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Paper Primacy: fantasy architecture with purpose

What role can producing fantasy architecture have in encouraging critical thinking? A recent event, inspired by an informal collective from Russia known as the Paper Architects, looked to challenge a new generation of designers to work and act critically

Held in a gallery for Soviet era art, the Calvert 22 in London, the Paper Salon was arranged as part of the Venice Takeaway: Ideas to change British Architecture series, organised between the British Council and RIBA. Divided into three elements of discussion, debate and dialogue, the programme aimed to increase knowledge through the exchange of ideas through ‘equisse’, the working out of ideas through sketching.

Chaired by Venice Takeaway assistant-curator Alastair Donald, the event began by looking at the research of Ross Anderson and Anna Gibb, two young architects who had travelled to Moscow to learn more about the work of the ‘Paper Architects’. Emerging as graduates from 1980’s Moscow, the ‘Paper Architects’ established themselves in reaction to post-Kruschev regimes asserting a near total control on construction at the time, that condoned Social Realist architecture as ‘an overdecorated style’.

More often Utopian than Fatalist however, the moral of the group was to produce architectural criticism in graphic, visionary form – optimistic that the industry would change for the better. Emulating the likes of Constructivist icon Tatlin and Beaux Arts major Boullet with a comparable level of skill, the quality of drawing and ambition of the Paper Architects has been greatly admired by many as an example of architects who dared to challenge conventions and restraints in design.


Of the Paper Architects perhaps the most well-known were Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, whose works acted as visual critiques of contemporary society. Columbarium Habitabile depicted the situation in Soviet Moscow of the destruction of much of the city’s heritage, where here a wrecking ball represents the nature of the government, swinging into any unoccupied dwelling on the shelf of this great archive.

Their work then came as a crucial influence for Anderson and Gibb, reflecting on the recent years of constraint within British architectural practice. The pair argued how pessimistic views of the future, lack of job security and negligible number of open competitions has led to a period of stifled creativity for young architects, and lack of critical engagement at present. These cumulative matters are what had arguably led to a risk averse society – preoccupied with limits rather than aspirations. Paper Architect Totan Kuzembaev who they had interviewed said: ‘For young architects, it is vital to take part in competitions because they offer absolute freedom for your art and practice’.

The two debates of the day followed on from this premise. With the use of visionary architecture as a tool for inspiring change and optimism, the debate of how ‘tools’ are used in drawing was open to numerous interpretations. Robert Gordon University professor Alan Dunlop, an advocate for encouraging hand drawing within his faculty, argued that recent architecture graduates lack the ability to use sketching as a thinking process to incubate ideas, labelling the more popular use of computers as tools for drawing without thinking. Professor of Architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong University Austin Williams however argued that whilst he encouraged his students to only draw in their first year, the pen itself is essentially a ‘tool’ in its own right – the point being for young architects to merely think critically when designing rather than fetishise a particular medium.


Over a working lunch the participants put what they had earlier discussed into practice - producing within pairs their own form of paper architecture within a well-known site, the Heygate estate in South London, currently under demolition. Schemes were designed to react to a brief of each pairs’ choice, from which artificial mountains and subterranean gardens began to take form. A variety of imaginative ideas were exchanged in front of a party of guest critics, many of which reacting to the capital’s housing crisis.

From so much discussion on how constraints in architecture were limiting creativity however, it was amusing how one of the equisse’s most refreshing elements came from working within one. The three hours given to create a narrative and drawing produced a sense of urgency and liveliness within the studio, as hurried participants rushed to express their ideas quickly in graphic form. The experience overall though was described as liberating, giving a renewed sense of ambition and vitality in practice, which can only have a positive impact an emerging architect’s practice and progress.


An Informal Community for London

Founders: Ross Anderson & Frances Murphy


With a huge artificial mountain providing a framework, this scheme aimed to develop as Anderson writes, an ‘informal community from which people construct their own homes and businesses. The hope being that the result will be a community that having worked together and produced their own properties take pride and responsibility in its future success.’

Utopia’s Ghost

Founders: Seán Kelley & Ciaran Garrick


With most replacements to social housing flattening them to build from scratch, this proposal critiqued development schemes by proposing a monument to ones from the past.

Its objective was as the pair claim to, remain in this state until such a point as where society has grown a conscious regarding our living environments, where developments are not led by greed.

Housing Inflation

Founders: Chris Drummond & Kate Holt


Critiquing the rising costs of land, this scheme literally lifts houses from off of the ground to keep rents down.

‘We imagined a future hyper-short term rental market where sought after land plots have become intensively used landing bays, that home owners can only afford to rent for a few hours at a time. Most of the time these houses float in clouds above London,  their residents looking down on a city that they can only partially feel a part of.’

London’s Landgrab Liberation

Founders: Rowan Morrice & Simhika Rao


Morrice and Rao offered two proposals to combat the housing situation during their equisse, with limitations of height restriction being the principle restraint removed. This scheme freed any air above each plot of land to be available for developers, resulting in ‘a kind of air based “land-grab,” whereby developers who didn’t build quickly enough ran the risk of losing all value of their plot.’

With buildings snaking around and cantilevering over one another, the predicted outcome of the scheme would be unpredictable, but act as a fair representation as demand for housing that the architects envision.

Heygate at the centre of the Universe

Founders: Mary Denham & Ryan McLoughlin


In a Babel-like tower constructed to infinity, this scheme eventually becomes a black hole after reaching a sun-like mass, causing a supernova. ‘The void running down through the middle of the building allows the inhabitants to travel across levels through wormholes.’

As an online platform for young architects to connect and discuss creative ideas, Ross Anderson and Anna Gibb have established Paper + Architects, a new website that will feature competitions, forums and information on upcoming ‘Paper Salons’

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