Shigeru Ban’s Paper Trail

Architecture | Jul 2015 | BY Ted Loos

Cultured is headed to Aspen where EIC Sarah Harrelson joins the Bass Museum in celebrating its new building design on July 28th at the home of museum president, George Lindemann. Before you head for higher ground, make sure you read our interview with Shigeru Ban, whose design for the Aspen Art Museum was celebrated to great fanfare last year.

Cultured-magazine-Shigeru_Wofgang_

Architect Shigeru Ban

The greatest creators don’t just blaze a trail somewhere; they concoct an entirely new destination, leading us to a place we didn’t know we needed to go. Certainly the architect Shigeru Ban is one of our era’s prime examples of this kind of visionary. The 56-year-old Ban, born in Japan and educated in the United States, has been rethinking and un-thinking stale conventional architectural ideas for 20 years—most radically, making humanitarian buildings quickly out of paper tubes for people affected by natural disasters.

Finally the rest of the world is catching up: He’s the 2014 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, his profession’s version of the Nobel Prize. “It’s a bigger deal than I thought,” says Ban with a light chuckle, speaking to Cultured exclusively from his Tokyo office (he commutes each week between his Tokyo and Paris offices). “There are so many interviews and project proposals.”

Ban is in his element as a problem-solver. He designs by himself, using computers more sparingly than other architects, and he severely limits the number of clients he takes on. “I believe that in the old times, we used to make far better architecture, before the computer was even created,” he says.

Ban is best known for devoting an enormous amount of his time to designing and building disaster-relief housing (and other structures) all over the world, most recently in the Philippines and China. He doesn’t get paid for this, of course, nor does he utilize the people who work for him—he enlists unpaid student help from his teaching gig in Kyoto.

“Normally architects are working for people who have money and power,” says Ban, never one to mince words. “Because power and money are invisible, they create architecture to show off.” It’s a bracing statement, evidence that Ban does not mind biting the hand that feeds. “I thought, we can use our experience and knowledge for the general public and even someone who has lost their house in a disaster.”

He uses local, cheap and sustainable or recycled building materials. And the paper tubes that are his trademark don’t create buildings that look flimsy either. His Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, is truly ravishing and mighty sturdy. “Anything can be a structure,” says Ban. “Water, air, grass, paper.” Necessity led the way, as it often does with innovation. “I was designing an exhibition in 1986, and couldn’t afford to use wood,” he says. “There were all these paper tubes around the studio, so I decided to go with that.”

Currently, in the Philippines, Ban is responding to the devastation of last year’s typhoons by using paper tubes as always, but with a local twist. “The frame is tubes, but the skin of the building is locally made and easily available woven bamboo,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve used it. It’s cheap and works with the local context.”

His humanitarian housing has such a pleasing, spare lightness that it caused something of a problem: “Some of the victims who live there are very happy. They don’t want to leave,” says Ban. (When asked why more architects don’t follow his lead, lending a hand in a crisis with this kind of work, he replies, “Maybe you should ask them.”)

Ban’s regular practice takes him all over the world, from residential projects like the Curtain Wall House in Tokyo (with two-story-high walls made from white curtains) to commercial ones like a striking new headquarters for Swatch and Omega watches going up in Biel, Switzerland. The latter includes what his office calls a “flowing timber grid-shell roof.”

“Wood is such a wonderful material, and it’s the only renewable one,” says Ban, who likes to work entirely with interlocking wood beams, without steel joints, if he can. “Once you start using steel connections, the timber becomes an ornament. It’s more interesting to explore the limitations of the material.”

In the United States, Ban first gained attention for 2005’s Nomadic Museum, made entirely out of shipping containers, which first touched down in New York for a show of Gregory Colbert’s photographs called “Ashes and Snow.” Since then, he has also designed an apartment and gallery building called Metal Shutter Houses in Chelsea, with chic-looking retractable screens facing the street.

Ban doesn’t think of himself as a Japanese architect, in part because of his education. He heard about New York’s Cooper Union when he was in high school. “It was before the Internet,” he says. “I flew to New York only to find they didn’t accept foreign students.” He enrolled at the Southern California Institute of Architecture for a time, just so he could get back to Cooper Union, where he graduated from the School of Architecture in 1984.

Now, his most high-profile U.S. project is opening this summer: the 35,000-square-foot Aspen Art Museum. “The site is in the middle of downtown, and it was quite disappointing when I first saw it,” says Ban. “I couldn’t see mountains or anything.”

His agile mind unpacked the problem and turned weakness into strength. “The site was small in terms of having a big foyer, so I made the foyer on top of the roof,” he says. “You take the grand stair or the elevator up there to enjoy the view of the mountains and then come down to look at the galleries and art.” He adds of starting at the top: “It’s the same sequence when you ski.”

The building is going to be a showplace for Aspen’s contemporary art exhibitions, in part because of its post-tensioned slab construction, allowing for huge open spaces with no columns. The largest gallery is an obstruction-free 4,000 square feet—“gasp-making,” says the museum’s director, Heidi Zuckerman.

The Aspen project has the quality of singularity Ban brings to everything he touches. It makes sense that when it comes to naming his own architectural heroes, he mentions Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller, two engineering masters and contrarian thinkers from the past.

“They invented their own materials and ways of structuring,” says Ban, asserting the independence that has now rocketed him into architecture’s first ranks. “That’s what I want to do: develop my own materials and structures. That way I don’t have to follow the style and fashion of the day.”

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