I put pen to paper. A blank page of ivory coloured, 70 gsm acid-free paper, with a 5mm dot grid. My fountain pen swiftly moves across the smooth but not glossy surface; my words, in palm green, begin to appear, one after the other. The ink, absorbed by the paper, settles into the page, the edges of the letters darkening. My handwriting, probably about 11pt in size, fits between the two dotted lines on the page, with some space left over...

Handwriting is immersive; the pen, the ink, the paper, all become one. The movement of my hand correlates with what is being written. Which is very different from typewriting, where the keys lift levers that punch-print onto paper ink stains in the shape of letters. Or typing on a computer keyboard, whereby electronic signals are sent to the processor and letters composed of pixels appear on a virtual page displayed on the screen. That page is not real, nor are those letters. It’s only pixels, aligned in the shape of letters. Thus, what I write on a computer — until it reaches the editor and is printed — is not real, is not even present as a form. It needs an intermediary, an interface, a decoder, to be recalled, to be read by someone else. Contrarily, the paper I am writing on is as real as it gets. The words are right there, readily available to anyone who knows how to read and understands the language.

Only by using paper do I actually feel that I am writing.

Paper is pretty much ubiquitous today. These words are printed on paper, so is the holy book. On a piece of paper, you can jot down your shopping list or compose a love letter (if you are an old-school, impenitent romantic). Although we take it for granted, paper is both ancient and very new.

In Formafantasma’s recent research Project, ‘Cambio’, a title derived from the mediaeval Latin cambium meaning change or exchange, the design duo investigated the timber industry. Commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries, the work was first exhibited last year in London and then this past autumn at Centro Pecci in Prato, Italy. The presentation illustrated how millions of years of natural processes have turned earth and soil into the wondrous material we inconspicuously call wood. Calling wood, wood, however, is rather an understatement. Wood is just a general name for a universe full of variety, blanketing time, and space. Wood is a hyperobject, incredibly diverse in form, hue, texture, rigidity, moisture, and vascularity, as well as in its derivatives — objects made of wood. From furniture to houses to scaffolding, and eventually to paper. For every 100 kinds of wood, there are 1000 kinds of paper.

What is paper? The shortest and most basic definition would be “a sheet produced from cellulose fibres or wood pulp”. Paper is a dried, compressed mat of plant fibres. Non-fibrous materials or non-wood pulp is also used for paper production, but total production using these two materials (less than 20 million tonnes) doesn’t come close to the amount of paper produced from wood pulp and from paper (more than 90 million tonnes). Although the pulp could come from any type of wood, even hay (ref: straw paper), the favourites are fast-growing evergreen conifers — your common spruce, pine, and fir. Paper is one of the most natural of all man-made products, next to glass. It’s a raw material, at once a semi-product and a finished product...

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A worker overseeing a paper-making machine at a mill near Pensacola, Florida, 1947

Formafantasma, Cambio, Serpentine Galleries, 2020; photo: Gregorio Gonella

Formafantasma: Cambio, Serpentine Galleries, 2020 / catalogue

Shigeru Ban, Paper Partition System 4 PPS4 , Fukushima, 2011 (top image); a modular system composed of two-metre-long paper tubes and curtains [in the wake of the earthquake, 1,800 individual units were built in 50 different locations, financed with international donations]. PPS4 at one of many Covid-19 vaccination sites, 2021 (above); the modules are composed of two-metre-long paper tubes and antiviral sheets. Photos: VAN – Voluntary Architects' Network.