Paper architecture for Habitat 1976 by Arthur Erickson

Pavilion by Arthur Erickson for Vancouver's UN Habitat conference

This is the paper-based pavilion designed by Arthur Erickson for the UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements that took place in Vancouver in June of 1976. The pavilion, part of Habitat’s exhibit, was erected in front of the old courthouse (now the Vancouver Art Gallery). Photo is courtesy the Vancouver blog Architecture Wanted. An aerial view of the pavilion is below. In 1976 the majority of the world’s population was not yet living in urban centres, but it was obvious even then that a crowded urban future was already on the horizon. As with much current disaster relief architecture (most notably a number of temporary relief shelters by architect Shigeru Ban) paper was used as a durable and low-cost solution. The interesting thing is that Erickson’s paper pavilion predates this more recent work by 30 years. From Architecture Wanted:

The pavilion’s roof is a set of hyperbolic paraboloids created with paper-mache. Sections of the roof were created by about two thousand Lower Mainland children, who paper-mached over the molds in the factory and later painted designs onto the cured skin.
Originally the pavilion was meant to spread over the entire length of the Courthouse Square, but as it was running more than two times over its allocated budget, it was downsized. As a result the pavilion lost a third of its initial breadth – right in the middle no less – resulting in two pavilions flanking either side of that unwieldy and, frankly, even-then outdated fountain. Erickson saw the pavilion as an experiment that could be a solution to housing issues all over the world. He chose paper as the obvious material for it – obviously abundant in Vancouver and oftentimes wasted: “We are not building something useless that will be thrown away in a few weeks as most people seem to think. … We are doing something extremely useful that will be very applicable to building problems in Third World countries.”… There is a fantastical quality to this building, now nothing more than Vancouver’s ephemeral past. From Vancouver Sun’s Moira Farrow: “Erickson said the pavilion should not be judged as a structure with a limited lifespan but as a ‘prototype mock-up of ideas with unlimited possibilities yet to be fully explored’. “

Pavilion (in 2 parts) by Arthur Erickson, UN Habitat conference, Vancouver

Habitat Forum was an adjunct to UN Conference and it took place in some purpose-built hangars/longhouses at Jericho Beach Park. I remember sitting outside as a kid and watching teenage volunteers with long branding irons in the shape of that great Habitat logo. They’d heat them in a campfire and then would brand anything we brought to them – cedar planks, driftwood. That’s the kind of thing that could happen around a UN conference in the 70s. Gavin Froome wrote me to say he still has his branded plank and he sent me his photo of it, below. I wish I still had mine. At bottom, a very fuzzy image of the original Habitat guide. It’s quite surprising how little is known now about this key Vancouver event which was attended by Mother Teresa, Margaret Mead, Buckminster Fuller, Maggie and Pierre Trudeau, Paolo Soleri, Barbara Ward and countless other major figures in public policy, architecture and arts. We may remember Expo 86, but the seemingly forgotten Habitat ’76 likely had a more long-lasting, subtler influence on the culture and politics of Vancouver.

I am working on a book on Habitat Forum and the larger conference. Some of its in-progress research can be viewed on my Habitat Forum website.

Habitat stamp, branded onto a cedar plank - Habitat '76 souvenir

Habitat 1976, UN conference on housing, Vancouver

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6 Responses to “Paper architecture for Habitat 1976 by Arthur Erickson”

  1. Vishnu jeesha Says:

    found this interesting….. i am a final year architecture student and doing m desertation on paper architecture….is there any chance by which any of u have material related to it……if so plz mail it to to

  2. LB Says:

    Hi Vishnu,
    Sadly, I don’t, but I’ll see what I can find, and if anything turns up, I’ll email you.

  3. Cheryl Cooper Says:

    Hi Lindsay,

    I think I found your blog, which I have read with interest.

    Nice to meet you last night and I hope we can meet again — and plan something, too!

    I should also add you to our mailing list.


  4. timothy kent parker - paper architecture… Says:

    […] Arthur Erickson: pavilion for UN Habitat conference, 1976. […]

  5. Robin mckellar Says:

    I was one of those 2,000 vancouver school kids that worked on the art work in grade 6. I would love to see them again

  6. Willie Says:

    Dear reader,

    We are working on an article for a journal about habitat 76. We ar now looking for some design material. Do you maybe have some nice posters and flyers from the conference?
    Thank you in advance!


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