Friday 16 October 2020

Finding Form: Using Paper to Realise Architectural Ideas

Working regularly with children and school groups running architectural workshops, I use techniques on paper folding and paper engineering.  The work involves investigating design in 3D to help develop spatial cognitive skills. Folding paper and card helps develop children’s dexterity and the fine motor skills in their hands, which is something easily neglected with the use of iPads and games consoles. The workshops regularly take the children’s design ideas and scale them up to full size with large-format corrugated card and plastic, so the students can experience their creations full-scale.

Products of a design workshop in the Design Technology 
department of Graveney School, London SW17

I think working with paper in this way identifies a gap in the architectural work-flow for professionals as well as being a study focus for school workshops.  Architects don't really play with paper and card to test 3D ideas.  Too often it’s done through 2D or 3D computer models.  UCL's 'Fabricate 2020' conference this year addressed a wealth of computer technologies, parametric software, rapid prototyping and CAD-driven machinery.   Foster & Partners are also investing significantly into large-format 3D printing.  We're handing over our creativity to AI.  The human brain and hands are more sophisticated and articulate than any software or machinery.  A goal of this post is to encourage architects to ‘play’ with paper and card more freely.

Play is the highest form of research - Albert Einstein

I normally work with school students in local authority schools where resources are limited.  Simple paper and card is hugely effective and gets quick results.  I aim to 'lead' the workshops with examples and pre-made kits but the emphasis is on experimentation and play.  It’s not long before they flip the script and student’s creativity takes over.  What children have in imagination out-strips anything I can offer in design experience.  They unpack what experienced designers consider normal or take for granted, and re-structure the work in ingenious ways. 

My enthusiasm for this hands-on paper-based approach to 3D design led me to reach out to Paul Jackson, a world-renowned origami artist and author of over 40 books on the subject.  We discussed the subject and he offered lots of advice on teaching methods and workshop exercises, to get the best results out of this working method.  His advice was very insightful, offering a lot of strategies to work with in the classroom.  Paul said:

There are many reasons to want to manipulate paper, and many methods to work with.  Folding and cutting are the two most basic mechanisms and are creative opposites: Folding makes a sheet smaller and cutting makes it bigger.  This expanding and contracting are two sides  of the same coin but do very different things with the paper.  Folding is geometric and a controlled process.  Cutting can offer a lot more freedom creativity but can be without the same discipline and control as folding.  Paul focuses on folding as it offers more creative control and is a reversible process, which cutting is not.  

Playing with variations on one of Paul's standard folding motifs.

Secondly, start with the reasons for wanting to fold.  Is it to create a structure, a shelter, a pavilion, a bag to piece of furniture?  This should be the starting point of the process.  From there, let play and experimentation drive the investigation to see what the paper offers through your mind and fingers.  

Paul often begins workshops teaching  generic folding techniques.  These are outlined in his books and offer many many possibilities and applications.  Using A4 paper makes work simple and accessible.  Students are less concerned about making mistakes.  Trial and error is important.  The process involves making a mess in the classroom; creating a large body of studies from which the more successful examples can be extracted to form a vocabulary of 3D geometries to develop design proposals with.  

Developing variations on standard folding motifs

This process gets students working three dimensionally, realising studies they can hold in their hands and developing their understanding of 3D geometry which they can then apply to multiple applications.  It’s a process which also seems to work for different design subject areas such as Architecture, Sculpting, Textiles, etc., because the basic principles are transferrable.  Improvisation is an important part of the workshop process because the design sequence will always be different and individual; creativity unpacks what we think we know and offers new possibilities for achieving the design goals.  

Some other very simple exercises include the use of post-it notes.  Asking the students to make one fold only in the sheet might not seem too creative, but assemble them in sequence in a grid and they can transform in to am impressive composition.  Examining the pattern with changing light adds to the dynamic and can be really exciting.  

Options on the theme.  Even crumpling a sheet makes a versatile

Paul says that a simple fold offer more design possibilities than complicated folds.  They can be used in many applications.  Two to three folds can offer a great base for creative design.  Start simple and play.   Test the designed forms in changing light and the environment of the workshop.  

Simple folds establish modules, units, simple patterns and folding motifs which can be arranged in a variety of ways and at different scales to create a huge variety of forms.  Experiment with variations on the same pattern; repositioning nodes, angles of folds and changing the shape of the paper etc.  This offers yet more variations and possibilities.  Different arrangements achieve entirely different forms and results.  

Paul’s advice is to keep the investigation simple and work up to a level of complexity comfortable with the class.  It’s a visual and tactile process that enables students to understand 3D form directly like no other activity - but play is a must:  Play play play!  Paul adds that origami might have been around for thousands of years but there are novelties, new discoveries and new creations that emerge with every investigation.  

Translating folds in to sheet patterns to create pleats and structures

There is something magical about taking a piece of paper and from a starting point of nothing, creating a form, structure or an object with your hands and a few quick folds.  Paul describes it as modern day alchemy.  It's also a reversible process which can transform between one state as another, something which is unusual and special in creative processes.

There is nothing in a sheet of paper that suggests what the form is going to be before it is folded.  It is usually very difficult to visualise a resultant 3D geometry from looking at a folding pattern.  This is a learnt skill. We are not born with it.  We are used to 2D and 3D patterns and forms but we are not trained to perceive the transition between the two.  Perhaps because this needs to be learned we find it easier to rely on computers, CAD, parametric software and 3D printing etc.  But automation and digital technologies are not the same as having something that you can create, hold in your hand and manipulate from one stage to another.  This is not something achievable with 3D CAD.  Computers produce one item at a time and these are not immediately accessible as items you can hold in your hands.  

For primary school pupils, paper folding is important for developing fine motor skills and dexterity in the children’s hands.  Muscular strength required to hold a pencil with early years classes could run in parallel with basic origami skills.  

For architects and design professionals it should be second nature to have a stack of paper to hand by the desk, to enable design issues to be investigated with folded paper exercises.  

For me, this makes workshop planning more focused and efficient.  I look forward to testing these principles out in the classroom soon, when restrictions allow. 

Paul Jackson and his work can be found at:



YouTube:  (Although Paul stresses that books on the subject are a much better source for ideas and learning skills)