Cecil Balmond I don’t know why I survived London but I was certainly frightened when I first came. I came to England from Sri Lanka in ’62. London was boiling with racial problems, and I had a full dose of it from ’62 to ’75 with the Paki-bashing, that whole era. I always understood that the racial thing was ignorance; I stayed because of the English sense of fair play, I guess. And of course I discovered Arup, which was an amazing kind of free society. The old man [Ove Arup] was still there and I worked with him directly, which was a great plus.
I do worry that the racial intolerance will grow [after the bombings]. It’ll need good education in the primary schools; you have to start there in the long-term strategy because I think the strength of England is that it’s multiracial.
There’s a fear of loss of jobs but there’s always been ethnic migrations coming in and taking over these menial tasks nobody else wants to do. And now we have these Eastern Europeans coming in and this time they’re educated people, which I think is something we’re not aware of. My cleaner was a chemistry major – it’s embarrassing.
I’ve always loved London, I don’t know why. I thought it was an anonymous city at first; not as distinctive as Paris or Rome or New York. But London is a place of discovered secrets; you keep discovering that wonderful little square hidden round the corner. You can be lost in London and yet find your way in little pockets of it. And there was a typically English thing of sort of fumbling along, which kind of appealed to me.
In terms of building engineering London was – and is – foremost. Think of Peter Rice and Arup, Tony Hunt and others. The building engineering firms are the best in the world. I think we are more conscious probably of a holistic sense of design. London would be the foremost place in the world for architects to come to if you wanted structural engineering at the highest creative levels.
The engineering thing comes from a Victorian legacy. The railways, the Brunels – there’s a legacy of creative engineering, entrepreneurial engineering. Dyson continues all that with the inventive manufacturing thing. And the high-tech school was spawned through architects like Rogers, Foster and Grimshaw. It was highly influential in the world of architecture, but it’s had its day in a way.
I think the cultural paradigm is moving to a contemporary sense of fluctuations of serial spaces as opposed to ordered spaces. Computers are opening up different possibilities, new ways of interrogating space. If you go to all the architecture schools, it’s now rampant. It has swung too much the other way and it’s too easy to make buildings look funny shapes, to put it crudely. I’m not interested in that, shape for shape’s sake, but there is a whole area of growth that is irreversible.
But London won’t be a centre of computer programming. London will never be technological – there’s something that resists it, which is good. You can see Bangalore or Taiwan or someplace becoming a new Silicon Valley, mimicking machinery and electronics in their architecture. I don’t think London will do that. London has this huge residual thing that stops any new thing happening that quickly.
We have a lot of baggage, a lot of history, a lot of pressure groups; they all block certain evolutions and it’s part of the evolutionary process. I’ve personally gone through it, on that job near the bank of England, Number 1 Poultry [James Stirling, completed 1998]. Every street had a pressure group, and just as you’d win this one then the next street would fight. It took Lord Palumbo 15 years to get it going. With [the redevelopment of] Battersea [Power Station] there are pressure groups of course, and if I take a wider view I think they are part of the ecology of the growth of cities.
I mean, London has this democratic process of pressure groups that can stop you in your tracks, but it’s a braking effect on runaway models. I think that is the charm of London; that somehow, through our quaint planning laws and all that baggage, London will always be a patchwork quilt of averageness. In France you just bulldoze it and you get it done. I mean, we built Lille [the Euralille shopping centre designed by Rem Koolhaas, 1989-95] in five years or something amazing; that would have taken 20 years or something here. Rerouting a city centre, turning a freeway up … it would never have been done. It was this tremendous drive from the mayor down.
I remember [the then environment secretary Michael] Heseltine in the late 70s and 80s talking about London to the Channel – the whole eastern corridor – as one massive conurbation. I had doubts then but I saw the logic of it, that if London grew towards Docklands it would grow right to the end. And with the new trains that we’re doing, the CTRL, coming right into St Pancras, it’ll be very interesting.
Our transport has suffered, though. It’s certainly the most expensive in the world. I mean, I resent getting on a bus and going one stop and paying £1.20. I resent getting in a taxi from here to Warren Street and paying five quid to go three quarters of a mile. I can go halfway across Madrid for that money.
I think our infrastructure will always creak with an Olympics, but I think most countries’ would frankly. There’ll be huge demands on Londoners and on hotels. That is one thing I hate: London hotels. They’re probably the worst value for money I’ve come across. I always feel embarrassed when my friends or relatives come over here and stay in hotels. I find out what they’re paying and I see the rooms and I know the service they get. I think it’s disgusting.
We’ve got five major high-rises on the books here, they’re not quite happening yet but we’re waiting. I think the confidence is growing back in London now. London’s not that dense yet. It’s a very suburban place.
Battersea [Power Station] is going to be a world event for London if it all goes ahead. I’m leading the project and we’re doing the masterplan and a couple of buildings ourselves. It will be a mix of hotels, housing, leisure and all that but effectively what it will do is give London a major conference destination for about 10,000 people. I don’t think London has a centre for conferences. With its auditorium and the amount of hotels, this will be a major conference centre.
It will be more powerful than Tate Modern because that’s actually quite hidden and low key. What makes the Tate is the art, its collection, Battersea is not an art gallery, so you can’t compete in art, but it’s a place of fun and activity and it will be a 24/7 centre. If you look ahead 30 or 40 years, I predict the area on the river from Battersea moving east will grow. I think the walkway will open up and local community groups will come in as well, things will happen. If Battersea gets built, the kind of revenue and activity it will generate will definitely spawn something for a kilometre each way. It will pump in an energy for an urban revival for sure. Hopefully one day we’ll get a bridge across the Thames linking Chelsea and Pimlico to Battersea – that would be fun and that’s what it needs.