Tiny, architect-designed houses to build at your desk
Both a craft project and a meditation on the evolution of domestic space, these miniature paper dwellings can be put together with just scissors and glue.
In a way, the origins of paper cutting as an art form before the invention of paper itself, a worldwide historic achievement often attributed to Chinese eunuch and court official Cai Lun, who presented his experiments with bamboo and dried mulberry pulp to Emperor Ho Ti in 105 AD. Before this innovation, artisans across rural China were already cutting decorative shapes from fine silk leaves, gold leaf and tree bark. However, as paper became more common in the 7th century, the art of paper cutting, or jianzhi, flourishes. “While calligraphy reflects intellectual culture, fatherly tradition and written history,” Chinese folk art scholar Crystal Hui-Shu Yang wrote in a 2007 essay on intercultural exchange among jianzhi artisans. and Swiss practitioners of scherenschnitte, the central European iteration of the form, which emerged in the 16th century, “the paper cutting represents illiterate culture, maternal tradition and oral history.” From the start, therefore, there was an attractive and democratic quality in the profession.
A year after the start of the pandemic, it’s a cliché to highlight how important the house has become. The smallness of our current worlds has lost its novelty, and rooms that might at first resemble sanctuaries have become, at times, a little stuffy. With this in mind, T asked three architects – Vincent Van Duysen in Antwerp, Belgium, Toshiko Mori in New York and Massimiliano Locatelli of Locatelli Partners in Milan – to each design a paper house that could speak about their vision of a post-pandemic domestic worker architecture. Their models explore fundamental questions about how we might make homes for an irrevocably changed world. They also take the the very act of building, a business that takes time and money and whose goal is generally permanence, and transform it into a practice as humble, confined and ephemeral as jianzhi, accessible to anyone with a printer and paper, scissors and glue.
Van Duysen based his design on his DC2 2011 residence, an environmentally conscious’ passive house ‘in Tielrode, Belgium, clad entirely in tropical padauk wood and built, he says,’ the archetypal form of a barn. But with the eaves and gable roof overhangs removed to create a more modern prismatic form. Although the house already exists on a large scale, the process of converting to a collapsible object – in particular, translating the original, precisely crafted materials into something as everyday as paper – prompted Van Duysen to “think about his life.” modularity and whether, in a way, you could do it pre-fab, ”he says. If the wooden house has taken a traditional archetype and made it contemporary, then the folded dwelling reinvents a highly refined private residence as a model for mass production.
The Locatelli house offers its own path towards democratic design, not through classic forms but through new technologies. Made from four irregular joint modules in the shape of pebbles, the arrangement of which evokes an amoeba about to separate, the paper building mimics a prototype developed by the architect for the Salone del Mobile 2018: a concrete house printed in 3D 1,076 square feet that can be erected in less than a week and it could, he says, “cut costs and provide people in emergencies with decent housing – and maybe even be built on Mars.” !
Mori’s design began with the constraints of the paper itself. Starting with a blank page, she placed a single long wall diagonally across the plane to maximize space. Rolled up on itself, this wall forms a cylinder, giving rigidity to an otherwise fragile material. Between 2015 and 2019, Mori completed a series of buildings in rural Senegal – a primary school and a teachers’ residence, as well as a cultural center – that looked at the round structures in this region, and his paper house, like these buildings, has an oculus intended to draw hot air upwards and thus ventilate the interior. While Van Duysen’s paper house suggests a traditional European format for a single-family home, with separate bedrooms and living spaces, and Locatelli atomizes the house into four distinct structures, Mori’s open plan curvilinear house “obliges to see each other with family rather than being isolated in separate rooms, ”she says. It also questions our dependence on the typologies of square and rectangular housing that dominate the Western architectural canon. Her intention was, in part, she says, “to reintroduce different ideas about how people live and representations of cultures that exist both in this country and in the rest of the world.” Like both Van Duysen and Locatelli, Mori imagines its simple structure to be viable in any climate or setting, also achievable if it is constructed from hand-crafted bricks and topped with a hand-woven thatched roof or poured in concrete and capped with twisted metal.
In other words, the three houses express a concern not only for beauty and comfort, but also for reproducibility, accessibility and adaptability to a wide range of uncertainties, be they economic, climatic or political. Rather than focusing on increasing the interior flexibility interiors – perfecting “systems from which we can create our safe little bubbles to work from,” as Van Duysen puts it – these houses focus on more complex challenges and goals. “We have to think big,” says Mori. “It’s idealistic, but as architects we can look at home design from the point of view that even a luxury home can help us create a new future.” A paper house is something you can build on your own. But the future, as Mori suggests, is something we will need to build together.