Pentagram and Border City at London Design Biennale

Border City was a 2017 SEGD Global Design Awards Honor Award winner.

Border City proposes a truly bi-national and borderless city based on a unique hexagonal grid system. It was the exhibition from Mexico at the London Design Biennale, which opened on September 7, 2016. Inspired by the Biennale theme of “Utopia by Design,” the exhibition graphically communicated the ideology behind the Border City while underscoring the theme of designing a utopia.

This unique system designed for rapid growth is the brainchild of Fernando Romero, Hon. FAIA and his firm FR-EE, a New York and Mexico City based architecture and industrial design firm. The hexagonal plan is a new concept that allows for radial expansion, maximizes urban planning efficiencies, and proposes solutions to the modern problems of overpopulation, infrastructure, growth and immigration in cities.

Javier Arizu, a designer from the Pentagram team, explains, “When it comes to land use in this concept, it's not like in many cities with a downtown financial district and a separate area for residential use. The idea is to merge such areas using hexagonal centers that could be bigger or smaller, ultimately making the city as balanced as possible and eliminating pockets of poverty. It’s a utopian vision that could happen.”

The master plan proposal indeed goes beyond the hypothetical, as the U.S. X Mexico Case Study. The proposed Border City area includes the U.S. states of New Mexico and Texas and the Mexican state of Chihuahua; already three border landowners are in conversations about building on their properties.

For the exhibition, FR-EE collaborated with Natasha Jen’s team at Pentagram, and Super Uber. The design took the form of a sort of immersive cyclorama, with corners of the room rounded to create a 360-degree floor-to-ceiling cinema and a circular dimensional model of the Border City in the center. Animated graphics played on all walls via projection. Projections were not limited to the walls; a projection onto the model showed through animation how the hexagonal grid can adapt to growth and how the framework makes the most of space, transportation capabilities and utilities like water.

Jen’s team had recently worked on a redesign of the FR-EE website, which set up a great working relationship between the two prestigious firms. In April 2016, FR-EE asked Pentagram to work with them on the Border City exhibition project, which they had begun to research and eventually grew to include the U.S. X Mexico Case Study data.

The teams at Pentagram and FR-EE worked closely to take an astounding amount of research, distill it, and prioritize it to create the animated infographics for the installation. It was an intensely challenging project not only because of the wealth of information but also because there were so many possibilities on where to take the data visually.

Pentagram limited the size of the team to accommodate the complexity of the data and allow for a nimble response to changes within the ambitious timeline of fewer than five months.

The team at Pentagram was granted a tremendous amount of freedom in their design solution. With few constraints or explicit direction, the challenge was to create graphics that would attract the attention of visitors, be easily understood, and also serve as an introduction to FR-EE and their practice.

The format of the exhibition itself was challenging, too. The maximum amount of time visitors spend in spaces like these is about 10 minutes. With a three-minute video as part of the installation, they had only seven minutes in which to communicate the complex concepts that comprise Border City.

FR-EE’s grid inspired the solution they reached. The familiar shape was integrated throughout the exhibition; the hexagon was used to represent populations in the charts and graphs, pixels in photographic images and the custom typeface called Hex Grid. Hex Grid features letterforms built using hexagonal geometries. This level of detail created a cohesive experience of the Border City vision and underscores the idea of radial growth using a hexagonal grid.

“What was most innovative about our solution was how simple yet how suitable it was. Often it is easy to overthink design and our approach. However, by implementing the hexagon as the principle graphic of the exhibition, we were able to highlight the significant relationship the hexagon has to their practice,” says Veronica Hoglund, Pentagram project manager.

Super Uber created the animated sequences with graphics and creative direction from Pentagram—yet another international collaboration. It was a smooth partnership but forced the design team to be even more acutely aware and considerate of their approach to time management because of the short project timeline. Super Uber also was responsible for the projection mapping in the exhibition space. The result was a vivid depiction of the concepts, science and data that inform the master plan.

The continuous motion graphics sequence presents high-level global data on the world’s regions, before examining a progressively granular view of the precise range of the U.S.-Mexico border. The use of space in the 360-degree format with the motion graphics created a back-and-forth movement between two screens on opposite sides of the room. This push-and-pull exchange of information was meant to represent the movement of people, ideas and products across borders.

Says Arizu, “The narrative of the infographics became deeper and more complicated as the infographics played, contrasting with the simplicity of the space.”

The infographics tell a compelling story of border towns like Juarez and El Paso; topics like immigration, economics, quality of life, healthcare and crime issues such as drug trafficking are addressed using recognizable, easily understood forms. For example, an immigration bar chart takes the form of an American flag, while a graph on border crossing uses the shapes of people and cars to represent the mode of transportation employed.

The exhibition was a resounding success, and the project teams were happy with the finished project. “The main goal was for the exhibition to feel as immersive as possible yet in some ways bombard the viewer with the space and information, which speak to the nature of the topic—the poverty, the complexity, but also the light at the end of the tunnel, which is FR-EE’s hexagonal grid system,” says Hoglund.

Mission accomplished.



Project Name: Border City at London Design Biennale

Client: FR-EE / Fernando Romero Enterprise

Location: London, England, UK

Open Date: September 7, 2016

Project Area: 153 m2

Design: Pentagram

Design Team: Natasha Jen (partner), Javier Arizu (designer), Veronica Hoglund (project manager)

Collaborators: Super Uber (animation), Synoesis (project visualizations), Liv Spencer (Audio)

Photos: Nick Turner


More on Border City at Pentagramand FR-EE

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