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The Case to Build in Paper: Shigeru Ban wins 2014 Pritzker Prize

Shigeru Ban’s winning of the Pritzker Prize provides architects everywhere with the critical impetus to take his signature material seriously

Shigeru Ban’s selection as Pritzker Laureate 2014 has been widely debated since the decision was announced. Despite the architect’s own claim that such recognition is premature, most seem content with the decision, especially when the selection of long-tipped forerunners Steven Holl and David Chipperfield could have been construed as a disappointingly predictable outcome. Despite Ban’s growing portfolio of large-scale commercial work, much of the discussion has centred on his humanitarian efforts and innovations in paper as key attributes which have won him this accolade.

Educated at Cooper Union in New York by predominantly paper-based architect John Hejduk, Ban has been known to wryly quip that he has merely continued his teacher’s practice. Yet his defining characteristic is of a very different nature to his former tutor. Where most renowned architects can lay claim to a particular style or method of using materials, Ban has become synonymous with a physical material.

It has been twenty years since Shigeru Ban’s early fascinations with recycled paper tubes first found their humanitarian calling, with the UNHCR allowing the then 36-year-old Ban to use his unlikely building material to solve issues with their refugee tents in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. The paper tubes offered a cheap and easy-to-source alternative to timber posts that encouraged deforestation or metal pipes which refugees typically sold off to tap their high market value. Since then he has completed structures far grander and more ambitious and has successfully proved paper tubes to be a viable construction material, in many cases shedding the ‘temporality’ naturally associated with them. For all his acute understanding of space and detail, he has been dubbed the paper tube architect and it is a title and typecasting that he appears to have embraced willingly. Why then, given the wide publicity of its use and the clear benefits of the material, is Ban still the only architect using paper tubes and cardboard to create buildings?

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Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral: Paper is a versatile, cheap and structurally impressive material to build with. Photograph: Stephen Goodenough

It is not every day that we stumble across a fantastically simple and plausible building material among the plethora of everyday objects that surround us. It is also one of those beautifully elegant ideas that makes you wonder why it was never thought of before. Perhaps the usual concerns that it will fail structurally when wet impeded its popularity. Or perhaps the profession harbours an irrational unwillingness to take such an everyday material seriously.

Despite scepticism, Ban’s explorations have proved that such concerns are unfounded and that, for certain applications, paper can more than match up to its traditional rivals such as timber, steel or concrete. Paper tubes are cheap, easy to produce at almost any size or length and very strong if used correctly. Paper tubes have around five times the tensile strength and more than half the compressive strength of standard Portland cement concrete. Whilst undoubtedly weaker than timber or steel, paper tubes still boast impressive structural properties, which coupled with economic and manufacturing benefits, make them wholly viable, given the appropriate application. It seems remarkable then that paper tubes have not found their way into more buildings around the world, especially in the developing world. 

At first glance it is easy to criticise Ban, who could arguably be more active in encouraging the industry to adopt paper tube and cardboard construction and promote the material as a viable commercial product, but equally there may be other forces at play. Unfortunately today, any architect lured by the prospect of using paper, is all too aware that their work will be shrouded in Ban’s paper shadow, a potentially unattractive position for the architectural ego, and perhaps this highlights the real problem. Ban may not choose to outwardly encourage others to work with paper, but then why should he send out invites to a party nobody wants to attend?

Another explanation for the absence of paper could be its deep cultural association with impermanence. Although many buildings are commissioned for relatively short lifespans, architects tend to over-specify on durability. It may be that most cannot accept paper building products’ long-term viability. Most of Ban’s own paper buildings started life as temporary structures, only for some to have become more permanent through the care and maintenance of the communities who have grown so fond of their enchanting spaces.

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Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log House in Idea: Paper would be especially viable in developing countries. Photograph: Kartikeya Shodhan

Whether Ban’s paper monopoly overshadows such work is negligible. Paper has the clear potential to be engineered as a cost-effective, easy-to-produce and globally available building product. Simple techniques of coating, impregnating and laminating have overcome water retention issues and assembling paper structures is typically quick and straightforward. Opportunities for recycling and production of variable composite by-products demand close attention in the increasingly urgent context of global climate change. As Ban’s portfolio grows and his paper tube structures push the boundaries even further, it is evident that paper is a material to take notice of, both for humanitarian and commercial motives.

Made from 2mm thick cardboard trays, MODULAR is a basic shelter which can be easily assembled and dismantled, without specialist labour or tools. The design came about after non-profit practice Orkidstudio visited Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s inner-city slums. MODULAR emerged from that trip in response to the dilapidated condition of the settlement’s school buildings and the issues of contested boundaries and land ownership that kept its future in a state of constant instability. Different in many ways from Ban’s use of paper tubes and more modest in scale, the raw product is the same. Paper, it seems, may be the low-tech building product for the future. Orkidstudio’s MODULAR project is picking up the paper baton and in doing so suggests that in the very near future we may celebrate Ban as original innovator of this humble material rather than its exclusive master. With the Pritzker’s resounding endorsement of Ban’s work today, perhaps it is time that paper found its way into every architect’s materials palette.

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The MODULAR emergency shelter by Orkid Studio. James Mitchell demostrates tightening the fastenings which require no special tools

MODULAR

Credit

StructureMode are the structural engineers on MODULAR. Please see www.structuremode.com for full information.

About the Author

James Mitchell founded humanitarian architecture charity, Orkidstudio, whose focus is to benefit young people and communities worldwide through innovative design and construction. Formerly at Shigeru Ban Architects in Tokyo, where he played a key role in the development and construction of disaster-relief units in Port-au-Prince following the 2010 Haiti earthquakes, James also teaches Humanitarian Architecture at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow

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