SELF-STORAGE: This temporary dwelling is made for the reclamation and dispersal of domestic things. The project suggests a Maison Dom-ino of stuff caught between owners, in a state of ephemeral use.

Axel Olson Leans Into the Conceptual Side of Architecture

Breaking barriers and crossing disciplines comes naturally for this University of Michigan master’s recipient and METROPOLIS Future100 honoree.

For as long as Axel Olson, a master’s recipient at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning, can remember, he’s been straddling the line between disciplines, be it architecture, film, industrial design, or digital art. Especially drawn to the creation of feature films and music videos in high  school, he completed his undergraduate BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he explored a wide range of art disciplines. He was able to hone a challenging conceptual approach that has served him well in his architecture projects, which are as much about narrative, blending, and cultural questioning as they are about structure. 

“I try to approach projects from the mindset that if I’m in school the project is inherently a conceptual project. I might as well lean into that a bit,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just about changing the way you look at something just a quarter of the way, so it presents itself as something new.”

Perhaps he’s gone more than a quarter of the way with the previously referenced Self-Storage, a project that grew out of his part-time work as a mover for 1-800-Got-Junk in high school. “We had to figure out where all this stuff would go. Nine times out of ten it goes to the dump,” he explains. 

THAT’S A WRAP: Facing their impeding demolition, existing buildings are restructured into an “exquisite corpse” that resurrects the location’s short life into a film base camp.
SIGNS OF LIFE was developed as a scalable system that employs standardized products used by maintenance staff to activate temporary architecture. The project was featured on the cover of METROPOLIS’s Summer 2024 issue.
BEFORE THE BRIGHT SHADOW: The U.S. embassy is reimagined as a black box of communications that contests the opacity of government and civilian relations in the United States and Cuba.

This project allowed him to open up an alternative: a temporary structure built out of cast-off things that would otherwise go to waste. Solid items like furniture or strong cardboard boxes could serve as the frame, and other items could be infill. And his strength in narrative and digital design (Olson is also working toward a certificate at Michigan’s Digital Studies Institute) helped shape this vision into a dramatic reality. “Tell more and say less,” he notes of his visual approach, which can fit a whole story into one image. 

Olson’s interest in the intersection of digital and physical has shaped most of his endeavors. In That’s a Wrap, he activated a postindustrial site as a film base camp, with strategic placement of green screens and props that allow users to stage the space both physically and digitally in creative ways. “The image of the building becomes what people want to imagine it as,” he says. In Signs of Life, zones for urban construction or maintenance at Ann Arbor’s Nichols Arboretum are enlivened by signage, which is then organized and monitored via a digital platform. 

His approach helps him use this balance between digital and physical to tackle larger issues, usually in unexpected ways. Before the Bright Shadow scoops out or “redacts” part of the U.S. embassy in Havana to create a zone for community internet connectivity. And Some of This Is That, a group project, suggests new typologies for collective living.

After graduation, Olson hopes he can continue to work on projects that exist beyond the typical physical realm of architecture, be it embedded digital applications, new interfaces, or things that haven’t been thought of yet. “There’s always a chance to rethink uses, building types, and reality,” he says. 

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