Bridging the Gap

A Self-Supporting Bridge Made Entirely of Paper in the English Lake District

Hailing from the North of England, environmental artist Steve Messam’s love of the bucolic rolling landscape of the Lake District is almost palpable. Like most of his installations, PaperBridge is site-specific and inspired by its beautiful surroundings.

“I wanted to say something about the industrial heritage of the landscape – how it’s not just farming that shaped it, but before Wordsworth and the Romantics, the lakes was an industrial place – of mining, ship building etc.” explains Steve. “There’s still lots of industry in the area and paper production is part of that.”

The arched bridge straddles a stream, and is self-supporting, despite being made entirely of paper. As many as 22,000 individual vivid red sheets comprise its construction.

We quizzed Steve about this unique installation.

The Plus: What was the process of creating the PaperBridge?
Steve Messam:
The bridge was built using the same techniques the Romans and everyone else since used to make a self-supporting arch. The paper is stacked end-on over a wooden former. When all the paper is on and packed tight, the former is removed and the arch remains. The bridge is made from blocks of paper, each 700mm x 900mm and 200 sheets. In-between each block is a wedge of different sized paper blocks to make an angle between each part.

TP: We’re there any major challenges to overcome?
The main challenge was working with such large quantities of paper. Each ream of 100 sheets weighs 17kg. Due to the terrain the paper couldn’t get to the bridge site – the tractor transporting it could get to within 500 metres. So all 4 tonnes of paper had to be carried that last bit by hand!

TP: Why red?
I like using red for lots of reasons. In this piece the red works against the greens of the fells behind and is a shock of colour in the otherwise fairly monochromatic landscape. There’s also lots of cultural significance with the colour including how the Chinese used it in landscapes over 1,000 years ago.

TP: The paper was especially produced by James Cropper so that it would be capable of withstanding the Cumbrian weather. Could you tell us some more about the special paper?
The paper is a very simple paper. It’s just 270gsm wood fibre from sustainable resources. The paper is all going to be pulped and recycled back at the paper mill at the end to make new paper so we couldn’t use any water inhibitors or anything else that may hinder its recycling.

We also needed the red dye to be non-toxic and not bleed or leach into the environment when it rained. The colour is the same as used in the royal British legion Remembrance Day poppies also produced by Cropper – as it was designed not to bleed onto service uniforms when wet.

TP: Why did you choose to build the bridge in Cumbria?
The piece is site specific and could only have been built in the lake district – the landscape, shape, form, texture, light of the environment coupled with the paper manufacture and the heritage of looking at landscapes that is the basis of the UNESCO world heritage site bid by the lake District National Park. It was also funded by Lakes Culture as part of a new programme of works in the landscape of Cumbria.

TP: What will your next project be?
There are a number of projects currently in development including light installations inside mountains, a web of lines spanning a valley, and an 18-mile sound installation.

Photos by Steve Messam.