Interview with OAT 2019 graphic designer: Retooling the architectural brand

Studio Christopher Victor, the London-based graphic design practice of Rosa Nussbaum, has produced the graphic identity for this year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale. In this interview she discusses the graphic concept for OAT 2019.

Why did you want to design for OAT 2019?
The brief presented an opportunity to examine how branding is used as a catalyst for economic growth – city branding initiatives are one example of how this practice plays out in the architectural sphere. At the same time, the graphic identity for 2019 has to work in tandem with the existing triennale brand and those of the host institutions, so it can’t be so speculative as to become incoherent in those contexts. Operating within those constraints felt like an interesting challenge.

­What were your thoughts on architecture festivals before this assignment?
I have worked closely with architects for a number of years as a book designer, but designing the identity for an architecture festival is a very different proposition. Festivals are momentary; they respond to a particular set of questions and have the potential to reach a broad and varied audience in a way that is harder for a book to achieve. For me it’s a nice opportunity to respond to architectural concepts in a different setting to the one I am familiar with.

How does the concept tie in with the theme of this years’ triennale which willchallenge the supremacy of economic growth and explore the architecture of degrowth”?
My approach emerged from the understanding that degrowth advocates for transformation and reuse over erasure. With this in mind, I wanted to explore whether it was possible to ‘retool’ existing strategies for the creation of architectural brands rather than aim for a totally new mode of representation. To give an example of what I mean by an architectural brand, consider how the design of ‘iconic’ skyscrapers ensures their outlines can be reduced to simple graphic shapes. The ability to pluck the building from its surroundings like this allows it to function like a logo. And the purpose of these logo-buildings is invariably to help position their host cities or countries as centres of economic growth. I wanted to examine the visual strategies that support this process and put them to use in a different way.

Why have you chosen to work with 3D modelling software?
I am particularly interested in the trend for creating photorealistic 3D renders of buildings which are commonly applied to construction hoardings around new developments. These images invariably present a sanitised, commodified and unrealistic view of the built environment. Where I live, in London, they are semi-permanent features of the street – living and working alongside them it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine what an alternative future for our built environments might look like. I have been thinking about how to use 3D modelling software to visualise a different kind of architecture – one informed by the principles of degrowth. I have only been using open source models, for example, so the compositions are somewhat determined by what I can find – a kind of digital ‘make-do-and-mend’. In this way the identity might best be described as an invitation to look anew at how we use the design tools available to us, rather than an explicit suggestion of what an architecture of degrowth could look like.

At the core of your design is a library. What kind of library is this?
With the help of designer Agnete Morell I have been creating a library of rendered images which form the basis of promotional materials for the triennale. The images are filled with objects associated with activities prioritised by a degrowth economy, like music and other forms of art-making, as well as things you might find on a construction site, like tools and building materials. Rendering models in the architectural materials of ‘generic luxury’ like glass and aluminium reproduces the seductive material aesthetic favoured by developers, but overlaying multiple models confuses the visual field and makes it difficult to tell exactly what you’re looking at even as some elements appear familiar. The overall effect is to disrupt the ‘logo function’ of the render by destabilising the framing conventions that allow it to function so successfully as a branding tool.

What inspired the decision to include rocks and stones in the renders?
OAT 2019 curator Phineas Harper used the example of a cairn (or ‘varde’ in Norwegian) as an example of the architecture of degrowth because “There is no money, no commissioning client, and yet from nothing these small, potentially life-saving architectural elements emerge”. A cairn is a human-made pile of stones which since prehistory have been built by human populations all over the world for ceremonial purposes and to mark trails. These wayfinding infrastructures grow organically wherever they are needed – as walkers pass the cairn they pick up a rock and add it to the pile. Rock piles are a familiar feature in rural Norway and I began to think of the renders as digital cairns which will guide visitors between the festival venues. Ultimately my hope is to add graphic elements to the streetscape that are in dialogue with the surrounding city and which might prompt residents to reassess what we define as architecture and the agency we have in shaping it.