by Jincy IypeJun 28, 2023
Encountering Per Carlsen’s surreal digital renderings puts one in a contemplative, captivated state. Born and raised in Oslo, the 32-year-old Norwegian architectural designer has built his digital photography portfolio over six years, chock full of imaginary architecture that thrives on motifs of recurring lines and free-flowing geometries, subtle colour schemes and a modest yet essential play of light, testing and stretching the limits of architectural imagery—from dystopian buildings towering against a backdrop of calming sunsets to mammoth, undulating monoliths on the verge of plunging into the sea, Carlsen’s photography, at once familiar and uncanny, takes one on cinematic visual journeys, touching upon the celebrated principles of Scandinavian design and architecture, replete with simplicity and minimalism.
With a background in graphic design, art and illustration, Carlsen often calls upon memories and imagery associated with his childhood growing up in Norway: rich and vastly stretching natural landscapes and their staggering scales contrasting with the reduced ratio of humans, abundant nature, and the freedom of not worrying about worldly responsibilities. These influences can be witnessed copiously in his constructed worlds, ominous yet beautiful, as relayed in the following photo essay. “Creating things in different forms has always been important to me. To be truthful, I am genuinely just following and working on my creative intuitions,” the architect shares. For these renderings, Carlsen indulges in Rhino to create 3D models, V Ray plugins for renders, and Photoshop for post-production, before posting them online for followers. Borne simply by listening to his urge to create, much of Carlsen’s pleasing visuals, bring to the forefront, the endless possibilities of digital renderings and their potential to inspire spatial explorations, albeit, through an intangible medium.
Speaking to STIR, Carlsen, who currently works at the Nordic Office of Architecture in Oslo, reveals the creative impulses behind these surrealist-built landscapes, his obsession with imbuing his imagined structures with repetition and Goliathan scales, and the minimal yet essential addition of a lone human figure in most of them.
Jincy Iype: What does architecture mean to you?
Per Carlsen: For me, architecture became a platform, a conduit for me to try new things that I would otherwise potentially not get exposed to. I remember as a teenager, I did not necessarily want to become an architect. But after completing my bachelor's and master's in architecture, and now, practising at the Nordic Office of Architecture (as part of the competition team), I have also learnt so much about other creative disciplines such as working with images, photography, music, and so much more. It is really a magnificent vocation to let your creative energy unleash. Now, I practise my architectural art on the side, and it is truly gratifying.
Jincy: Did growing up, and now practising architecture in Norway, influence your creative journey to date?
Per: This might sound cliché, but as a Scandinavian, I grew up in a relatively small country, with a small population residing in a substantially enormous space. So that huge difference in the scales, of natural landscapes to humans, has never left my mind. I grew up quite close to nature, playing in the sand as a kid, free, joyful, and devoid of anxieties that come as an adult. Now that I think about it, perhaps all those experiences flow into my digital creations, the freedom, the serenity, the inescapable variations in proportions, in infinitely stretching sceneries, the colour gradients influenced by the calmness of tangible nature, the openness…
Jincy: In your work, the real world intersects with the virtual, in a dystopian, cinematic fashion. What is the intent behind your surreal visuals, and what is your creative process?
Per: To be truthful, I am genuinely just following and working on my creative intuitions. I discovered that when I started architecture, it consisted of a lot of talk. But the way most architects approach projects in a problem-solving manner is the most interesting to me, apart from the interplay of tactility and materiality, as well as creating dialogues with nature.
I tend to play with one space, free-flowing or strict, one line, one repetition, just feeding my creative curiosity. The symmetry and schedule of repetition are never-ending, and it is calming for the human mind. I then model it up in 3D software and put it to render. To make it easier for myself, I don’t give names to my work. I would like to believe that gives them the freedom to just be, and not be defined excessively. I simply keep experimenting—sometimes it turns out good, sometimes it doesn’t. The entire process is a way to be creatively stimulated and productive. You work on something and see it get produced in real time, from start to finish. You always end up discovering something new, improving on things you already know, and most importantly, end up thinking about something as opposed to remaining stagnant. That’s the way I work. It has been a great way to catalogue my work and share it with the world which in turn gives me the drive to explore further.
I usually start with small sketches, but it could also be an icon or a plan that I chance upon in a magazine or online. I see these drawings and immediately imagine what they would look like if extruded into a program, how it would look for various camera positions, and more. Even if it is just a line, I would try to build it in a model. Perhaps, it's contrary to what architecture schools teach—there, one starts with something big, with all your concepts ready. Personally, that was challenging for me. I know how to work like that professionally now, but in these digital architectures, I tend to do the opposite. I start with a minute thing, one simple space or line, and then build on that.
Jincy: When did this series begin, and when do you see it culminating (if ever)?
Per: I started working on these in 2017 I believe, and I remember getting anxious about putting them online, simply due to my fear of getting judged. It’s scary, isn’t it? I started posting a lot more a year later, just thinking of cataloguing my creations, but also feeling quite anxious about how people would react or think about these. You are always wondering if what you are creating is good enough.
But as I started posting more actively, I quickly discovered what I really liked about architecture—exploring spaces. I believe I then got addicted to exploring spaces that my mind was tuning into, which resulted in these digital creations. It is akin to the process of making music or playing video games, where you get to decide all factors, really fine-tune your intuitions, It is majorly satisfying working at your own pace, bringing your ideas to life, and publishing your creations.
Jincy: Have you ever thought of realising your envisioned architectural imageries?
Per: I don’t think so, that has never been a goal for me. The power of the unbuilt is inspiring, and the limits are infinite. Their digital nature feeds into envisioning the unbuildable perhaps, but yes, you could probably build it. But that realisation is not my ultimate destination. I am inspired by simple shapes and ideas, whether buildable or not. I am reminded of the Great Pyramids of Giza—a simple geometry, and truly timeless—and we still don’t know how it was built, exactly. There’s something so inhuman about these mammoth-scaled structures, but also, quite human. My works allude to that aesthetic and personality, dominant yet calming, at peace with themselves and true to nature in a way.
Jincy: In most of your renderings, one single human figure resides, perhaps to show the contrast of scale and enhance the beauty of the imagined space. Is that small addition intentional?
Per: I believe humans breathe life into a piece of architecture. That addition is what provides intensity to the building and scenery’s scale and being—if you take that away, that sense of proportion is lost. If there is more than one human figure, the minimal and clean nature of the pictures gets overtly crowded, and that’s not my vision. It takes a bit of focus away from the life and grandeur of the space. It’s a subtle balance.
I like big scales, it is as simple as that. There is something magnificent about spaces that are obscenely bigger than us. You know that feeling that ensconces you when you enter a high-ceilinged cathedral or museum, or forests with trees that reach the skies? That’s precisely what the play of scales and repeated geometries would want to convey. I studied art when I was 18-19 years old, and I was painting huge mountains—I have always preferred that large format, massive and impressive.
Jincy: What is your creative philosophy and what are some of your inspirations?
Per: Before I stepped into architecture, I never had an influential architectural experience. However, as its student, I remember visiting Rome and experiencing the Pantheon—what a magnificent balance of space and light. I was thoroughly attracted to that feature, its timelessness, its impressive scale and proportions. I am not sure if that explains my philosophy, but it does relay what kind of spaces motivate me. I am also a fan of Scandinavian architecture, Korean architecture, and Japanese architecture—the use of simple materiality and augmented spaces are inspirational, especially their thorough use of simplicity. I also am inspired by classical music, its very grounding.
Jincy: Some advice for young creatives.
Per: For the people reading or listening to this, especially if you are a student or just starting to practise architecture—it is completely all right if you feel a bit lost, if you haven’t found your place yet. Make it easy for yourself and try to find what your strong point could be. Maybe your interest lies more towards the technical stuff, or towards conceptual ideating—find that, stick to it, give it your time and attention, and do it well. Find that one thing and then you build on that. We are trained to think big all the time, and while that might be important, it is also crucial to perhaps focus on the small sometimes. That clarity gives you an edge.