During an era in which human waste quantities have shot through the tellurian roof, thrift has become one of our most venerated virtues. Contemporary architects, planners, and design enthusiasts more generally are not immune to the perceived merits of frugality: Standing in front of the design section of a magazine rack at a book store, it is impossible to miss the enormous interest in recycling, reuse, and ecological sustainability. (All the paper used to produce such publications doesn’t help the problem, of course. But never mind).
Recycling paper tubes was the major inspiration for the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban‘s development of paper tube architecture, Riichi Miyake tells us in the recently-published book Shigeru Ban: Paper in Architecture (Essays by Riichi Miyake; edited by Ian Luna & Lauren A. Gould; NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2009). In the mid-1980s, while preparing for an Alvar Aalto Exhibition, Ban realized that old paper tubes could be refashioned into new architectural structures. Rather than discarding paper tubes from a previous exhibition, he reused them for the next one, thus making a statement about technology and ecological sustainability simultaneously. “Paper is made out of trees,” Ban reasoned. “Humans create architecture out of trees, so it must be possible to create architecture out of paper.”
This first successful “encounter with paper tubes” led to even more daring experiments. The early 1990s were a heyday for Ban’s cardboard endeavors: The Odawar Pavilion, the Library of a Poet, and the Paper House, which served as Ban’s own weekend residence, were just some of his first feats in demonstrating the construction capability of this material.
But it was the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that popularized this technique. On January 17th of that year, six thousand residents of this beautiful city were killed, many of them by collapsed buildings. Among those affected most were Vietnamese refugees who worked in Kobe’s factories downtown but held no official legal status. When their homes collapsed, these migrants could not apply for housing and were forced to live in parking lots, or camp out where they could. In the midst of this dire situation, Ban used paper tube technology to construct emergency shelters, involving local businesses and residents in the process. In a flash, paper tube architecture went from being a technological feat used in luxurious projects to a tool that provided shelter to the masses.
Paper tube architecture became philanthropic not only because it was cheap and readily available. Beyond its practicality, it was also important for what it signified, namely, democracy and egalitarianism. In a nation shaped by social hierarchies and ruled by a constitutional monarch, this was especially innovative. By providing emergency shelter to Vietnamese migrants in Kobe, Ban defended their right to housing, to the city, and to the society in which they lived and worked.
Ban’s paper architecture demonstrates that the same technology can be used in different, and opposing, manners. It can be at once a tool for high architecture and for mass housing. It can also be considered a product of mass consumption as much as of ecological sustainability. Like H&M clothing, paper architecture is inexpensive but temporary; it’s not intended to last. On the one hand, cardboard structures present the opportunity to reuse and recycle. On the other, they conjure up images of enormous piles of waste. Not to mention origami automobiles.