The Legacy of The Model Room: a conversation between Olafur Eliasson and the late Einar Thorsteinn

In our publication, Lukas Feireiss’ Legacy: Generations of Creatives in Dialogue, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson speaks with his friend and mentor, the late Icelandic architect Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), about the creative process of model making in the studio. A protégé of Buckminster Fuller, Einar Thorsteinn is the mad scientist behind Olafur’s most elaborate works over the course of two decades.

OLAFUR ELIASSON: I heard about Einar while studying at architectural school in Denmark. A structural engineer pointed out to me that someone who specialized in the topic I was interested in at the time—which was sort of a Buckminster Fuller dome structure—was this Icelandic person who was much more talented and better able to help me than the architecture school in Denmark was at the time.

We met for the first time in Iceland in 1996. I came to your house and I was very impressed with the exciting environment and the fantastic workspace. We started talking about the problem that I had: I was about to create a sculpture which looked very much like a Buckminster Fuller dome. It was something between a sculpture and a play-scaffold or something like that in a landscape outside, for a landscaping project in Denmark. I simply couldn’t find anybody who could crunch that Buckminster Fuller mathematical principle, and Einar turned out to be very capable of doing that. When we met, I was very non-mystical and pragmatic, saying that there is no doubt that Einar has a kind of toolbox which is very unique and exceptionally useful for me. It was not about me trying to learn what Einar could do; it was just a huge chance for me to actually express some of the ideas that I was working on with greater precision.

Einar, I think, has an unbelievable ability to imagine a space without having to draw it out; he can speak about it with a certain efficiency that makes it tangible for me. That is something very unique. A lot of polyphonic shapes are very hard to talk about, since the language in which we speak doesn’t embrace those shapes.

Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn in conversation.

EINAR THORSTEINN: All my life I have been bumping into people like Frei Otto. He was a kind of hero for us young architects in the old days in Germany. Then Buckminster Fuller, and finally I became close to Linus Pauling. The difference between these people and Olafur Eliasson is that I never had such a close relationship with them as with Olafur. When we met the first time, I sensed what he was saying. He was into experimentation, and this was good for me—experimentation is good. At the beginning Olafur had a very small studio and maybe—how many?—three, four, or five people. We would actually go into the basis of things and look into new ideas. We were looking into ideas that we had at our disposal, that we might be able to use in this or that. This was totally different from today— now I am some kind of authority or something, and people come to me and ask me about things I don’t even know about. I try to answer! This is different, you know. It is not what I saw coming, but it has happened. As a private person, you are always working for yourself. You are working on something that you believe in, that you believe is correct.

The cooperation turned out to be about how much you give to the other person, and how much he gives back. You know? You kind of come together, and Olafur and I found a way to come together. I think, today, it’s very straightforward.

OE: If you look at the studio, there is a palette of skills: a map of competences which makes the studio perform. I’m not really good at anything, but I’m okay at everything. I would not have so many people working with me if I were particularly good at something, right? I could have chosen to keep this studio completely secret, very closed, and could have claimed that I was working more or less alone. That would have satisfied a certain market mechanism, but of course it would have been rather irresponsible and would probably have caused a lot of frustration within the studio. Of course, it was never even a question.

I think what a place like the studio does has to do with the extent to which people know what will happen, how well they can predict it. Something unpredictable can actually be the carrier of criticism in a certain way—by being unpredictable, you’re not exactly a psychopath, but you are in the way that there’s that little psychopathic element, in that people are looking at you and they just don’t know what you’re going to do. Until the moment it becomes predictable, which is when you lose a degree of friction with your surroundings. Compared to the real world, the studio is pretty experimental. Compared to something really experimental, we are probably a little more pragmatic. But we are also a little bit unpredictable.

Top: Einar Thorsteinn, 2008. | Bottom: The Model room at Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, 2003.

If you do a model, you do it to better understand what you’re talking about

ET: I think Model room (2003) is the legacy of our cooperation, so to speak. Model room was not built on purpose. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s build a model room!’ It just happened that there were so many models piling up from different kinds of projects. One day Olafur had the genius idea to make an art piece out of it. In Model room there are many, many models that never became any art pieces. There are maybe three groups of models: there are models of pieces that are already art pieces, there is a second group of models that are studies of art pieces that are now being made, and there is a third group of models that are proposals for something that hasn’t been executed.

If you do a model, you do it to better understand what you’re talking about. You talk about something, you have an idea, and this idea in your head is maybe not three-dimensional. It’s just an idea; you have a feeling about something. The 3D study is basically to make the idea physical. Only then you can say, ‘No, this is not what I meant; I meant something else.’ And then you can go on from that.

OE: When one asks about a model in Model room, the tendency in the language with which one asks is to suggest that the model has a rather conservative purpose as a little sculpture. It’s very important to fight against this sense of nice little objects in a ‘Wunderkammer’. I think that what is exciting about the models is that each of them, in one way or the other, presents an attempt to solve a problem—a problem not as an autonomous configuration of time and space, but as a way to tie time and society together. Every model somehow represents a conflict with society or with the time in which we live. Each was an attempt, in one way or another, to present a sort of non-formalistic or non-modern or non-utopic or very utopic or very formal or very modern dialogue with the time in which it took place. That means the potential of the model is not in the intrinsic proportional quality within the model; it is in how this intrinsic proportional quality performs on a much larger scale.

We are in a society which is pretty much organized around a certain spatial language, a spatial language that has some kind of cultural and political history

What we normally would call the finished object is also a model, is also an experiment. It is also temporal, in the sense that it performs over time and might collapse physically or ideologically. I have come to like every stage of a model more by acknowledging that it will never not be a model.

If you look at a model, you see that there is a kind of geometric language inside it. This geometric language does different things. We are in a society which is pretty much organized around a certain spatial language, a spatial language that has some kind of cultural and political history.

People make the mistake, generally speaking, of taking this for granted as being a set of truths. And what a successful geometric or spatial language can do is to break this paradigm of truthfulness by showing that the values with which we live today are also, in fact, constructions. Some geometric spatial experiments do this quite efficiently by introducing a set of rules or principles as a criticism. Not necessarily replacing one truth with another truth—I’m afraid of that—but, essentially, showing that what we consider to be true, what we take for granted as being reality, is, in fact, relative to our engagement. This is where I think alternative spatial principles such as different geometric models or ideas or mathematical, spatial, or scientific ways of defining space hold so much potential. One of the greatest potentials is the way you actually introduce them to the world, and I think one should be careful not to repeat the same mistake that we are currently surrounded by—namely, to claim that we have the right answers for everything.

It’s more interesting for me to use this alternative spatial language to show that what we take for granted as being reality is not at all real

For the time being, at least, it’s more interesting for me to use this alternative spatial language to show that what we take for granted as being reality is not at all real. A geometric language of the principles of phenomena can have a highly productive impact on the surroundings. Anybody who has a non-Euclidean way of seeing things, like Einar, is capable of producing consequences that go beyond geometric questions and are very much linked to the world. It’s only a question of how one puts it into the world. How does one take an idea and translate it into a frictional phenomenon that actually produces time?

This conversation between Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn was originally recorded in Berlin, 2016. Directed by Terry Perk. Produced by Carol Diehl.

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