When I was doing my undergraduate work in architecture, we had a senior class studio at CAL that required us to construct a cardboard city in the courtyard of Wurster Hall. Each student was assigned a 4’ X 4’ square in which we were to design and construct the perfect cardboard utopian home/studio/tree-house.

It was truly inspiring to see the abundant creativity that came out of college students after a couple of weeks of scavenging cardboard from the alleys behind the local appliance stores, boxes of X-acto knife blades, Band-Aids, paint, Christmas lights, and a few cases of beer or other influencing libation (it was the 70s after all).

The result of this culminating senior project was an intricate maze of cultural civility and human interaction, and the creation of a true neighborhood.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, pathways were negotiated between neighboring “squares,” collaborations and negotiations were made to create common places to be shared by al—in some cases, collaborations went so far as to create 4’ X 8’ spaces shared by 2 people, or 8’ X 8’ spaces shared by 4 people.

Some squares were constructed with opposing windows so inhabitants could sit inside their squares and chat with their neighbors. A few creative souls, who obviously excelled in their structural engineering pre-requisites, were able to create condominium units complete with staircases so two 4’ X 4’ squares could stack one atop another.

In my early years as an underclassman, I remember walking by the courtyard in sheer amazement that in such a short time, people could learn to work together, interact, fight, make up, and create such a viable “village” that it became the envy of the entire College of Architecture.

To own their creation, each class christened their “village” with such names as "Cardborgetto," "Cardbodello," "Cardopolis," and, in my senior year, we called our town “Cardbarrio.”

Looking back on that spring semester, I realize the exercise taught us a lot about human nature—the need to have privacy, the desire for interaction, the need for individualism, and the desire to collaborate. So why am I telling this story now?

I was recently struck by a photo coming out of an evacuation center in Japan. The image was taken at a sports complex a couple of weeks following the earthquake and tsunami that has devastated part of that country. In my mind, I compared the recent photo to a similar one taken five years ago in the Superdome in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. I was moved and troubled by the striking differences in the photos. Let me try and explain.

In my recollection of the images of Katrina evacuees, they were scattered across the stadium floor, it appeared in chaos, with clothing, bedding, cots, and folding chairs all in disarray. It was difficult to discern from the photo where people were to walk, where one family was congregated versus another family. It was disheartening and painful, and it brought tears to my eyes. The image portrayed a people who had lost everything, including their dignity and privacy.

In contrast, the recent photo over the Web of the evacuation center in Japan portrayed a sense of calm and order. I smiled at the sense of order, peace, and civility that a little bit of cardboard had created. What the Japanese evacuees had done was to take sheets of 4-foot-tall cardboard to create walls. They built rooms, aisles, passages, even shelves and tables within their “rooms.”

They had created their own “Cardboard-Machi,” or town. Each resident appeared to have about a room about the size of three Tatami mats laid side by side. There was a doorway that opened onto a pathway leading to a wider pathway. Within the room, residents had constructed shelving for their possessions, overturned boxes used as tables even had a table cloth.

The environment was civilized, it was human scale, and it was personal. The photo brought tears to my eyes, but for a different reason than the Katrina photo. This time, I was moved by the power of a little bit of cardboard and of the lessons I’d learned so many years ago.

I was moved by the acceptance of their condition that these people had made, and of the empowerment to improve that condition that they’d taken to make their lives as habitable as might be possible at such a catastrophic time.