with the people who use it. In his 2009 Ted Talk, the Copenhagen-based architect Bjarke Ingels spoke about how design isn't about or for today or tomorrow, it is constantly flowing, reflecting and challenging concepts and traditions. He says, "We draw most of our inspiration from the basic understanding that life is always evolving, culture’s always evolving, technology’s always evolving. If we understand change, we will also know when our way of doing things now is not going to be able to accommodate the way we want to do it tomorrow."

Change isn't something human beings are comfortable with. I know I'm not. Yet change is necessary in order for us to keep moving, keep evolving, keep flowing, and not be stuck in ways of thinking, believing, or living. Change is painful and is often met with a lot of resistance both from within and from others around us. We hear things like, "we always do it this way," or "this is how it is done" all the time even when there is consistent proof that those who challenge the norm often reveal breakthroughs worthy of celebration. Take the Louvre as an example. When architect I.M. Pei was commissioned by then French president Francois Mitterrand to design a space that would bring the historic museum into the 20th century and would serve as a centralised entry point, he and his proposed glass pyramid were met with immense scrutiny. The challenges were huge, not least because of what the Louvre and its history represented to the people of France. And President Mitterrand's choice of architect was met with much criticism because he didn't choose someone French. When the glass pyramid was built, the response according to Pei, was "very hostile." He told me when I met him in Paris in 2010 that, "the French didn't like it all...Don't forget, the French are very conservative people. And anything that comes from the outside especially something as foreign as the object turned out to be, was bound to elicit a lot of criticism." When I asked him how that made him feel, he told me. "Challenged." But would go on to say what he told the detractors, "I will prove you wrong." And he did. Today, the Louvre, with its glass pyramid sitting proudly as part of the city's iconic architecture, is among the most visited sites in the world. Last year alone it welcomed 8.1million visitors, with that number expected to grow. Pei told me, "you have to be confident. And when you are still dealing with something that is challenging, that is a break from tradition, you want to be sure you are right and get a chance to prove it."

History and tradition are tough gatekeepers to change. Even a bastion of a culture or community, like religion, needs to evolve in order to maintain its place in believers' hearts and minds. The irony is, when so many of the world's religions were established, it was a response to a time and place, it was a call to believe in something that wasn't the norm, something that wasn't what had "always been done." It was and is evidence of an evolutionary moment in life, whether you're a believer or not.

It is often said that true wisdom is knowing you know nothing at all. It is that understanding of oneself that opens us up to possibilities through learning. The designer Thomas Heatherwick, the man behind the audacious cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics and the redesign of the city's iconic Routemaster, the red double decker buses, told me while we were in Hong Kong in 2013, that "often projects start from a critique of what exists and again that's not very romantic, to start by thinking what don't we want. But by defining what you don't want to do, quite often that really spurs you on and you then find an angle and it surprises you as well. We feel that we are generating from zero each time. All we bring with us is our expertise at not being experts. And that's terrifying but it means that you feel you're growing from scratch and that's the most exciting process to be in."

And Cecil Balmond would agree. For him, there's always another way to look at things. He says, "if it is based on prescribed, traditional thinking on how to make things, that's fine, nothing wrong with that. But I think there's another way to put things together that has a slight shifting basis to it that is not crazy, but it's not boring; it's not your prescribed answer. It's something different and it will agitate you in a good way. It will engage you more because it resonates more with your human basic imprint of variety within regularity."

Winston Churchill once said, "we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Same with our experiences. They are part of our internal architecture. What stops us from moving forward, from trying, from risking, is fear. Fear of failure. And from the perspective of people in positions of power, fear means losing control. Yet fear is also a great motivator. For me, I am more afraid of not risking (albeit calculated risks). I am more afraid of missing out on the possibility of magic. And that is why architecture (and architects), for me, represent those calculated risks taken. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't. But when it does, imagine having your version of success, as a monument that will be a testament to your curiosity, your refusal to accept the status quo, and your willingness to try, even if it is just for you to see and feel.

For France today, the goal is to rebuild and restore the Notre Dame. The country is determined to protect its monument, one that brings millions to its doorsteps every year, and one that is the focal point for gathering when in need of strength. Their buildings are their pride, worthy of protection and adoration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art said in a statement, “Notre Dame Cathedral is the very soul of Paris but so much more -- it is a touchstone for all that is the best about the world, and a monument to the highest aspirations of artistic achievement that transcends religion and time.” But perhaps this is an opportunity too. An opportunity to not just rebuild the building into what it was but to find audacious ways to help the Notre Dame evolve in preparation for tomorrow. For Parisians, their buildings are a representation of who they are, through their city, they see themselves. And for them, the Notre Dame is their past, their present, and with courage and audacity, they can come together at this difficult time for their future.

This post was originally published in April, 2019


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