Material, Not Design
Shigeru Ban did not intend to hop onto the green bandwagon. In fact, his idea of using paper as a structural material goes back to 1986, long before the call to use sustainable resources gained traction. He simply hated the idea of wasting materials. Heavily influenced by John Hejduk, who was a proponent of architectonic poetics (three-dimensional poetry), Shigeru found paper to be an ideal material for making sturdy structures.
Shigeru also holds high regard for Alvar Aalto, who was liberal in the realm of architecture in that he did not care so much about the latest fad, but was more concerned about creating new building materials. Inspired by such personalities, Shigeru discovered that paper actually makes a stronger material than previously thought; firstly, it can easily be made water-proof and fire-proof. Secondly, it can be recycled. Lastly, it’s widely-available and not too expensive.
His use of paper made him popular across the architectural industry, as well as in the field of engineering. Because paper has a reputation of being vulnerable, people were blown away by seeing actual structures made of it. The beauty of Shigeru’s design lies in his eye for function; if he has to choose between functionality and aesthetics, he won’t think twice of going for usability. What good is a structure if it’s difficult to use?
Early Life and Education
Shigeru Ban was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1957. Art runs in his blood; his mother was a fashion designer. Long before he discovered architecture, however, Shigeru had his eyes on athletics. He was a rugby enthusiast in his younger years. Yes, he found joy in building, but it was more of a hobby to him than a passion. While their home was being renovated, he fashioned cool designs out of discarded materials.
Shigeru did not give designing serious thought until his rugby team lost big-time in an interschool competition. It served as an eye-opener for Shigeru, and made him consider another career. Prior to his team’s defeat, he was considering going to Waseda University to study architecture, although he was not as serious about architecture back then – Waseda University is known for its rugby tradition, which was primarily why he was eager to enroll there. However, after their spectacular defeat, he lost faith in his rugby prowess and decided not to play the sport anymore.
He then focused more on architecture, and, with more time on his hands, discovered a new passion: drawing. Shigeru planned to join Tokyo University of the Arts, but then heard about a certain John Hejduk. He did not enroll in Tokyo University, but instead ended up at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
Shigeru then attended John Hejduk’s class as at the Cooper Union School of Architecture, where he spent another two years.
The Paper House with Curtain Walls
Shigeru returned to Tokyo and worked as an apprentice for Arata Isozaki from 1982 to 1983. He then helped design his mother’s shop. His plans of going back to the United States to attend graduate school were repeatedly delayed by projects. Unlike in other countries, architects were in high demand in Japan; so, instead of securing his Master’s, Shigeru relished in practical training.
For budding architects, building houses would be the norm. Shigeru’s concept of capitalizing on the materials rather than the design, however, made him quite controversial. Thinking of a material yet to be discovered for building, he stumbled upon paper. He soon realized that cardboards actually make for sturdy materials.
Shigeru began to harness the capacity of paper by making it both water-proof and fire-proof (this was around 1986, before the “green revolution” began). He then began making temporary structures out of paper, and made them public at the Alvar Aalto Exhibition.
The Kobe earthquake in 1995 left thousands of Japanese citizens homeless. Shigeru had great compassion for his traumatized fellowmen, and believed that the lack of privacy in the evacuation centers was only making the situation worse. Summing up enough courage, he approached the government of Kobe to propose his idea of fashioning cubicles with curtain walls for families so they could at least have some semblance of privacy. The authorities’ response was not so encouraging; they were worried that it would make managing evacuees more difficult. Shigeru then began approaching NGOs to build what he had in mind, free-of-charge, to prove to the government that it could work. He was able to convince them eventually, and the “Houses with Curtain Walls” were born.
He also helped the Vietnamese community rebuild their Catholic church after a fire ravished many homes in the area. And, since the priest was not so keen on using paper after what had happened, Shigeru had to do it with his own funding. “The Paper Church” [Takatori Catholic Church in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan] stood there for many years, but was then demolished and moved to Taiwan where it remains today.
His break as an international designer came when he won a competition which granted him the honor to build the “Musée d'art Moderne Georges” in Pompidou, Metz, France. Despite the success of his paper structure, he was far from happy:
"But then I was very disappointed at my profession as an architect, because we are not helping, we are not working for society, but we are working for privileged people, rich people, government, developers. They have money and power. Those are invisible. So they hire us to visualize their power and money by making monumental architecture. That is our profession, even historically it's the same, even now we are doing the same. So I was very disappointed that we are not working for society, even though there are so many people who lost their houses by natural disasters. But I must say they are no longer natural disasters. For example, earthquakes never kill people, but collapse of the buildings kill people. That's the responsibility of architects. Then people need some temporary housing, but there are no architects working there because we are too busy working for privileged people. So I thought, even as architects, we can be involved in the reconstruction of temporary housing. We can make it better. So that is why I started working in disaster areas." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
When the genocide in Rwanda caused thousands of people to become homeless, an imminent deforestation threat also arose; the people were cutting down trees for timber to help build new homes. When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave out aluminum to discourage people from cutting trees, profit was certainly made from the material. Once the aluminum was gone, however, the people returned to deforestation. Shigeru’s solution was to use his cardboard tubes to provide temporary roofs over their heads.
He also built paper houses in Japan, using beer crates as the foundation; this enabled recycling and easier dismantling. Other works by Shigeru were: the villa designs “Maison S” and “Maison H” on an exclusive private island, the Japanese Pavilion in Germany, the Nomadic Museum and the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand.
He founded the “Voluntary Architects' Network” (VAN) so he could work in disaster areas even if his desire to help was met with skepticism. Shigeru always found a way to insist his help – even if he had to break some rules! He believes that refugees and evacuees deserve better after going through near-death disasters; building them homes is the least he can do. True to his architectonic poetic background, he believes that there’s no such thing as temporary or permanent structure:
"... There is no difference between permanent structures and temporary structures; it's all the same for me. Even a temporary structure has to be safe; you have to make sure it can become permanent if it stands for longer than expected—it depends on the function of the project and also whether people love the building or not. For example, even a concrete building or a steel building can be temporary." (SOURCE: National Building Museum)
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Voluntary Architects' Network (VAN)
- Shigeru Ban Architects
- Kyoto University of Art and Design
- Tama Art University
- Yokohama National University
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- Nihon University
- Columbia University
- Donald Keen Center at Columbia University
- Keio University
- American Institute of Architects
- Harvard University Graduate School of Design
- Cornell University
Awards and Achievements
- 1980: Completed his degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture
- 1980-1982: Attended Cooper Union School of Architecture
- 1982-1983: Worked for Arata Isozaki, Tokyo, Japan
- 1984: Received Bachelor of Architecture from Cooper Union School of Architecture
- 1985: Started private practice in Tokyo, Japan
- 1986: Started testing paper tubes as building material for the Alvar Aalto Exhibition
- 1990: Built the first temporary building made out of paper
- 1993-1995: Served as Adjunct Professor of Architecture at Tama Art University
- 1995: Built the Curtain Wall House at Itabashi in Tokyo, Japan
- 1995: Founded the Voluntary Architects' Network (VAN)
- 1995-1999: Served as Adjunct Professor of Architecture at Yokohama National University
- 1995-2000: Served as Consultant of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- 1996-2000: Served as Adjunct Professor of Architecture at Nihon University
- 2000: Asked to design a building for an expo in Germany called the “Japanese Pavilion”
- 2000: Built the Naked House at Kawagoe, Saitama prefecture, Japan, and became a Visiting Professor of Columbia University and a Visiting Fellow of the Donald Keen Center at Columbia University
- 2001-2008: Served as Professor of Keio University
- 2002: Received a “World Architecture Award for Best House in the World” for the Naked House
- 2004: Became an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects
- 2005: Won the 40th annual “Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture” from the University of Virginia
- 2005: Built the Nomadic Museum
- 2006: Became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada
- 2006-2009: Served on Jury of Pritzker Architecture
- 2009: Won the “Architectural Institute of Japan Prize”
- 2010: Served as Visiting Professor of Harvard University Graduate School of Design
- 2010: Received “l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” in France
- 2010: Served as Visiting Professor of Cornell University
- 2011: Received the “Auguste Perret Prize”
- 2011: Began serving as Professor of Kyoto University of Art and Design
- 2012: Built the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand
- 2012: Received the “Mainichi Art Prize”
- 2012: Received “Art Prize” from the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs
- Won the competition to build the second Pompidou Center in France
- Founded “Shigeru Ban Architects”
- Profiled by TIME Magazine in its projection of 21st century innovators in architecture and design
- The first architect in Japan to construct a building primarily out of paper
- Built the Takatori Catholic Church, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
- Built the “Musée d'art Moderne Georges” in Pompidou, Metz, France
- Built the villa designs “Maison S” and “Maison H” on an exclusive private island, Mandarin Oriental Dellis Cay
- 2005: Doctor of Humane Letters, Amherst College
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate, Technical University of Munich
TED Talks (Shigeru Ban: Emergency shelters made from paper)
TED (Shigeru Ban: Architect)
TED Blog (Buildings made from cardboard tubes: A gallery of Shigeru Ban architecture)
Wikipedia (Shigeru Ban)
Shigeru Ban Architects (Shigeru Ban Profile)
Time (He Builds with a Really Tough Material: Paper)
The Huffington Post (Cardboard Cathedral By Shigeru Ban Opens After Years-Long Delay)
Stories of Houses (The Naked House in Kawagoe, by Shigeru Ban)
Naked Houses (Interview with Shigeru Ban)
Designboom (Shigeru Ban:Designboom Interview)
The Reflective Studio (Shigeru Ban’s Belief in Eco-friendly Materials)
Toto (Shigeru Ban)
The Japan Times (Shigeru Ban: ‘People’s architect’ combines permanence and paper)
National Building Museum (The Art of Building Lightly)
The New Yorker (Shigeru Ban: Shelter from the Storm)