Cecil Balmond's site-specific show reveals the Graham Foundation's future.
“I’m not an artist making an object,” insists Cecil Balmond, as we discuss the inspiration for “Solid Void” over lunch in the library at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts (4 West Burton Place). “I want to show the making of space.”
Balmond says, “No influence is direct. It’s always oblique.” The 65-year-old engineer adds that his influences often derive from music, due to its inherently mathematical, formal qualities. “My primary interest has always been in form, not structure,” Balmond says. “[In music,] the spaces between the notes—the intervals—are more important than the notes themselves.” Developing and expanding on the concept of solids and voids in the work at the Graham Foundation followed naturally.
Balmond was born in Sri Lanka, moved to Africa with his family as a teenager and has worked in the engineering megafirm Arup’s London office since 1968. He’s known for collaborating with a blue-chip roster of clients: Balmond and Rem Koolhaas have worked together on numerous projects, including the McCormick Tribune Student Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Although Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“the Bean”) didn’t require Balmond’s expertise, the sculptor and engineer have teamed up for five pieces, including Kapoor’s massive Marsyas (2002) at the Tate Modern in London. Balmond also helped Daniel Libeskind plan the unbuilt Spiral addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and assisted Pritzker Prize–winner James Stirling with Stuttgart’s Neue Staatsgalerie. In 2000, Balmond founded Arup’s research-focused Advanced Geometry Unit (which shares the credit for “Solid Void”); his structural ingenuity continues to make architects’ and artists’ fanciful ideas executable realities.
When a site-specific installation like “Solid Void” responds to a setting like the Madlener House, one of Chicago’s most lavish Prairie Style mansions, it makes a significant impression—which is precisely what the Graham Foundation intends. Created in 1956 to raise awareness of architecture and its role in society, the foundation is one of the few grant-making institutions to support work by individual artists and designers, and it consistently presents a distinguished series of lectures and exhibitions at the Madlener House, which it’s occupied since 1963. But executive director Sarah Herda says the foundation wants to do more. “This is an important institution but also an incredible space,” she says. “We want to develop programming here that will have as much impact as our grant making.” “Solid Void” takes the Graham in an intriguing direction.
Balmond’s installation H_edge fills most of the Madlener House’s first floor with 6,000 identical cast-aluminum panels that have been die-cut in a stylized leaf pattern. Joined at right angles to form rectilinear volumes that resemble neatly clipped boxwoods or filigreed heating ducts, they appear to be suspended without support, like an Indian rope trick—snaking their way throughout the main floor’s rooms, rising to various heights, arching overhead and turning in every direction. Like boxwood, the pierced volumes appear both opaque and transparent—or solid and void—so they define the space yet allow you to see through it. Balmond calls H_edge a “sieve of space, not a solid object itself. It lets whatever environment it’s placed in come through.” The overall effect is astonishing: It transforms the stately Madlener House into a kind of indoor techno-garden.
One significant transformation at the Graham Foundation took place before Balmond plotted out “Solid Void.” Previous architecture and design exhibitions followed a standard format of plans, photographs and models until 2007, when the foundation moved its offices and meeting areas upstairs, freeing up the first floor’s living room, dining room, library and music room for exhibition space. Herda believes opening up these grand public spaces for installation work “ups the ante and the level of possibilities.” If the dialogue between the richly finished interior of the Madlener House and “Solid Void” is any indication, they seem limitless.
Balmond, Herda and architect Eric Ellingsen lead a free tour of “Solid Void” on November 17 at 6:30pm. RSVP to email@example.com.