An Interview With Olafur Eliasson, On Crossing Between Art And Architecture

A sit-down with the artist responsible for dazzling facade of Reykjavik’s impressive new concert hall

Over the last year, Iceland has made headlines for two things — volcanic eruptions and economic collapse — which have understandably overshadowed the country’s latest cultural accomplishment: a world-class concert and conference center designed by the Copenhagen-based firm Henning Larsen, with a luminous façade by the artist Olafur Eliasson. After construction was halted a number of times, the building opened to the public in May and now stands as a strange symbol of what Reykjavik thought it would become, circa 2006.


The 28,000-square-foot interior is broken into four main halls, the largest of which accommodates 1,800 seats. But the building’s true showpiece is Eliasson’s crystalline façade constructed of steel-framed glass “quasi-bricks,” which are stacked on top of each other to resemble Iceland’s basalt columns. Together, they create a play of shadow and color in the theater’s vaulted foyer. During the day, the transparency, reflectivity, and color of the bricks change with the weather and seasons. At night, the southern wall glows with the help of LEDs, the brightness and color of which can be individually adjusted.

“When I change my clothes, I call an architect.”

Athough best-known for his light installations, Eliasson is no stranger to collaborating with architects inside and outside his Berlin studio. “I have 12 or 14 architects working for me, so I work with architects regardless,” he says. “When I change my clothes, I call an architect.” Last May, I had the chance to sit down with artist while construction was under way on his monumental façade. Here, the Danish-Icelandic artist talks about the mathematical complexities of the quasi-brick, his New York City Waterfalls, what he calls “indifferent press,” why architects are not artists, and the art of never compromising.

You play a lot with human perception, making people more conscious of the way they see things. You tend to use artificial light to simulate natural occurrences, whereas here you’re sort of harnessing the ephemeral quality of natural light. Is that something that you’re now interested in, harnessing nature as opposed to mimicking it?

Well, natural light is, I think, always there in my work. The quality of artificial light often lays in the fact that you have a relationship with the natural light when entering a space with artificial light. I would normally not see my work as being, let’s say, autonomous elements. You could see my use of artificial light as a sort of response to my ideas about natural light.

People in Iceland have a different relationship to light than people in Sicily.

The thing is, I think that our relationship with natural light is cultural, one could make the mistake, as many modern architects have done, to think of natural light as something of essentialistic or universal qualities. Of course, I think natural lights are full of incredible qualities, but you have to be careful of making rules on behalf of others with regards of how to make relevance of natural light. I think this was one of the great modern mistakes. So what I?m interested in when using artificial light in my work is the potential of singularity in the experience, and based on that, I do think that one can, it’s a lot of ideas about collectivity as well.

This, I think can be said about natural light also, especially when using natural light on a public space or in a building, which carries some signature importance for a city facade, a city signature, and suddenly I do think that — and I know that this might sound odd — but I do think that our relationship to natural light is artificial, it is cultural, it is not something we are born with. This is why people in Iceland have a different relationship to light than people in Sicily. The mistake to make would be to say that the ones in Sicily or the ones in Iceland have a better relationship, or more or less sophisticated. This mistake I leave for the esoteric people to do. The fact is, and we should nurture this quality, that people in England, even in southern England and the north of France have different relationships with lights. And I think what is highly unique in Iceland is that the light is not just a little bit different than the rest of the world, it is incredibly, extremely different, partly because people here developed a life in twilight. I know I want to be careful here generalizing but I do think that the long tradition of writing here has the relationship with the fact that there’s not a lot of daylight and writing only takes a candle. See, this is one of the clichés that I was just saying I wanted to be careful with. But generally speaking, I do think that the relationship with light is cultural and not natural. And that is my point and this is why for me it’s more or less the same when working with natural and artificial light. And that was the answer to your question.


This isn’t your first architectural collaboration. What is it that draws you to working with architects?

It’s no secret that the art world is stigmatized by its own elitist relationship with the world being expensive, self-obsessed, closed into museums. Yet I love the art world, and I do think of the art world as one of the most sophisticated worlds when talking about responsibility in the broadest term compared with the design world, the film world — well, compared to any world. And I know that this incredibly ungenerous and not at all fair. So one of the things that the architect has as an advantage over the artist is that they build real buildings for real people. And often they build buildings for people who are not interested in buildings — they just work in them or they just sleep in them or they just eat in them. Of course, for an artist, this is quite fascinating, because architects are often confronted with the situation of having to solve the pragmatic problems of reality. Meaning that collectivity, which is such a fragile entity, needs to be not just framed by architecture but it needs to be nurtured by architecture. Architecture co-produced responsibility, it co-produced social values, it co-produces the democracy with which we praise ourselves. And, of course, art would like to suggest that it does the same, and, of course, I think it does to some extent, but sometimes it is incredibly liberating for me as an artist to work on the street building — a building with an architect. I have 12 or 14 architects working for me, so I work with architects regardless: When I change my clothes, I call an architect.

Do you think that some architects could be described as artists?

No, I don’t.

Architects are much too sophisticated to be artists.


That is a question that should remain unanswered. But I don’t think architects are artists. I think architects are much too sophisticated to be artists, and they are trained in the great art of making compromises to keep the client happy. This I think, of course, is totally unfair to the architects, but I can assure that I have the highest respect for the art of actually succeeding — to succeed under the conditions of which the architect has to work to create great architecture, with a client, with a city, with city regulations. I mean, that is really a challenge, an incredible challenge. I?m surprised to see that occasionally a rather nice building actually pops up somewhere. I?m totally surprised, because being an architect today is the worst thing you can possibly imagine to be.


Do you never compromise?

Uh, no, I don’t, unless it is an artistic project where the compromise is part of the artistic agenda. But I can answer this quite frankly, and I?m dead serious: No, I don’t, because if I compromise, I leave the project.

After finishing a project, have you ever experienced regret?

Oh, yeah, I change my mind every day, so this is, of course, something which is very good when you’re in a field where you’re never compromised. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t change my mind all the time. I rephrase my words, I see things differently, I meet a person who inspires me, and then I change my mind, and nothing is ever the same. Nothing is ever, ever the same. So, yes, I think — which one can say for architects as well — I think I incorporate the ongoing process of time when I work, which means that I?m trying to be as un-dogmatic and non-normative as possible. I hope occasionally to be within the time in which I work. I know this is not always the case. But there is a distinction between compromising and changing my mind.

Were you happy with the Waterfalls in New York?

Oh yeah, incredibly happy.


[Your assistant] said that you were frustrated with all the media attention.

Yeah, I think art has a strength which very often is propelled when people are allowed to make up their own minds about what they see. The press is like a pre-determining, like a set of goggles through which people look. And, of course, good press is a set of magnifying goggles which makes things clear, and you increase your sense of criticality, which I think is good. And, of course, indifferent press or commercial press does the opposite, and the negative part of the indifferent press is that it also is socially counterproductive, it generates indifference in the world. The Waterfalls had a certain amount of indifferent press, which was not the intention of the works. Indifferent press is what I mean when I call it quantifiably — press that focused on quantity rather than quality. Of course, the architectural world knows all about this.

You mentioned in your artist statement that there’s some kind of relationship between the quasi-brick and the human body? Can you develop that a little bit?

Did I say that? I worked a lot with the scaling of the quasi-brick. I mean, the geometry in the brick was initially developed by a geometrist — I think it’s just important to always mention him — Einar Thorsteinn, who worked at my studio. He is a great, great thinker, and he was educated in the ?60s with Frei Otto.

So anyway, it’s an all-space-filling principle based on an all-space-filling, stackable geometry. This particular principle is based on a fivefold symmetry, which means that it breaks into a symmetrical pattern that is based on the golden ratio. But this means there is an inner mathematic principle within the geometry of this stone that is not traditional –not Euclidian ” it doesn’t break down into cubes and pyramids. The point I?m trying to make is it doesn’t fulfill the traditional principles of a Euclidian space, and that is very unique for an all-space-filling unit. ?All space” means you can stack it without any gaps in between. And normally you can only do that with Euclidian bodies.

The scaling of the brick is roughly the shape of my or your body.

This, of course, has to do with the body: The human body is also known as a Euclidian body. The human body is first of all an organism which is part sociocultural and part natural if you want. And in that sense, it is the shape of the brick, closer to something organic, which actually is a little contradiction to what we keep referring to as the basalt stone and the crystalline nature of the basalt stone, because that is, in fact, something crystalline and very mathematical, hexagonal, predictable. So within this quite rigid crystalline structure there is actually something quite soft going on and something which I think is incredible, intrinsic to the, I think, quality of the way the brick performs in terms of how it defines the façade principles.


But when I, in the press statement, talk about the relationship with the body, I think it has more with the fact to do that the size and the scaling of the brick is roughly the shape of my or your body. So you can just about stand in it, and it performs as a cell just big enough to carry one person; it’s the height and the volume of what you can somehow circumference with your arms and so on. If it would have been twice the height and volume, it would I think have been too monumental and would have lost the quality that it has now, which I think is closer to a spider web, or if you look on a molecule level of a bone in your body, you see something which is very finely interwoven. In that sense, I think it has a proportional, quite well-trimmed scale. That was a longer answer to the question, I?m sorry.


About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.