Experimental in its time, the 1902 home of Chicago's Graham Foundation welcomes cutting-edge Cecil Balmond
Deborah Wilk -- Interior Design, 2/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Although the laser-cut aluminum plates seem to be suspended from the ceiling, the stainless-steel chain provides the actual support.
Cutout vinyl covers windows in "Cecil Balmond: Solid Void."
Danzer's inner sides comprise hundreds of cardboard tetra-hedrons clad in mirrored acrylic.
Each column is 10 inches square.
The 1902 mansion by Richard E. Schmidt and Hugh M.G. Garden retains many prairie-style details.
Column height reached 10 feet in the living room.
All photography by Michelle Litvin.
When an arts organization quietly revered for 50 years mounts its first site-specific installation, it's only fitting that a quietly revered designer-engineer receive the commission. Such was the case with the Graham Foundation in Chicago and Arup deputy chairman Cecil Balmond, the go-to guy for art stars and starchitects. Balmond had installed H_edge elsewhere before but, seeing the Graham's prairie-style Gold Coast mansion, the viral construction of columns began to shift dramatically in his mind. Reconfiguring the piece to extend throughout the ground floor, he says, he "connected with the rigors of the 1902 design." That's when executive director Sarah Herda suggested he take over the whole 9,000-square-foot house for "Cecil Balmond: Solid Void."
Employing 6,000 laser-cut aluminum plates and 5,000 feet of stainless-steel chain, H_edge snakes through the foyer and the living, music, and dining rooms, reflecting jewellike light. Illinois Institute of Technology students assisted with the strikingly simple construction. Holes are drilled into each end of a 10-foot-long shadow box, so a torque wrench can stretch four chains inside. Then the plates are slotted into the chains. When the force is released, the chains grip the plates. Repeating the process creates a square column, and the columns join to form walls and volumes. Sometimes, viewers are engulfed; at other points, the eye can look over the piece as if it were, well, a hedge.
The second floor's new installation, Danzer, riffs on H_edge's fractal nature by deconstructing the tetrahedron. The primary element is a 7-foot-high triangular pyramid constructed of a wood frame covered with layers of ¼-inch plywood, ¼-inch MDF, and stained Russian birch. Sliced in half, the pyramid reveals faceted mirrored shapes. "I felt like I was furnishing the house," Balmond says. On the room's built-in bookshelves, he installed models of his work, both executed and unrealized. Instead of curtains, he covered the windows in black vinyl cutout with patterns derived from the crystalline configurations. "When you enter the room, you see only two objects, but then you notice related elements on the window," he explains. "Your sense of space alters as you look back and forth." Volume lies somewhere between perception and reality.
If that sounds pedagogical, it should—Balmond teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. The Graham's final room houses a row of light boxes outlining his views on architectural history from ancient times to the present.