Winner of the 2014 Pritzker Prize Shigeru Ban became known as the sustainable paper architect but behind the cardboard aesthetics lie deep humanitarianism and high-tech aspirations
Source: Warren King
Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has earned a reputation as the moral conscience of architecture. Fifteen years ago, Tom Spector wrote in The Ethical Architect of the need for a rethinking of architecture’s moral mission as opposed to what he called the ‘messianic’ functionalism and utilitarianism of late-20th-century architecture. Ironically, Ban’s moral mission arises precisely out of a certain functionalist demand: to provide immediate emergency relief to victims of natural disaster.
Although Reyner Banham argued that functionalists ignored the environment, Azby Brown’s latest book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan speaks of the cultural traditions of ‘environmental functionalism’. And it is this environmental and socially concerned dimension that wins the hearts and minds of the fans of Ban.
While Zaha Hadid continues to aggravate the commentariat with her single-mindedness, her routine defamation stands in stark contrast to the plaudits regularly showered on Ban. While critic Rowan Moore condemns Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie-Talkie for its arrogance, Ban’s work is celebrated as the epitome of humility. While Gehry is rude, Ban is nice. While Koolhaas is imperiously tall, Ban is engagingly short.
In June 2014, Ban won the Pritzker Prize. At the glittering Rijksmuseum ceremony, Tom Pritzker announced that $100,000 was being presented to Ban because of his ‘commitment to humanitarian causes’. Emoting effusively, he continued, ‘compassion is not limited by budget [and] Shigeru has made our world a better place’. Ban is the man of the moment; far from his humble beginnings, he is now photographed in the company of presidents and empresses.
Shigeru Ban was born in Tokyo in 1957 at the start of the postwar boom. His father was an executive at Toyota and his mother a fashion designer (who designed and made his Pritzker-collecting suit). While work was being done on their home Ban was bewitched by the work of the carpenters and so, the legend goes, the seed was planted for his career.
Paper House, 1995
Paper Church, 1995
Paper Log Houses, 1995 (Kobe), 2000 (Turkey), 2001 (India), 2014 (Philippines)
Japan Pavilion, Hamburg Expo, 2000
Centre Pompidou-Metz, 2010
Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch, 2013
‘I don’t like waste’
At the Ochanomizu School of Fine Arts, the faculty set weekly design challenges dictating wooden structures and experimental methods of timber construction. It was here that Ban met Kiyoshi Ikebe, a professor at the University of Tokyo famed for his Children’s Peace Monument to the young victims of Hiroshima. Ikebe also popularised experimental industrial prefabricated housing as part of Japan’s reconstruction effort.
Ikebe discussed his own writings with Ban and introduced him to the work of John Hejduk, then professor at the School of Architecture at Cooper Union, New York. The die was cast and after attending Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica from 1977 to 1980, Ban entered Cooper Union to be taught by Scofidio, Tschumi, Eisenman and Hejduk. Eisenman failed Ban’s final thesis and so he took the opportunity to travel for a year. On a pilgrimage to Aalto’s projects in Finland Ban was strongly influenced by his use of ‘natural materials in harmony with context and climate’. Qualifying in 1984, by 1985 Ban had opened his Tokyo practice and 20 years later he has offices in Paris and New York, reputedly spending alternate weeks in France and Japan.
His first project, an exhibition of the work of Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz, set the tone for his later work almost by accident. Designed as a series of fabric screens that were delivered in cardboard tubes, he felt that throwing these away was wasteful and so kept them. So an oeuvre was born.
His subsequent exhibition of Aalto’s work in 1986 used cardboard tubes because the lavish use of wood ‘that would have been an ideal representation of his [Aalto’s] work’ was too expensive. Feeling aggrieved that the timber would simply be dismantled at the end and thrown away, his choice of cardboard seemed like a cheap, adaptable replacement.
Even though he regularly denies that he is driven by sustainability, he is still seen as an eco-champion. Ban has explained: ‘When I started working this way, almost 30 years ago, nobody was talking about the environment. But this way of working came naturally to me. I was always interested in low cost, local, reusable materials.’ So it seems that his architecture of ‘thrift’ developed a new resonance as austerity, localism and recyclability became the norm. Maybe his celebrity arises as much out of the erroneous environmental interpretation of his work as it does from the appreciation of the work itself.
‘Though Ban regularly denies that he is driven by sustainability, he is still seen as an eco-champion’
Shigeru Ban came to prominence in 1995 with his Paper House, which was the first time that Japanese regulators had authorised paper for a structural material in a permanent building. Ten perimeter paper tubes support the roof while the more architectural ‘inner tubes’ take the lateral forces. That same year, he started work on the Takatori Catholic Church in Kobe after the original church was destroyed in the Hanshin earthquake. Built largely with church volunteer labour, this temporary structure was designed by Ban on a pro bono basis. It has since been dismantled and shipped to Taiwan to act as a community centre, where it has been since 2008.
His work in Kobe - and the ethos that it represented - led him to establish an NGO called Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN). And after watching the plight of Rwandan refugees in the mid-’90s, he lobbied to be made a consultant of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Ban was beginning to see a dichotomy between his work for rich clients and his quest to aid the poor. He has said that ‘even in disaster areas, I want to create beautiful buildings’. Admittedly, the Rwandan shelters are not beautiful: simple paper tube frames with plastic joints covered in tarpaulins. Total cost $50 per unit, labour free. But, developing the concept into the Paper Log House, he has made something much more architectural. These are homes not shelters, built for Vietnamese refugees in Kobe; for earthquake victims in Turkey; and for survivors of the 2001 tsunami in Sri Lanka, among others. These simple boxes have a beer crate foundation to raise them above damp ground and then the water-resistant paper tubes are slotted in to create the perimeter structural wall. Not that beer is commonly available in war-zones or staunchly Muslim areas, but the prototypes are demountable, the materials are easily recyclable and the design standards are higher than what has gone before.
He has worked with Frei Otto to create a cardboard version of Otto’s trademark gridshells for the Japan Pavilion at the Hanover Expo in 2000 and he also professes a liking for large projects (that help pay his wages), and for steel and concrete. He might be Mr Paper, but he has distinctly high-tech aspirations.
In some way, he would do well to avoid being trapped in the hype that he has not sought: the ‘sustainable paper architect’. Remember, it was the inability to manufacture cardboard tubes of sufficiently loadbearing thickness that caused Christchurch Cathedral to use timber and steel structural elements hidden within a paper envelope. Such shenanigans were necessary to maintain the Ban aesthetic that we have all come to expect. His work should be appreciated for its architectural quality and he should be admired for his humanitarianism. But they are not to be confused.
Cardboard rolls portrait made by Stockholm-based American artist Warren King