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All a-board

Cardboard may be an unconventional structural material but to magma architecture it was totally appropriate

Even in these days of computer virtual reality, many architects still find that the best way to visualise a design is to take scalpel, cardboard and glue and construct a working model. So when magma architecture was asked to design an exhibition to display working models for the Building Centre Trust, the Berlin-based practice came up with an ingenious and totally appropriate solution: the exhibits are housed in a walkthrough structure of cardboard, folded and glued together. It's a magical enclosure - just like walking through a life-sized model; it is also cheap, easy to erect and dismantle and demonstrates how cardboard can be used as a structural material.

The exhibition - titled 'Trial and Error' - was held on the ground floor entrance foyer of the Building Centre in London from 20 May to 2 August this year as part of a series commissioned by the Building Centre Trust to investigate 'the interface between the act of design and the fabrication of the built environment'. Its aim was to demonstrate the use of models as working tools, rather than as polished presentation pieces. So although some of the studies exhibited were never intended to be seen by those outside the project team, others were remarkably sleek and refined. Both physical threedimensional objects and CAD images were exhibited from practices and designers including Studio Libeskind, Ocean North, Gehry & Partners, Richard Rogers Partnership and Thomas Heatherwick. Other exhibits, by Buro Happold, Arup Acoustics and Price & Myers, explored hypotheses tested in computer models and were used as verification of them.

magma architecture has designed the exhibition structure as an enclosed 'street' with well-defined entrance/exit points; the street forms a curve to negotiate several potentially difficult intrusions - columns, a pair of steps and a ramp. The folded cardboard walls have lights concealed behind them and their sloping shapes focus the light onto the models and images. 'We wanted it to be like a large sketch model that one can experience from within, ' explains Martin Ostermann of magma architecture.

'And it is almost paper-thin; it captures the fragility and incompleteness of a true working model.'

Cardboard is cheap, flexible and readily available but its potential as a structural material has until recently been limited to a few projects. The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has experimented with self-supporting walls constructed of large cardboard tubes (AR, September 1996) and his pavilion for Hannover Expo 2000 comprised a grid-shell of cardboard tubes, which acts as armature to wire-stiffened timber ladder-beams. In the UK, architect Cottrell & Vermeulen has designed an award-winning after-school club at Westborough School using an origami-shaped structure of cardboard panels.

For the two latter projects the structural engineer was Buro Happold; its expertise was further developed in another project - the construction of four large-scale cardboard building models, which formed the centrepiece of an exhibition in Japan to acknowledge the award of the Hiroshima Peace Prize to Daniel Libeskind in 2001.

Ostermann - at that time part of the Libeskind practice - and structural engineer Florian Förster of Buro Happold worked together on the Peace Prize project. When the 'Trial and Error'exhibition was mooted it seemed logical that Förster and Ostermann - now in practice as magma architecture - should continue their cooperation. The result is a design (see Working Detail, pages 44-45) that explores the use of a new material in terms of its structure and stability, and the way it is fixed and jointed. As cardboard design has no precedents, it requires a deeper understanding of the principles involved;

as this project demonstrates, it also offers the freedom to go beyond conventional ideas of form and construction.

CREDITS ARCHITECT magma architecture, Berlin: Martin Ostermann Andrea Hofmann, Lena Kleinheinz with Wolfram Sinapius STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Buro Happold: Florian Förster CONSTRUCTION Studio 193 with David Storr and Lisa-Raine Davies

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