/ 20 April 2012

Cardboard: The new bricks and mortar

Cardboard? Really? It is the common reaction to the idea of making buildings out of thick paper, such as the temporary cardboard cathedral announced for Christchurch, New Zealand, whose 19th-century one was destroyed in the earthquake last February.

I met Shigeru Ban, the new cathedral’s designer, seven years ago. “Buildings made of concrete are easily destroyed by earthquakes, but paper-tube buildings can survive without damage,” he said, somewhat prophetically. Will the cardboard not go soggy in the rain? Will it not catch fire? I did not need to ask whether it was strong: we were sitting in a studio he had built on top of the Pompidou Centre in Paris — out of cardboard tubes.

Ban has been the leading evangelist for cardboard architecture for more than a decade, but this could be the moment when the rest of the world pays attention.

In many ways, cardboard is the perfect building material. It is low on environmental impact, is virtually a waste product (Ban’s initial inspiration was the tubes inside fax rolls), easy to manufacture, has good insulating properties and an attractive texture and it is cheap. Ban has made “log cabins” for refugees out of cardboard tubes, as well as pavilions, towers and even bridges.

A few years ago, Finnish designers Martti Kalliala and Esa Ruskeepää created a sculptural “acoustic room” out of hundreds of sheets of cardboard. British architects Cottrell & Vermeulen built an origami-like cardboard school building near London, in 2002.

Frank Gehry’s “Easy Edges” cardboard furniture from the 1970s is still in production. Numerous designers are coming up with flat-pack cardboard houses, cardboard interiors, shelving, furniture — not so much thinking outside the box as thinking about the box.

Perhaps the most off-putting aspect of cardboard architecture is its temporary aspect. Ban’s Christchurch cathedral is designed to last 20 to 30 years, but he says a building’s lifetime does not depend on what it is made from, but how much it is loved. If a building is valued it is looked after, restored, repaired, rebuilt. Restoration is a tall order with the original Christchurch cathedral, but a relatively straightforward job with cardboard structures — especially if you use a lot of fax paper. —