Not too long ago in England’s Grisedel Valley, about an hour’s walk from the nearest town, the hills gave way to a red bridge. It was small–just large enough to allow a few people to cross a creek. But it was constructed from an unlikely material: 20,000 sheets of paper (and no glue).
It was the Paperbridge, a commissioned work by British artist Steve Messam. The structure is that of a self-supporting arch, so the tightly packed paper essentially leans into itself. Messam tells us that while his materials were unconventional, the construction was completely typical. A wooden former–or skeleton–was set up first, then the paper was added on top 1,000 sheets at a time.
Once all the paper was packed tightly, the former was removed. In theory, the bridge can support its own weight: Up to four tons. But Messam never put that to the test in anything but his scale models.
The bridge was only on display for a period of 10 days, but it did survive rainstorms. In fact, Messam’s earlier models survived three months of rain and snow. Given that the paper wasn’t coated with any sort of protective plastic, that’s probably surprising to most of us. But Messam knew exactly what he was doing.
“It isn’t waterproofed at all,” Messam confirms via email. “When it rains the water causes the fibres to swell, which as the bridge is under compression there’s no where for the paper to swell to so it just gets stronger.” He says that the paper is so tightly pressed together that water really only makes its way in 5mm from the surface. Messam is confident that with a firmer foundation in place, the paper bridge “would have lasted, no problem.”
Since the paper was untreated, once the Paperbridge installation ran its course, the 20,000 sheets were returned to the mill, where they were pulped into new paper. Who knows–maybe they could even be used to build another bridge!