Tokyo-born (1957) Shigeru Ban has the enviable reputation of an accomplished Japanese and international architect, most famous for his innovative work with paper, particularly recycled cardboard paper tubes used to quickly and efficiently house disaster victims. In 2014, Ban was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize-equivalent Pritzker Prize for Architecture for his creatively designed structures, such as temporary shelters, for areas devastated by natural disasters. The citation stated, ‘When tragedy strikes, he is often there from the beginning.’
After studying at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Ban achieved his ambition of studying under the legendary John Hejduk at Cooper Union's School of Architecture. Hejduk was a part of the ‘New York Five.’ At the age of 28, Ban opened his own practice in Tokyo.
Ban shot to fame as the first Japanese architect to construct a building primarily out of paper which required special approval to pass Japan’s building code. Ban’s innovative use of paper and cardboard tubing as a material for building construction is because it is low cost, recyclable, low-tech and replaceable. More importantly, Ban’s work reflects his humanitarianism and attraction to ecological architecture; it is heavily based on its sustainability and because it produces very little waste. Consequently, Ban's DIY refugee shelters (used in Japan after the Kobe earthquake, and in Turkey, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, China, Italy, Haiti, et al) are very popular and effective for low-cost disaster relief-housing.
In particular, it was after the catastrophic Kobe earthquake of 1995 in Japan that Ban illustrated the versatility and worth of the inexpensive tubes. As part of the relief work, he had erected 22 paper-tube cabins to shelter some of those who had lost their homes.
Further, he created a ‘paper dome’ to temporarily house a ruined Roman Catholic church leveled by the quake by deploying recycled, durable, strong, and environment-friendly paper material. The structure was designed in a way that it could be easily constructed and dismantled, then used again. Ban’s contribution evoked wide acclaim, and he was praised for displaying an architect’s sense of mission based on deeply rooted human love.
After the horrific Canterbury earthquake in 2011, Ban built the ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ as a symbol of reconstruction of the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. ‘I don't like waste’ is an apt quote from Ban, summing up his philosophy, known as ‘Paper Architecture.’
Ban extended his concept of using tubes to create structures such as the ‘Paper Arch,’ a decorative lattice and displayed in the gardens of New York City’s ‘Museum of Modern Art.’ Later, Ban co-designed the ‘Pompidou Centre,’ at Metz, France, a regional branch of the famed arts centre. It was an avant-garde building featuring an undulating roof inspired by a Chinese bamboo hat.
The ‘invisible structure’ is one of the most important themes in Ban’s work—without overtly expressing his structural elements, he chooses to incorporate it into the design. Rarely is he keen to use the ‘newest’ materials and techniques, but prefers the expression of the concept behind his building. The materials he chooses are deliberately selected for how they aid the building.
Besides his humanitarian work, Ban has created museums, homes, and short-term pavilions, each showcasing an innovative use of space and material. Some of Ban’s notable works include: ‘Mount Fuji World Heritage Center,’ Japan, an inverted cone half-contained within a glass; ‘Expo 2000’, Germany, wherein the Japanese Pavilion features a wavelike roof made with PVC and paper membranes supported by a cardboard-tube skeleton-- the pavilion remains the largest paper structure ever built to date; ‘La Seine Musicale’ Paris, a striking music and performing arts center; ‘Nicolas G. Hayek Center,’ Tokyo, the headquarters for Swatch Group Japan; the ‘Nomadic Museum,’ New York, a temporary museum cum exhibition building, originally built using steel shipping containers and cardboard tubes—this exhibition moved to California, Tokyo, and Mexico City; and the ‘Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Clubhouse,’ South Korea, featuring a distinctive glass atrium with treelike timber columns that seamlessly integrate with the ceiling’s hexagonal wood grid.
While Ban embraces several schools of architecture, he is a Japanese architect first, and uses many themes and methods found in traditional Japanese architecture, such as the idea of a ‘universal floor’ to allow continuity between all rooms in a house. In his buildings, this translates to a floor without change in elevation. At the same time, due to his Western education and influences, Ban has emerged as one of the pioneering Japanese architects who blend the Western and Eastern building forms and methods for best results.
As a multi-faceted architect, Ban can be categorized as an ‘Ecological Architect’ who can also be regarded as a modernist, a Japanese experimentalist, as well as a rationalist.
No wonder, Shigeru Ban was named as an extraordinary innovator in the New York Times' issue on ‘The Greats.’ Writing on Ban in The New York Times Interactive (Oct.18, 2019), Nikil Saval says: ‘…Now in his early 60s, he finds himself at once the most recognized and laureled humanitarian architect of this era…Climate change, refugee crises, mass migration — these have been Ban’s inspirations in a field that has been guided by cults of personality and museum-board donations…After a decade or more of ‘starchitecture,’ of architects and buildings as brands, the profession is increasingly being discussed as a social mission. But Ban has been doing it for several decades.’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect practising and teaching architecture; and co-founder of SIDART Photography and two centers of Globalart.