from ‘Element’

Cecil Balmond OBE, is widely considered to be one of the most significant creators of his generation.

An internationally renowned artist, architect and engineer, Cecil Balmond transcends the conventional boundaries of discipline working in the crossover between art and science. In this dynamic area, he has re-invented the very concept of space, transforming the meaning of geometry, form and structure.

Balmond’s design approach engages inner organisational systems – a process based on rigorous research. He has spent over 40 years investigating the relationship between form and the very roots of order at the core of life

The Ring

The design may be seen as on a circle, the different characters and forms to Nature.

Around one half is the physical:

On the other half are the abstracts we gain from the above:

If the right side is body, the left creates the animation behind what we see, call it spirit. The circle balances body with spirit – invisible connections cross the void – an intricate stitching rather than the simple counterbalance of a seesaw.

The first thought is of something immense, huge, out there outside of my skin; the impression of Nature as a Surrounding that stretches far and wide. And encompassing everything. I walk, run, swim and journey in its immersion; even at home that outside keeps humming.
I am aware of the dimension that wraps all.
I breathe it in. I cannot escape – I must be part of it. But that continuous awareness comes only later, after I travel around the circle, stopping at each stage and engaging with each form.

1. External


The External shoots out in a bolt to the stars. Along the way the warp of gravity bends and tangles it all up – and the stitching of the cosmos takes over. In starpoint a galaxy bigger than ours, a super-giant, sucks in the thread and sends it farther to more distant globular clusters, and the primal areas of what might be next out of the void. The distance keeps jumping and stretching. Each stretch a quantum of scale. In the end, not that there is really an end, we stop counting; the zeros of distance are uncontrollable. There is no limit – just more scattering of dots around an endless loop, finite but unbounded. Some think, within the dots are the shadows of other universes. Big and uncountable as our domain is, there may be a whole sea of universes that we ride, and us just one small speck in a much bigger picture.

To every leap in scale travelled out there is a corresponding shrink to a dimension travelled within. From cover of skin, inwards to muscle tissue, veins, protein chains, blood molecules and DNA coiling, and then crossing the threshold into the sub-atomic world, space seems to proportion itself so that the void within is as layered as the void outside. Beneath the atomic structure are sub-particles; then the quarks and, at last, just vibrations – as the physicists say, ‘superstrings’. (Are we like a conduit, allowing superstring to megastring pass through, and does not our mind create the argument in the first place?)

but I feel alone and outside these things stranded within myself. Nature is wild and infinite: the woodland, the valley side and the river runs, my footfall on scrub and weed, and grass beyond measure; I am the dot – the mere speck that travels through these domains. I am a sieve for all these pathways to slip through, how else do I feel connected? When I look up at the stars at night or melt a drop of dew on my finger the largest and the smallest takes my mind in jumps, unsure of scale,
I fix on the pattern, and shrink or expand in its force.

2. Chaos


A merry-go-round! Nature’s fair is for excitement and discovery – the stalls a chatter of confusion, but also a delight and a pleasure.

The croton leaf stipples colours, the orchid dots and streaks; the leopard has her spots, the tiger his stripes. Rhododendrons, poinsettias, fox-gloves, daisies, chrysanthemums, palm trees, oaks, silver birch, elm, punctuate and multiply the variations. And lichen on mountains, heather on moors, creepers in the jungle, fungi in the earth – the pickings are rich. If we take the ‘big dipper’ we would climb into the airy regions and see clouds charge up into fantastic formations, massive tornados churning within dark atmospheres, then plunge into the ocean to view currents and whirlpools and the river’s cataract flood. In special areas drift the sand dunes, their ridges like serpents; in these basins of desert, circular winds draw breath taking stories.
In the wet realm signs warn ‘Keep Out!’ around quick sands and sucking bogs: in fissures beyond, the geysers shoot out from the earth in pillars of scalding water. My mind goes numb with the sights but some memories stay. The more I think upon it, certain features repeat.

Only a few outlines make up leaves; a certain way do petals grow around their stem. Self-similar waves pattern the tree bark, or rock. It is as if out of a few basic elements and props that the stalls and arcades of the variety show are built. The shapes – tendrilled, bobbed, jagged, flared, also carry identifying marks. From tiniest dot to broadest stripe, and in-between zigzags, specks or striations, each mark has patterns if one looks closer, with similar strategies often to the form that bears them. One echoes the other.
Does not a leaf up close, look like its distant tree? A shape is made by wave forms, energy subjected to the surrounding environment. The same is true of how the mark is made on a shape. For the concentrations are local that give bias and begin a process. Colour is fed on pigment and densities, porosities, refraction indices. There are viscosities, flows that yield gradients, electrical charges which form the substrates that trigger reactions; local actions of frequency, pH value, nutrients, form the object or shape. No surprise then that there are self-similarities.

To reach the widest sample the beginnings have to be simple, and the smallest. The more elaborate the start the fewer the options to grow into. Imagine a connected structure and develop it – the possible shapes are limited right from the start by the existing connections which get in the way. Even a line is a limitation; but shrink to a dot and in potential the infinite becomes possible. If I look with x-ray eyes into the so-called chaos, root motifs are revealed, a few geometric ideas that by stretching, diluting, mixing, overlapping and so on forge a wide interest. Micro-actions govern.  Where a pigmentation begins or shape ends, the local idea sets a tendency that then feeds back into the process, growing or repeating, augmenting or diminishing. Underneath the destination as it were are the births of many possible journeys. What we see are not the answers – there is always more to come, to experiment with.


burns at the core of the sun fusing hydrogen to heavier helium; once the chain begins other atoms form. The Elements emerge. One by one a serial count of atomic number grows from hydrogen 1 to uranium 92. The sequence is found scattered in the sun and stars; and we in turn are samples of such counts in wild space. The elements are the ingredients of a universal soup. As the sun ages it will implode, the gas cloud thrown into space will seethe with the stuff of this world; from the debris another sun will fire up. On cosmic scales each flare adds seed material. Without being aware of the violent flames trapped within, we harbour the inventions of such stardust – and the universe.

But the fears continue, the forces do not go away. Today in temples, mosques and churches, prayers and chants appease the powers that they may be contained, and not released, now in nuclear blast or by a virus let loose on a fragile ecology.

3. Force


The Tsunami skinned a woman, a five-hundred-kilometre-per-hour wave gathered grit from the ocean bed and in tiny granules scrubbed the skin off her hand and leg as the sea swept into a fishing village. Somewhere else lightning split a tree in half; and on the slopes of a mountain the ground opened to swallow a settlement whole, the earthquake tearing up a fault line.

Nature is voracious. Tornados suck people and homes into their eye, walls of water in the sea drown shipping. The disasters are named back to the Great Flood and beyond, angry gods that rage and strike in fury. Zeus setting off thunderbolts; Poseidon bringing up serpents from the deep; not just one god but many to cope with the faces of fear. And the wildness is brought closer in the presence of a figure to bow to: Shango – god of thunder; Agni – god of fire; Durga – god of early death, with her belt of infant skulls around her waist. Different names, Behemoth, Ashtar, Indu, Aphrodite, Kuveni, Boab, Enskil… the people change, but the forces persist. Lightning/Flood/Famine/Storm, the demons still
have to be appeased.

Spirits hide in everything, trees, rivers, streams, in stones by the wayside. The forests and pathways come alive with forces that have to be talked to, most importantly connected to, by repeating cadences of dance or words. Pattern itself becomes a force.

The votive offerings go up and touch the planets: Mars as god of war, Venus as star of Beauty. Force not just destructive but also benign. The abstractions began early: the Sun combined such powers, to raise the dawn from the clutch of night and give life or parch the day to shrivel and die – the Sun measured good and evil. ‘Let there be light’ was the command in Genesis; before that was only the chilling darkness. So intimate with our being, this Phenomenon shoots its photons packed with energy to turn the chlorophyll of plants to oxygen, which foments life.

But there is a family of powers at work. The forces of nature that bind the world come in four degrees, gravity – the weakest, then electromagnetism or the charge between particles, and then two nuclear forces, one weak, one strong. The strongest force

4. Construct


Easy to see that Nature is a construct – mountains climb their sides in ridges and zigzag lines, valleys dip and run or lie flat in broad swathes. Waves pile up and unfurl. Look at the sky to watch the wind work on trees and clouds. Out of the air fire sucks on its combustion.

The Construct may be seen in four parts – Earth, Air, Fire, Water – one solid, the others liquid, combustive or vaporous. Early philosophers  saw it as arranged in a square on its end, as in a diamond, Earth lying opposite Air, and Fire in opposition to Water. Earth is the element of hard substance; the other parts, formless. To travel round the square is to find Earth covered by Water, which in turn is covered by Air. After that comes the realm of Fire or the ascent of energy, and from that creative in all things the Earth and its minerals are born. Between Earth and Water is a sub-agenda, cold; between Water and Air, wet. Air and Fire are said to have the quality of heat between them; and between Fire and Earth, dryness. The dynamic is that fire is hot and dry, earth dry and cold, and so on. The elements cycle. and draw fault lines. Lava spills. Molten currents

are trapped in flow paths in the rock face. As tectonic plates driven by the plasmic tide crush into each  other mountains form, the length of the contact raising the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas. Even steam is part of a construct, hissing out of the fractures only to join the vapours and fall back down as rain. Rain falls into the rivers that run into the ocean, the rivers wash away the earth and silt and sediment. Again the deposits that settle are marked by the flow and eddying of those saturating currents. Just as in the hollow chambers of the sky moisture turns to rain, in deep space unseen clouds of gas cluster, condense, and erupt in great cosmic flares as supernovae. Out of the explosions come stars and planets – the earth, and the atmosphere, and rain. The elements cycle.


But the act of construction has only a few opportunities, either to branch, fold, or pack. Trees branch, brains fold. Earth is packed, so is water. Lightning branches, so does fire. Mountains fold. In the sub-regions of the atom another construct must be added, that of knotting; or the interweave of energy packets in electrons and quantum strings or loops. (A knot is the generic, for it can be seen to branch and fold and pack at the same time.)

If once we saw the four elements as Earth, Air, Fire and Water, today the picture would be not of the classification and its objects but of the construct that stirs behind them. To branch, fold, pack or knot, is to look into Nature’s mind set as a community of actions. Be they solid, vaporous or incendiary, the few instructions to make Order! compile the panoramas. The wonderful outcome is a licence to exist, but in only a few ways.

The whole is irreducible – that is the challenge
of the new o

We move across. Slip around the circle.

5. Pattern


Dot and dash make the connections – stars join up to form the animals of the zodiac, water holes reduce to circles, snakes become zigzags and mountains draw as triangles – we look to make codes. Make it simple, easier to spread the mind that way, and move faster towards the interior. As we rush at the landscape we mark, in shorthand, pictures in our mind that overlay the site of the actual image. We play. Clouds move as dashed lines and fleeting dots, reed beds turn to vertical strokes over horizontal rows of bubbles; the tree in code is the same as for the delta of a river. Water is an up-and-down mark, the wave figure. The first step towards the interior is pattern.

Before counting, noting down patterns was an act of survival: maps had to be made to remember locations of poison or predators. In the cycle of plants and weather, even time grew a pattern.

To repeat is important – safety lies that way. (A constant varying without stop would be an impossible headache to contain; with no meaning given to the noise and scatter.) So the first step to civilise is to find order, to pattern. Forty thousand years ago a cave dweller marked a set of lines crossing each other on the side of a small rock; diagonal to left, diagonal to right and horizontal, drawing as a result a pattern of diamonds. What he or she was describing is unknown, but the desire to code and abstract and then improvise held fast. Millennia later, geometry developed, and mathematics. We grew to make shapes that only the mind’s eye wants to see. With music and the rhythms of a poem, we unlock even larger emotional pictures, fleshed out by the beats in our head.

If our senses act it is in the notation of patterns. And these patterns link the metaphors we conceive to the realities we make. A set of wavy lines could serve as the grain in wood or act for the idea of ‘flexible’. Gas molecules may be dots, also star clusters, and dots may serve as ‘scatter’. Metaphors instigate creative acts, which end in the fact of an object or event. Observing that fact will raise a pattern in our heads, which in turn leads back to metaphor. Back and forth the game is played:  from the concrete to the abstract, the bridge between being pattern. The diagram shorthand keeps breathing life into our minds as a subversive act. We seem to be wired this way.

6. Beauty


The pattern behind pattern, beauty is mysterious, and hard to pin down. A force in nature’s interior, beauty moves on hidden planes, away from the physical fact and the literal towards an inward magnification. Something awakens a secret x-factor that plays with balance, varying tensions, and pulls the mind one way. Colours, sounds, the steps of a dance suddenly create harmonies that lift our spirits – we are happy to be alive.

To engage with this secret seems to be necessary, not just with a prettiness but with the argument of a complex mix; small parts of awkwardness along with the smoothness of symmetry – confluences that power the work, proportions and textures and gradients that gather swiftly into silent unstoppable song – so that we say ‘beautiful’. Something to do with the way things are made – seeing that they have been wrought by sweat and imagination, the difficulties made effortless ultimately. Not just an object but a body of delight; not just a lake mirroring the sky – or a sunset – but a joy stretched amongst our senses.

Beauty lies in the struggle of mists to wrap the valley sides, or in terrain swept by winds and etched in lines of rains and storm. It seems to be in the action of water as it froths over rapids and shakes itself to find quieter pools, and in the swift work of clouds moving from one outline through to another.


Coastlines, mountains grained and bent by larval flow make landscapes a shaping art, forged by time. The scale down from trunk to stem, leaf to bud, in tracery of tree against the sky, the rhythm of forest delights in different stages of branchings. Over tumbling boulders and sliding ranges the valleys slope from high to low, in cascades. Nothing seems fixed. Even water and sheet ice fluctuate as the mood of light and atmosphere take hold. To see time in features is to witness change.

The imprint of a process and its rates of change mark our own private radar. We pattern an aesthetic sense, for refinement, delicate balance, trial and error. Sometimes what is beautiful sours, and we lose an appetite for it. But the pattern behind beauty is poetic and outlives fashion –
a compulsive will that forces us to invent and abstract. Its essence borders on intoxication. When the patterns or poems we reach place tremors upon us, we call that sublime, something ineffable joins us to the core of nature. A deep drum calls, a heart beat that dares us to reach forward. There is no moralising here, no placements of good or evil, but a plain hunger to evolve.

7. Order!


Use repeatedly a few building blocks: bind together the nucleus of an atom with proton and neutron, and orbit electrons around that centre balancing their negative charge against the positives of the protons. Then start counting with hydrogen atomic number 1 (the unit is for the number of protons) and up the Periodic Table to heavier elements. Oxygen counts 8, neon is 10, uranium 92. A simple act, the success of hydrogen, is built upon and a series grows – the elements, up to 92 of them. Everything in and under the sun is embedded with them. Carbon makes diamonds and charcoal. Sodium and Chloride make salt. Carbon bonds with Hydrogen to build organic molecules like proteins, blood, and us.

Electrons form shells around the nucleus whizzing in and out. When eight electrons fill one shell, another grows. The heaviest atom has fourteen ‘clouds’ of electrons roaming round its centre. Like arms outstretched, the valencies of one atom reach for another. The element that has a few electrons in a shell jumps at the opportunity to borrow from another, to complete its shells and form a compound substance. Sodium is volatile this way and likes to mix readily. Argon is not; its outer shells are full, it is viewed as ‘inert’. And so on… The elements and their compounds arise from a few entities with set patterns for bonding among them.

At a macro level, at the scale of many billions times that of an atom, the plant or flower also shows consistent ways of growing by, at the same time, adding and jumping. In controlled steps the petal growth in flowers is counted as 3 for lilies and irises, 5 for buttercups, 8 for some delphiniums, 13 for marigolds, 21 for asters, and 34, 55 and 89 is the count for the daisies. Such numbers also order the rotation of cross spirals in the way an acorn grows or the sunflower spreads its centre. The same numbers are in the arrangement of the cells of a pineapple skin. These numbers are called the Fibonacci numbers. They annotate the study of Phyllotaxis (plant and leaf growth) and arise as a sequence by adding the two previous values of a particular series to produce the next number. One step back to go forward.


There is no uncontrolled growth here pushing to excess; instead a measured rule, cycling obediently.

A kaleidoscope of form in nature is released this way. What seems many on the outside is counted carefully, internally, in steady doses of structure and growth. As the plant matures, leaves around the stem rotate and climb to catch the sun with least interference to what lies below. (The opportunity is marked by a spacing related to a special ratio.) Each leaf bears a constant arc to the previous one – like on a snail’s shell, each revolution is proportioned by a controlled jump. This jump around a plant stem is about 137.5°
– that leaves 222.5° to complete a full rotation of 360°. And 222.5/137.5 approximates to 1.618, denoted by the Greek letter ф (Phi) called the ‘golden ratio’. One way to discover the value is to divide successive higher numbers of the Fibonacci sequence… 13, 21, 34, 55, (like 55/34) to approximate to the value of ф – the joints of our fingers arise in such a fixed ratio. And our overall height in relation to the distance our navel is from the ground approximates towards the same measure. It seems to be everywhere, where natural growth occurs. (Similarly, in the long to short diameter of an egg – and the spans of the butterfly, its wing-tip breadth to body length – the same ratio. And so on…)

The golden ratio is a trigger for a system to have maximum success.

When a system is inert, a fix of proportions and placements, it stays that way. But if the system is dynamic there has to be the ability to exchange information all the time. At all scales data is fed through and transformed. To do this easily is to succeed at a small scale, and then add to each part the same geometry, adding and growing, feeding back the idea each time. What begins as a small set of instructions is multiplied into a complex web, self-similar at all measures. Co-existing one within the other, with similar patterns, is the sign of a fractal. The branches in our lungs to exchange oxygen, the bundling of the clouds to exchange moisture, the winding in and out of the coastlines to exchange land with the sea, are all imprints of fractal organisations. Seen this way, the fractal is a massive filter between two mediums.


But beneath intricate fold and delicate branch, the history of the event cannot be unwound to reveal the original idea; like a human cannot be tracked back to the exact cell he or she was conceived from. The complexity is locked in. We are non-linear creatures. The cells can only be followed from the moment of conception, to the foetus, and then to later infant. We cannot unwind.

8. Interior

Nothing is solid in the interior. This region is not like a cave or a closed volume but open, unbounded and ever-expanding. Each external object is sucked into its domain and inverts to a fiction; the fiction is far greater than the scope of the fact. The Interior is an area of potential, a place of becoming. Nothing is without that is not within. In this circular statement our skins are pricked as we join patterns with the universe.

My mind in its fevers conjures seas of meditations or cliffs of anguish, developing metaphors from the landscape that surrounds. What is heard, seen and touched is transposed quickly from the surrounding fact to the imagination. Is Nature really physical, of flesh and blood, concrete and solid? Yes, we say – it’s common sense – but it takes only an instant to go beyond the literal, passing beyond colour and shape to reach the intangible of an ‘immediacy’. It seems impossible to ‘look’ without being aware that there are hidden measures which identify with us. When we immerse ourselves in Nature’s habitat we feel we receive answers, our senses unravel to allow something already part of us to join forces.

If Nature imagined itself, would it have our senses? Tears and laughter? Would its
own touch soothe and calm? Is the nature of our imagination the patterned reflection
of nature’s own structures?

And there are tricks to contend with; continuous touch undermines the very sense it projects, just as prolonged staring blinds.


Press one’s hand on a rock. The hard fact soon disappears; and emotion, memory, combine to make a new construction. The longer my hand stays against the hard surface the more I pass through the stone, as if its matrix hardness were nothing, the formless so quick to eat up the certainty. Similarly, if I dip my hand in a river stream the cold water burns my fingers and wrist to a steel hardness, the water is solid hot to the touch. From water to stone the journey is limited only by my imagination.

Reality seems to be in the running mind that has no limit, endless in its metaphors and inventions. When the keys we use are buried deep in our mind, what is the real, and physical? The busiest place to be on the circle is the Interior, a fantastic point of all possibilities. The form to be, the dreams that may chance structure, is in this crucible of the virtual.

And from Interior we move to the Exterior, but to realise another fact of the world. The outcome will bring with it the nightmares that accompany certainty, was it well done, or is it fit? Has the event lost so much of what may have been achieved? Subversive questions – it pushes us back to think, imagine and create again. Nature does the same, its additions, subtractions, multiplications refining and honing, compelled always to make again. That leap from the possible to the real is a constant trial.

Move now to point one of the circle and begin again.

Move from meditation to material and join External, Chaos, Force, Construct – facts of the body – to Pattern, Beauty, Order, Interior – thoughts on Spirit. Through both, creation circles.

As we gaze into the world and look up at the stars and gauge their meanings, we draw a blanket around us and huddle up under the darkness, to play the games of children – secret house, all the more appealing than rushing at the world outside. In the darknesses our mind floats free. Blinded we see more, imagine greater. The facts dissolve. The world within, haunted by the after-image of the outside, fragments, blurs; and we create new worlds out of the virtual. The nurturing of phantoms is more exciting, the word for that is also Pattern. What is in Spirit soon becomes Body. Nature seems not to be a trick but a spontaneous mirror held up to ourselves. I go behind my eyes and close them, pull down the shutters, and look within.

The Element takes hold, the cycle begins.


At the heart of the Earth is a solid core, floating and rotating, surrounded by molten material still plasmic, cindering and burning from its origin. On the tides of these gigantic oceans floats the cooling mantle in several pieces, sometimes loosely joined, from half to many kilometres thick. When chunks of it fall off into the miasma below the crust shudders and splits in spasm. Earthquakes accelerating through rock and alluvium layers release fractures,


All text copyright Cecil Balmond

All images copyright and courtesy of Balmond Studio

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