We met Sebastian Behmann in Merano at the retrospective that the Kunst Meran Merano Arte is dedicating to Studio Other Spaces – SOS until 17 January 2021: the German architect, co-founder together with the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson of this new design partnership, talks exclusively about it for Domus.
When and how did the SOS idea arise?
The atelier was opened in 2014 and reflects the development of a partnership with Olafur Eliasson which has lasted for over than twenty years and has led us to create installations, exhibitions and other creative projects (Sebastian Behmann is still the design department director of Studio Olafur Eliasson – SOE, ed). However, this new partnership was born to realize in a more systematic way that perspective of superimposing art and architecture, which we were already exploring. The idea is to adopt an experimental approach able to explore the boundaries between these two disciplines. And I assure you that it is really stimulating sharing perspectives and different visions from yours.
Is it stimulating in terms of creativity?
Yes, of course: an artist can inspire an architect, and vice versa. And I can confirm it: in my job as an architect, I have always taken inspiration from Olafur’s artistic vision, a vision that has led me to conceive architecture in a different way, for instance, in relation to the use of materials or of light… So, it’s about thinking outside the box: combining the art sphere with that of architecture can contribute to really interesting results. We thought that this is a field that has not been sufficiently explored until now.
Would you like to explain us how this encounter actually takes place?
First of all, the approach changes. For us it is important that, at a design level, art and architecture develop in parallel and converse without hierarchies. It is also important to involve the client, who is no longer called on to give simple guidelines or project instructions (trivialising: how many square metres, floors, rooms…) but to actively participate in the entire project process.
I suppose it is not by chance that the exhibition dedicated to SOS activities, currently taking place at Kunst in Merano, is entitled ‘Design of Collaboration’?
Of course. This retrospective, which is the first in the world, is an opportunity for us to offer a cross-section of our working methods, to show the collaborative process behind each of our projects. The idea is to explain that things do not happen by chance, but are the result of a series of decisions taken by all the individuals involved - from designers to clients, from citizens to municipalities - during the design process.
Where do you carry out your business?
In Berlin: the idea was to share the same location as Studio Olafur Eliasson (SOE), which works in a former brewery. The two teams work independently but, besides the building which houses them, they share ideas, impulses, analysis and, obviously, all the infrastructures.
But how do you decide whether you work for SOS or for Olafur Eliasson atelier?
Simple: it depends on the type of work. I refer to SOS when the competence in the architectural field is a priority, being it an urban project or a building. But, when the project reflects an artistic operation, Olafur atelier takes care of it. However, the sharing between the two ateliers is still an integral part of the way we work.
Your partner, the artist Olafur Eliasson, has always been sensitive to climate change issues. The numerous installations and exhibitions he has made all over the world, which have always had a strong impact on public opinion, show evidence of this. Is sustainability the SOS field of research as well?
Of course, it is an absolute priority. We are convinced that it has come the time to radically change the way we build. In our practice we have always wondered about the construction methods of our works and, above all, about the type of materials we use, asking ourselves: where do they come from? How are they extracted and processed? How are they transported? The integration of all these activities into a carefully planned process can contribute to the inception of more sustainable buildings, well harmonised in their territorial context. And we really work hard in order to achieve this goal.
What do you mean?
For about a year we have created within SOS a lab to study more ecological and sustainable materials. There is a lot to do in this direction because using alternative materials means, at the same time, thinking about different buildings compared to the traditional ones, also in terms of their use. We are venturing into a new design and construction era which questions everything we thought we knew and were used to doing.
Would you like to give us some examples?
Well, speaking of alternative materials, the first one that comes to my mind is the Ulilissat Icefjord Park in Greenland, where we used ice blocks, collected in the nearby fjord, to shape the exhibition building interior space. The ice shape, once melted, remains imprinted on the walls: a visitor’s reminder of the melting glaciers dramatic problem.
Or, the Movement House project in Denmark, a building designed to ‘cultivate health’, stimulating movement as a therapeutic and relational act.
And the movement is still the source of inspiration for the Meles Zenawi Memorial Park in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which we have been working on from 2013 and which should be completed later this year. The project, dedicated to the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s dedication against poverty, realizes a sort of commemorative walk through a park, dotted by seven ‘stations’, which leads to see the history of Ethiopia first-hand, becoming aware of the last fifty-year successes and defeats.
If you had to describe SOS with an adjective?
I would use three of them: curious, experimental and ambitious.