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House of Card

This article appeared in Smith Journal vol.15 in Winter 2015

 It's been clogging up our recycling bins for years, but now some architects are touting cardboard as the building material of the future.

When Tobias Horrocks was 12 years old, his parents gave him a book about how to fold paper aeroplanes. 

It made a big impression.

He spent hours trying out different designs and seeing which ones flew best. But his new interest landed him in hot water: he got kicked out of a shopping centre for perfectly landing one of his creations in somebody’s coffee – from six floors up. 

The scolding did little to extinguish the satisfaction he remembers getting from the planes. “They’re quite amazing,”Horrocks says. “Being able to take a thin, floppy piece of paper and fold it into a rigid, streamlined structure that can fly through the air is a small engineering miracle.”

As an adult, Horrocks still has an unshakable interest in transforming seemingly weak materials into things that are sturdy. He’s particularly expert in working with a medium so lightweight that it’s been largely relegated to the proverbial recycling bin of furniture design: cardboard.

Horrocks calls himself a ‘cardboard architect’. His company, Fold Theory, is at the forefront of exploring how corrugated paper could be integrated into the buildings of the future. It produces furniture, pavilions and other large interior structures. 

Horrocks isnt the first to think of crafting fittings out of cardboard, but he’s definitely among the best. In 2013, a stool he designed won the unbuilt category at the Architeam Awards, one of Victoria’s premier accolades for emerging architects. The stool’s design is deceptively simple in fact, to the naked eye it kind of looks like something an online purchase would arrive in. It’s put together in a similar way to origami; six different pieces of cardboard fold in on themselves and are slotted in place. It takes less than two minutes to assemble by hand, and can be connected to other stools to form an infinite number of geometric arrangements. The cost: around $20.

Horrocks didn’t exactly set out to become a cheerleader for cardboard. Before he started Fold Theory, he worked at one of Melbourne’s biggest architecture firms, John Wardle Architects. He found the job a little creatively frustrating (it mostly involved creating two-dimensional graphics for partitions and facades), so he decided to design something for himself in his free time. Around the same period, he read something in an architectural magazine about the benefits of substituting cardboard for plywood and MDF. Intrigued, he incorporated the idea into making a storage box. It worked; the box was strong, sustainable and easy to transport. He’s been tumbling down a cardboard rabbit hole ever since. 

And he’s not the only one down there. There are a host of established architects around the world that share Horrocks’ view that cardboard could become a vital building material in the future. 

Peter Ryan of Per Architects in Melbourne spent the better part of a decade trying to get the idea of a mass-produced cardboard hut off the ground. “Cardboard is a great material,” says Ryan. “it’s just so underutilised.” His interest was first tweaked when he came across a prototype for a cardboard coffin. He was impressed with its weight bearing capacity and began wondering whether cardboard could be used to make disaster relief housing. 

The most obvious hurdle was coming up with a way to prevent a cardboard structure from melting into a pulp when it rained. So Ryan collaborated with the coffin’s developer, Melbourne-based packaging giant Visy Industries, to design a set of weatherproof, fire-retardant cardboard panels. They ended up being the basis for a simple one-room structure that looked like an oversized tent.

“We chose the cardboard that they use for transporting oysters as the filling for the panel,” says Ryan. “We tested it and it could take the weight of a 120kg tradie jumping on it without collapsing.”

The then President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, heard about Ryan’s plan and became excited about its potential applications in his country. He flew Ryan over, put him up in his own house and had his brother-in-law show him around.

“They showed me a similar structure the locals make from palm fronds and bamboo – it was good, but bugs would come out of the palm fronds and annoy everyone.” says Ryan. “Horta and his brother-in-law were pretty keen, but I kept hitting my head up against the bureaucrats. They just couldn’t get their heads around cardboard.”

He eventually found other uses for the huts, even turning one into a cardboard sound studio for Mad Max film producer George Miller. But after a while, Ryan became burnt out by the idea, and abandoned it. 

It’s not surprising that lawmakers were perplexed by Ryan’s huts. Cardboard is still in its infancy as an architectural material, and a lack of case studies means there are fundamental questions about it that are yet to be answered. A few of them are raised in a paper published by the Delft University of Technology in Holland entitled Cardboard in Architecture. Amongst the text's many academic-sounding headings is one dedicated to the basic question of how a cardboard structure could ever be safe from burglars. “Cardboard sounds like something you can just walk through, or at most use a Stanley knife,” the corresponding passage reads. “A chainsaw will also probably gain you access, but then again that is no different to a wooden house.” 

The man at the centre of finding solutions for such issues is Shigeru Ban. The renowned Japanese architect built his first cardboard structure in 1990: a temporary house with a fully functioning bathroom. “If you ran out of toilet paper, you could just tear off part of the wall,” Ban recently joked while discussing the building at a TED conference in Tokyo. “It was very useful.” 

Over the following 20 years, Ban developed a reputation for consistently using cardboard tubes in groundbreaking ways. He successfully incorporated them into the creation of a temporary music hall in L’Aquila, Italy, a partition system for people in evacuation shelters, and even a Japanese hikers’ cabin. 

Perhaps his most famous structure, however, is the cathedral he constructed in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake. The giant A-frame is made from aligned cardboard tubes and a supporting steel and timber frame. It can seat 700 people, and is expected to last for upwards of 50 years; plenty of time for the city to decide what it wants to do about a permanent replacement for the nineteenth century stone original that once stood in its place.

Ban’s innovative approach is gaining more and more traction amongst his peers. In 2014, he won the architectural equivalent of the Nobel: the Pritzker Prize. But could the award actually mean we’ll be seeing more cardboard structures in the years to come? Nothing would delight Horrocks more.

“I really enjoy the hands on side of cardboard. That’s something you don’t get to do, as an architect. You design, but you don’t build,” he reflects from his practice in West Melbourne, a space furnished almost entirely from cardboard. He sits on a cardboard stool behind a cardboard desk, with a shelving unit made from cardboard at his back. Another wall is given over to testing; here, a blue jerry can weighing 10kg is suspended from a cardboard partition wall. There’s one small, determined looking succulent greening up the space, and even it is housed in a thin wrap of brown paper. Down the back are piles of packaging supplies. That’s because anyone who buys something from Fold Theory will have their purchases shipped to them – appropriately – in a cardboard box.