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Why A Building Made From Papier-Mâché Isn’t As Crazy As It Sounds

Ball-Nogues Studio developed an advanced kind of papier-mâché to create a compostable pulp pavilion at Coachella.

The Los Angeles studio Ball-Nogues is known for making architectural installations out of unlikely materials: glass beads, stainless steel orbs, and even T-shirts and coffee tables. Now it has moved on to paper pulp.

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Several years ago, principals Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues started crafting lamps out of the gooey pulp, which they discovered to be surprisingly strong and malleable. The designers scaled up those experiments for this year’s Coachella, where they created Pulp Pavilion, a roughly 20-foot-high, 55-foot-long temporary structure made from recycled-paper pulp and rope. Raised on thick columns of orange latticework, the pavilion appears both sturdy and delicate, like a fragment of the Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium that was left to rust in the desert.

Benjamin Ball

“Until this Coachella, we’d experimented with this technique, but just as experiments,” Ball says. “We’d never put it to the test of having the public inhabit it, having to meet a deadline and a budget, and having it perform.”

Using paper as a building material is not new. Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect who won the Pritzker Prize last year, earned his star designing structures out of paper tubes. But paper pulp is a different beast, owing more to school craft projects than to sturdy buildings.

To build the pavilion, Ball-Nogues assembled lattices of organic jute rope and then sprayed them with a mix of paper pulp, water, pigment, and adhesive. The mix hardened as it cured, strengthening the frames. After making mock-ups in their L.A. shop and testing them with structural engineers, a team went to the Coachella Valley in early March and built the whole thing on site over the next five-and-a-half weeks.

Forster Rudolph

All in all, the fabricators applied 10 or 12 layers of the paper mix to the ropes, Ball says. Each layer was tinted a different shade partly for a practical reason—it helped them keep track of where they were in the process. The mix cured quickly. “Curing in a hot, dry desert environment is much faster than working even in L.A.,” Ball says. “It’s really the optimal place to do it.”

Joshua White

This was the third Coachella that Ball-Nogues designed for. As the festival has grown, so have the scale and ambition of the studio’s projects. Ball went to both weekends of the festival’s run and says the pavilion was a popular hangout, offering shade, seating, and a much-needed “psychological refuge from the cacophony.” (It also had a view of two of the main stages, which couldn’t have hurt.) Because it’s made of organic materials, the structure is recyclable and compostable, and will likely be broken down into parts for compost now that the 2015 festival is over.

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Meanwhile, Ball and his colleagues are looking for opportunities to try their paper-pulp building technique away from the desert. “It’s a different set of challenges, in terms of humidity and moisture,” he says. “We’re studying how to handle those types of conditions.”

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About the author

Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in Architect, CityLab, the Washington Post, and many other publications.

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