Tiny Architect-Designed Houses to Build at Your Desk

Part craft project and part meditation on the evolution of domestic space, these miniature paper dwellings can be assembled with just scissors and glue.

In a way, the origins of paper cutting as an art form predate the invention of paper itself, a world-historic achievement often attributed to the Chinese eunuch and court official Cai Lun, who presented his experiments with dried bamboo-and-mulberry pulp to the Emperor Ho Ti in 105 A.D. Prior to this innovation, craftspeople across rural China were already cutting decorative shapes from thin sheets of silk, gold foil and tree bark. As paper became more common in the 7th century, though, the art of paper cutting, or jianzhi, flourished. “While calligraphy reflects the intellectual culture, paternal tradition and written history,” wrote Crystal Hui-Shu Yang, a scholar of Chinese folk art, in a 2007 essay on the cross-cultural exchange between jianzhi artisans and Swiss practitioners of scherenschnitte, the form’s central European iteration, which emerged in the 16th century, “paper cutting represents illiterate culture, maternal tradition and oral history.” From the beginning, then, there has been an appealingly intimate, democratic quality to the craft.

A year into the pandemic, it’s a cliché to point out just how important home has become. The smallness of our present worlds has lost its novelty, and rooms that may at first have felt like sanctuaries have become, at times, a bit stifling. It was with this in mind that 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 to their vision for a post-pandemic domestic architecture. Their models explore basic questions of how we might make homes for a world irrevocably changed. They also take the very act of building, a time- and cash-consuming endeavor whose goal is typically permanence, and transform it into a practice as humble, homebound and ephemeral as jianzhi, available to anyone with a printer and paper, scissors and glue.

Van Duysen based his design on his 2011 DC2 Residence, an environmentally conscious “passive house” in Tielrode, Belgium, clad entirely in tropical padauk wood and built, he says, in “the archetypal form of a barn,” but with the eaves and overhangs of the gabled roof removed to create a more modern prismatic form. Though the home exists already at full scale, the process of converting it into a foldable object — in particular, translating the precisely crafted original materials into something as quotidian as paper — prompted Van Duysen to “think of its modularity and whether, in a way, you could make it prefabricated,” he says. If the wood house took a traditional archetype and made it contemporary, then the folded dwelling reimagines a highly refined private residence as a model for mass production.

The Locatelli house suggests its own route toward democratic design, not through classical forms but through new technologies. Made from four irregular, pebble-shaped conjoined modules whose arrangement evokes an amoeba just about to split, the paper building mimics a prototype the architect developed for the 2018 Salone del Mobile: a 1,076-square-foot 3-D-printed concrete home that can be erected in less than a week and that could, he says, “reduce costs and provide people in emergencies with suitable housing — and maybe even be built on Mars!”

Mori’s design began with the constraints of paper itself. Starting with a blank page, she positioned a single long wall diagonally across the plane to maximize space. Curled in on itself, that wall forms a cylinder, providing rigidity to an otherwise flimsy material. Between 2015 and 2019, Mori completed a series of buildings in rural Senegal — a teacher’s school and residence, as well as a cultural center — that looked to that region’s round structures, and her paper house, like those buildings, features an oculus intended to pull hot air upward 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’s atomizes the home into four distinct structures, Mori’s open-plan curvilinear house “forces you to see each other as a family rather than being isolated in separate rooms,” she says. It also challenges our dependency on the square and rectangular housing typologies that dominate the Western architectural canon. Her intention was, in part, she says, “to reintroduce different ideas of how people live, and representations of cultures that exist both in this country and the rest of the world.” Like both Van Duysen and Locatelli, Mori imagines her simple structure to be viable in any climate or context, equally practicable if built from artisanal bricks and topped with a hand-woven thatch roof or cast from concrete and capped with torqued metal.

In other words, all three houses express a concern not just with beauty and comfort but also with reproducibility, accessibility and adaptability to a wide array of uncertainties, whether economic, climatic or political in nature. Rather than focus on increasing the flexibility of domestic interiors — honing “systems where we can create our safe little bubbles to work from,” as Van Duysen puts it — these houses set their sights on more complex challenges and goals. “We have to think big,” Mori says. “It’s idealistic, but as architects we can look at the design of a house from the perspective that even a luxury home can help us create a new future.” A paper house is something you can build alone. But the future, as Mori suggests, is something we’ll have to build together.

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