Though he was only 43–almost a stripling architect years-Shigeru Ban has made Time magazine’s list of “100 Innovators” and Architectural Review’s list of “Six to Watch.” His placid, broad features appear regularly on global TV networks and in popular magazines. His work has turned up in design sanctums such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in frenzied attractions including London’s Millennium Dome and Hannover, Germany’s 2000 World’s Fair.
Many visionaries are best known for building on paper. But Ban’s reputation largely rests on building with paper. The Tokyo-based Japanese architect has elevated the lowly papertube into a structural element for beautiful, durable houses, public buildings, and furniture. He’s also employed it as a pragmatic solution forquickly erecting and then neatly disposing of temporary quarters. A man whose humility approaches self-denigration, he is dismissive about ingeniously transforming this humble material into shelter: “Once you hear of it, you think, ‘Oh, it is very possible– nothing special,'” he claims. In truth, Ban’s paper buildings have opened up radical new possibilities for greening architecture, housing refugees, injecting warmth into minimalist spaces, and eliminating barriers between interior and exterior.
Ban loves to contrive cheap solutions for elegant constructions. Mud, sand, and cardboard are his staples, along with beer crates, storage containers, and polycarbonate forms filled with Styrofoam beads. Even conventional building materials adopt new roles in his hands: precast concrete piles make their way above grade, and scaffolding, bookshelf supports, and cabinets become structure.
Born in Tokyo, in 1957, and educated in Japan and the U.S., Ban began dabbling with materials shortly after he graduated from Cooper Union in the ’80s. His experiments increased in size and complexity as he grew more confident. He first used precast pilings in 1992 on an overscaled wall separating a residential building from an adjacent train line, and later employed them as strong, slender columns for the 1997 Tazawako Rail Station. His foray into temporary storage containers began in 1996 with –what else?– a traveling exhibition. Used as vitrines, the containers were rented at each exhibit site from afreight company with offices throughout Japan, saving considerably on transportation costs. Similarly, Ban introduced prefabricated steel boxes at the Japanese pavilion in Hannover, which he displayed under an enormous vault of papertubes designed in partnership with the esteemed German architect Frei Otto.
Ban’s paper-tube structures are his most evolved experiments. The series began in 1989 as simple scaffolds of fat cardboard shafts, which were soon joined by dainty chairs of the same material. (Cappellini now produces these chairs as well as a bench, a chaise longue, and a wall screen of Ban’s design.) In 1995, he employed the tubes as vertical cantilevers in shelters for people left homeless by the earthquake that leveled Kobe, Japan, and in a gracefully unfurling nautilus-like chamber, designed in collaboration with Gumuchdjian+Spence, in the Millennium Dome. More recently, Ban devised paper barrel vaults: the 46,000-square-foot pavilion at Hannover was the largest cardboard structure ever made. A smaller vault, which floated delicately over the Sculpture Garden at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2000, incorporated a set of paper arches as its primary structure.
“I have tried to be very careful about using paper,” Ban notes, “because I don’t want to be considered the ‘paper architect.’ If I have an opportunity to develop paper structure further, I do it.” Such chances turn up: he is working again with Philip Gumuchdjian on a paper space frame for Kew Gardens, outside London.
Arata Isozaki, in whose office Ban briefly worked after graduating from Cooper Union, once said that industrial materials in architecture have “bred paradox and wit.” The witty side of Ban’s architecture beguiles; its paradox, namely a resourceful use of rubbish, provides deeper satisfaction, allowing Ban to build virtually anywhere at the drop of a hat. This has resulted in shelters–known as “loghouses,” because they are wrapped in a sturdy wall of vertical paper tubes-for victims of the 1998 earthquake in Turkey and of the 1995 Hanshin earthquake in Japan; more recently, they provided housing for flood victims in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Ban has also developed and deployed tents with paper-tube supports in Rwanda for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and built a lovely church in Kobe to address emergency needs neglected by the Japanese government. With news of disaster, he gathers up donated plastic sheets and cardboard tubes and flies to the site, where local volunteers collect beverage crates and sand. (He prefers local plastic and paper as well, but has thus far found their quality unpredictable.) In other humanitarian endeavors, he designed an AIDS hospice in Uganda in 1999, and recently completed a Japanese museum to exhibit artwork by children with disabilities.
Paradoxes aren’t easy to sell. Because paper is weak and combustible–though in fact it can be strong and fireproof–the bureaucracies in many countries discourage Ban’s experiments. German authorities delayed the Hannover pavilion until Ban and Otto redesigned the foundation to allow for more rapid and orthodox construction. As is typical of Ban, he turns to an everyday item to illustrate the problem: “The authorities are not flexible. You have to put a line on wineglasses to mark how far you pour! That shows their mentality.”
But Ban is slowly eliminating impediments. First with engineers in Japan, and now with the international firm Buro Happold, he has demonstrated the practicality of his ideas. Engineers understand Ban’s clever tinkering and appreciate its breadth. Cristobal Corea, a Buro Happold designer who has collaborated with him, notes that “Ban has confidence when speaking to engineers; he knows what we are talking about.”
Students are also receptive. Ban rallies them to work as volunteers on his shelters by spreading the word at schools and on rock radio stations. He challenges young people in Turkey and Mexico not only to aid him in design and construction, but also to improve on his prototypes. He runs the nonprofit Voluntary Architects’ Network to respond to disasters and hopes to strengthen the role students play in this organization by moving it from his practice to one of Tokyo’s universities.
His willingness to experiment with materials and his humanitarian approach to design show Ban to be a committed interpreter of postwar modernism. He enrolled at Cooper Union to study under the school’s dean of architecture, the late John Hejduk, from whom he learned a highly disciplined approach to organizing buildings. Ban’s work has the careful precision of Hejduk’s better-known “nine square” designs–a set of exercises aimed at finding a minimalist, compositionally perfect plan. The younger architect paid pointed tribute to Hejduk with Nine Square Grids House (1997). There, Ban partitioned a 34-foot-by-34-foot space into nine square sections, using sliding doors that allow users to reconfigure the area. His cylindrical bathrooms (found especially in the early houses, almost invariably in brick) allude to the spatial arrangement in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a building Ban has long loved from afar, but has felt too shy to tour.
Ban also acknowledges modernism by naming his most experimental residences Case Study Houses, after the mid-century icons in Southern California, where he first studied architecture in the States. (To establish U.S. residency, required for enrollment at Cooper Union, he spent a year at SCI-Arc.) Ban built ten Case Study houses between 1991 and 2000, all in Japan. At first he described his houses in purely formal terms: two parallel walls; two walls and a structural core; three walls, two cores. Apparently to make these systems more graphically legible, he rendered them with contrasting finishes–raw, textured surfaces sandwiched between smooth white floor and ceiling planes. The spatial character of modernism inevitably took hold as well. Horizontal planes slice off flat planes of unbounded space. Without impeding walls, interior and exterior are often linked in a harmonious whole.
The interiors electrify; they have a forceful horizontal quality that pushes beyond the boundaries of Ban’s architecture. The houses, especially those designed for people privileged enough to withdraw to summer quarters, remind residents that their space is part of a larger community. In Ban’s 1997 Walls-less House, the floor turns up to act as a shear plane, and the living space is little more than a sandwich of air compressed between the glossy floor and ceiling. His Curtain Wall House is a tiered stage, a raised, double-height living room concealed behind a long, shimmering curtain that billows as suggestively as a chiffon skirt. When the owner opens this wall, the living room stretches into the street.
Of course not every site, especially in crowded Tokyo, offers this kind of sweep. When faced with cramped conditions, Ban sometimes relies on clever devices to suggest openness. In many of his city residences, greenery covers an outside wall, creating a shallow landscape. More recently, in his 1998 Hanegi Forest apartments (built in the same Tokyo neighborhood as the office he designed for himself in 1988), he used high-clarity mirrors in an open area below the building. These reflect trees that penetrate the structure and create a labyrinthine forest that seems far larger than the site.
Ban takes increasing interest in testing personal boundaries, too: the Walls-less House allows even the bath and toilet to be completely exposed. In Case Study House #10, otherwise known as the Naked House, the family members keep their clothes in a communal space and all dress together. Ban designed the bedrooms as mobile boxes and he feared that if clothes were stored in the units they would make the boxes too heavy to move.
Uniting Ban’s work are clarity, textural richness, and ingenuity. These qualities come together seamlessly in each project, whether it’s a temporary exposition building or a permanent museum, a house designed for people with second homes or for those with no home at all. Ban notes that “even in disaster areas, I want to create beautiful buildings.” And indeed, one of his loghouses made its way into the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou. This breezy breadth is part of Ban’s appeal. He recognizes that architects want to build monuments–he himself admits to this urge. But he also recognizes that public service is part of modernism’s mission.
On the boards are four more paper-tube buildings, in Portugal, plus a history museum in Dijon, France, houses near the Great Wall in China, and a museum of paper art in Mishima, Japan. The last, ironically, will not be made of paper. Ban keeps outmaneuvering most expectations. Though he seems to be asking design professionals to reconsider building materials, what he really wants is a new definition of architecture’s reach. In the introduction to a monograph on his firm forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press, he describes his search to control the conditions of working with paper: “I had been under the impression that some things were simply impossible to build regardless of how logical their structural design seemed.” That impression was fleeting. “Anything is possible,” Shigeru Ban concludes, “if the design is credible and one has the will.”