Exhibition: Shigeru Ban: Architecture and Humanitarian Activities, Art Tower Mito, Ibaraki, Japan ended 12 May
This was the largest showing of Shigeru Ban’s work to date, offering a timely retrospective of his achievements and exploring the architect’s role in 21st-century society across a diverse range of social issues, scales and locations.
Ban has, like many of his Japanese contemporaries, been exploring new conceptual directions in what architecture can be. But in contrast to the dreamlike, dematerialised qualities sought by others such as SANAA and Fujimoto, the tectonic ambiguities of Kengo Kuma, or the metaphorical departure points of Ito, Ban’s work has a robustly pragmatic underpinning in the genuinely innovative investigation into the structural and tectonic possibilities of recycled paper and laminated timber, while still often imbued with joy and playfulness.
Very evident from this aptly-titled exhibition was his early extensive involvement with humanitarian work. Setting up in private practice in Tokyo in 1995 with the usual private house commissions by wealthy clients, Ban became a consultant of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, establishing the Voluntary Architects’ Network. He has been engaged in disaster relief projects worldwide ever since. But there is no contradiction here − every project embodies an elegant economy of means integral to his design approach, regardless of setting or client.
Straightforwardly laid out in a chronological loop, the exhibition included many full-size mock-ups of whole or part buildings and structural components, well-placed moments of audio-visual and, of course, great photographs. As with all retrospectives, it was an opportunity for the viewer to reassess particular ideas within the body of work, while also becoming aware of new, or relatively less well-known, ones.
Here, the conceptual and material inventiveness in projects such as the Japan Pavilion for the Hanover EXPO 2000, Paper Church (Kobe, 1995) and Naked House (Saitama, Japan, 2000) remain hugely impressive, demonstrating a lightness of touch and avoiding bombastic excess. The full extent of the disaster relief work becomes apparent with systems such as the Paper Log House, developed in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake and now having had several manifestations elsewhere, adapting to the particular climatic requirements and resources available.
One significant quibble with an otherwise very thorough display was the lack of plans and sections. These would have been particularly useful for the less well-known (at least to the Western eye) early projects. Missing such basic information is an all too common oversight with architectural exhibitions, presumably on the grounds that they are of limited use or interest to the general viewer, but it really doesn’t have to be an issue ofeither/or.
Ban’s work itself in many ways represents a both/and mentality and it is the continuum of his refined design sensibility into the disaster relief projects which elevates them above the worthy but crude utility so often associated with this kind of work. He also demonstrates an understanding of what can engender a sense of human dignity while addressing the fundamental provision of shelter.
Perhaps this is no more poignantly represented than in the response to the 2011 tsunami, with some of the worst affected areas lying just a few miles north of Mito. Thousands of families left homeless and finding temporary shelter in community halls were rapidly provided with visual privacy and a sense of personal space by the simple modular partition system Ban devised from cardboard tubes. Supplied in three different diameters, these combined to form flexible frameworks of beams and columns over which white sheets, held together with safety pins, were hung.
A series of the partitions are displayed in a room along with stackable plywood stools, which, again, have a sense of considered simplicity in their clever composition while being robust and fit for purpose. I am informed that in such desperate circumstances, sometimes it really is the little things that can mean so much.
The abundant reservoir of goodwill built up while progressing through this exhibition still cannot disguise the perceived shortcomings of the Metz Pompidou (AR June 2010), which is featured extensively in the last room, and only adds to the sense of disappointment and missed opportunity. Here the whole is very much less than the sum of the parts, so unlike the other projects shown. Perhaps this is a consequence of the relatively lavish means leading to a confused and contradictory end.
Notably, the adjacently displayed one-third size model of the laminated timber column detail from the Nine Bridges Golf Clubhouse in South Korea, uses a similar language to the Metz Pompidou’s. But here the column, and lattice roof structure flowing from it, is a singular generative primary idea and the project benefits from the resulting clarity.
Still, overall, after experiencing this impressively comprehensive and poignantly located exhibition, you are left with a deep respect for the meaningful enhancement brought to the lives of so many by the level of commitment, inventiveness and poetic pragmatism embodied in the work of Shigeru Ban.