Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Questions of design

A photo of a man building a house out of newspapers appears in the summer issue of On Earth, the NRDC's magazine. It's part of a profile of The Newspaper House, an interactive installation by conceptual artist Sumer Erek, who in March recruited volunteers to help construct the five-meter-high structure in London's Gillett Square to draw attention to the problem posed by the scads of free publications that end up littering the city's streets and subways.

As an attention-getter, the installation is a success. An actual house made of newspaper, however, wouldn't be such a great idea. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart write in their seminal design manifesto Cradle to Cradle, newspaper, being made of recycled paper, contains short fibers that easily abrade into the air, and numerous people have developed allergies to it.

The authors point to the use of recycled paper in insulation as an example of the difficulties of creatively reusing of materials: "additional chemicals (such as fungicides to prevent mildew) must be added to make ... paper suitable for insulation, intensifying problems already caused by toxic inks and other contaminants. The insulation might then off-gas formaldehyde and other chemicals into the home."

It's an example of what they term downcycling (what most of us call recycling): when one type of thing is melded with like items of lower quality, the overall quality of the resultant material is reduced over time. McDonough and Michael Braungart call for a new design sensibility, one inspired by biological systems in which one organism's waste is another's food.

Not that Sumer Erek is advocating building paper houses, of course. As the artist states on his blog, The Newspaper House is meant to "open the 'reduce-reuse-recycle' debate as well as make our voices heard about making the city—our city—clean and liveable."

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