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Cardboard? Really? It’s 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. Won’t the cardboard go soggy in the rain? Won’t it catch fire? I didn’t need to ask if it was strong enough: 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 the rest of the world pays attention. In many ways, cardboard is the perfect building material. It’s environmentally low-impact; it’s virtually a waste product (Ban’s initial inspiration was the tubes inside fax rolls); it’s easy to manufacture; it has good insulating properties, an attractive texture, and it’s cheap. Ban has made “log cabins” for refugees out of cardboard tubes, 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 stacked on top of each other, each with a different shaped hole cut out. British architects Cottrell & Vermeulen built an origami-like cardboard school building in Westcliff-on-Sea in 2002. Frank Gehry’s name-making “Easy Edges” cardboard furniture (top left) from the 1970s is still in production. Numerous designers are coming up with flat-pack cardboard houses, cardboard interiors, shelving, furniture, you name it. Not so much thinking outside the box as thinking about the box.
Perhaps the most offputting aspect of cardboard architecture is its temporary aspect. Ban’s Christchurch cathedral is designed to last 20 to 30 years, but you still wouldn’t buy a house with that lifespan. His response is that a building’s lifetime doesn’t depend on what it’s made from, but how much it’s loved. If a building is valued, it’s 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.