Open Source Heroines: Joana Pacheco, Founder of Paperhouses

Architecture / Culture / Editorial / Open Source

I am a cultural alloy.


Jake & Dinos Chapman - Exquisite Corpse

Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman – Exquisite Corpse (2000)


In life, like in every project, everything always happens on the way from here to there. You never remember the beginning or the end.

I am an architect and one of the things we learn in architectural school is that besides being durable, useful and beautiful, architecture lives through its social purpose, the capacity to influence, shape and contribute to people’s lives and their environment. People are our principal source and we aspire to be meaningful to them, to ourselves, in the things we do.

Open source architecture is a piece of this story. Generally, when you hear of open sourcing it is embroiled in futuristic faith. OS symbolizes the sophisticated world of digital technology and therefore at the very beginning, as for most people I’d guess, it was not part of my lexicon. I admit that I arrived to the conclusion through a long rational process, and by exclusion of parts. Actually, the name Paperhouses is, in some way, a reminiscence of my low-tech background, where ideas are translated into paper before they are executed. (I still read paper books!) It is ironic but I also think it makes sense because it is tangible and, psychologically, that is really what I want to transmit: this is real.

My goal is to put architecture within reach, which means to destitute high-end design of its price tag and forbidden aura, and to engage people in their own project. Universal access via free licensing is the only process which simultaneously makes knowledge accessible, democratic, and amenable to a diversity of production. All things considered, open source makes complete sense.

The idea also sprouted as a response to the challenges of the housing market–corporate dominance, the crises in the US, Europe, Japan, and the unprecedented boom in other parts of the world–by carving a space tailored to the user. Many are surprised to hear that the vast majority of single family homes are not designed by architects. In fact, only about 2% of homes are designed. A project that attempts to reach the other 98% is a project that will most certainly touch you.

My challenge, in the nascent stages of Paperhouses as an idea, was to engage architects to make a difference with their talent and diverse backgrounds. It was also to make them believe, as I do, in the very process. I contemplated many possible partners, but in the end I simply asked myself: If I were to build my house, who would I hire?
I made a wish list and called everyone on it.

My hopes were too few and too many at first; somewhere between the incredible sensation of pursuing the best of all things, and an intrinsic fear of rejection. I did not know what to expect and how they would react. Mostly, I thought, how would I dissuade the resident inner artist from thinking that open source is the corruption of his/her work? Because architects tend to think of their work as a finished and perfect piece for a specific program and site, a notion which is actually totally oblivious of time, mightn’t they see this as the equivalent to some sort of caricature series of the Mona Lisa? Mona Lisa on the beach, Mona Lisa in China, Mona Lisa in the Alps? Contextual variations are, in every way, the professional Big Bang!  Architecture is so incredibly personal and yet so eminently public… This is a magnificent conflict, the emancipation of the work, the house in this case, being inhabited, aging, morphing. It is mine yet it is not. Control is indeed one of the unspoken corners of the architectural profession. Minutious, detailed control. I feel every minute of minutiae… so one thing fits the other thing, opens, closes, connects, makes sense, stands and, ultimate pleasure, looks beautiful and natural. Dangerous, I would say, even traumatic to let go!

They had many questions (“who are you?”), some unanswered (“next time?”), but incredible architects did embrace this idea. Some naturally, others with humor, passion, sometimes hesitantly, excavating land that does not exist, creating the land where they sit, floating with small, medium and large projects, each with their personality, idea and history. 
The group of people currently working is absolutely fabulous. They are the real challengers!

I am thrilled with the idea of mingling culture and territory (I am a cultural alloy myself), taking a Japanese architect and house beyond his border to Canada, to Germany, or the Mexican proposal to Australia. At that point all the labels vanish and we are really talking about a different animal. We are, as a matter of fact, creating a different animal, universal in many ways, and local in many others.

Paperhouses proposes detailed working source material at no cost to the public.
We assume people will process and build upon the idea, develop the guidelines, interpret and improve the models according to their lives and territories. By decentralizing the process we focus the results.

A very interesting phase is soon starting… in fact the whole point of this project is to build up towards this complicity (to borrow last week’s confession) between the architect and people in the making of the houses. We will have in place a network that can help people execute their houses and we are particularly expectant as to what is going to happen. That is really going to be the way from here to there. To tie back to my own path there is a short poem by Alberto Caeiro that says If, after my death, they want to write my biography / There's nothing simpler.  / There are only two dates – that of my birth and of my death.  / Between one and the other all the days are mine.

All the days are to be written now. This sounds incredibly powerful to me!