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Shigeru Ban Is Changing the Priorities of Architecture

By Nikil Saval

Shigeru Ban, photographed on July 17, 2019, in Tokyo.
Nobuyoshi Araki
Shigeru Ban, photographed on July 17, 2019, in Tokyo.

Writing about Shigeru Ban is unlike writing about nearly any other living architect, in the sense that most of his important work cannot be seen or experienced in person. This is not to say that it is hidden or out of the way. He has, like many architects, designed a panoply of private homes, many of them unusual and innovative. He’s built a prefab plywood hotel in the Japanese ski town of Karuizawa; a new Centre Pompidou in Metz, France, (created in partnership with Jean de Gastines and crowned by a roof intended to resemble a Chinese bamboo-woven hat); and a museum in Aspen, Colorado, its curtain wall fronted by a resin-pressed cardboard lattice screen. His recent Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Shizuoka is an inverted cone half-contained within a glass box capped by a flat roof: a building that is in some sense pure image, and a commanding presence in this sleepy town at the foot of Japan’s most recognizable symbol. But seen against the full spectrum of Ban’s projects, this “normal” architectural output is unusual, for his significant work is temporary — made to disappear when the clients for whom the work is created no longer need it. Those clients are victims of disaster.

Ban, a designer of houses and visitors’ centres and condominiums and towers, is perhaps more famous as a designer of emergency shelters, for people suffering from earthquakes and floods, for people escaping violence and genocide. For them, he has employed a signature material — recycled paper tubes of variable length and thickness. These are available all over the world: You find a smaller version of them at the centre of a toilet paper or paper towel roll. Not only are they abundant, they are structurally sound and can serve as the basis for a shelter, a house or even a church. Ban has built all of these — for refugees from the Rwandan genocide in 1994; for victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan; and for himself, in 1995, a weekend house at the foot of Mount Fuji. The latter was made to test the paper tubes and acquire government approval for their deployment as a structural building material in Japan. Their success meant that he could use them for constructing a paper-tube church in Kobe, which has since been removed and reconstructed in Taiwan. But he has hardly ever spent time in his vacation home. “I have no weekends,” he said in an interview last spring at his Tokyo office, “so the house is not used at all.”

In person, Ban displays considerable self-possession, rarely moving from his seat except to flip hurriedly through pages of a catalogue to illustrate a point, and his practice in speaking about his work means that he anticipates questions and answers them efficiently, with an occasional touch of impatience. Invariably dressed in all black, he is box-shouldered and stocky — lingering evidence of his youthful rugby-playing days — and his recognizable cone of hair has thinned. Now in his early 60s, he finds himself at once the most recognized and laureled humanitarian architect of this era — he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014 — but also beset by rivals who seem to have belatedly taken up his mission to direct their architecture toward the world’s most vulnerable populations. Ban’s work is rooted in empathy and charity, but it reflects a volatile world, and his most important structures require disaster and death in order to exist. 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. And yet, Ban’s success also marks a possible shift in the field of architecture as a politicized endeavour, a kind of solution (if a temporary one) to unavoidable crisis. 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. He spoke of contemporaries whose sudden interest in sustainable materials was “fashionable.” He himself considers “sustainability” an empty buzzword; he is simply concerned about waste, he says — with a sort of disdain that makes him seem like the hipster of humanitarian architecture. I was into this stuff, Ban seems to say, before it was cool.

But he also expressed pleasure about the growing number of students at architecture programs around the world who seemed interested in doing work that had public benefit. This was a change that had the power to reshape the profession at a time when it might be desperately needed. He remained at once sanguine and grim. “We think more problems are coming,” he said. “I need to solve them one by one. I’m sure these natural disasters will continue happening. There’s no solution.”

Clockwise from top left: Hiroyuki Hirai (2); Michael Moran/OttoClockwise from top left: Ban’s Naked House (2000), constructed in Kawagoe for a family of five to live in a more or less open space with limited privacy; the Glass Shutter House (2003), located in a Tokyo neighbourhood of three-story buildings with shutters on their facades, which inspired the design; the Furniture House 5 (2006), in Sagaponac, New York.
Clockwise from top left: Ban’s Naked House (2000), constructed in Kawagoe for a family of five to live in a more or less open space with limited privacy; the Glass Shutter House (2003), located in a Tokyo neighbourhood of three-story buildings with shutters on their facades, which inspired the design; the Furniture House 5 (2006), in Sagaponac, New York.

Because of the somewhat hermetic nature of Japanese traditional architecture, which was shielded from global influences for centuries, as well as longstanding debates among modern Japanese architects about what is and isn’t “Japanese” in their architecture, it is common to try to situate contemporary Japanese architects within some specifically Japanese lineage. A problematic gesture under any circumstance, it is also an inadequate way to understand the work of Ban, and it is an interpretation that he rejects. “I never studied architecture here,” he said, referring to Japan, “and I grew up in Tokyo in a nontraditional building.” The spirit of his architecture is international. Of course, there are many varieties of internationalism in architecture, most of them venal and repulsive. Plenty of architects are wealthy jet-setters who plop down signature buildings around the world regardless of context.

But Ban’s is an alternative International Style. Though Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were the principal figures in his early architectural education, it is nonetheless a different, more motley group of figures — Alvar AaltoBuckminster Fuller and Frei Otto, as well as the architects of Southern California’s Case Study Houses, begun in the 1940s — whose impression is most palpable in his work. Unless it is a paper-tube shelter — his only signature — a building by Ban is not obviously his in the way that ribbons of aluminum glinting in the sunlight will immediately signify Frank Gehry. With every new structure, he seems to be trying out a new version of himself.

Ban’s early life was surrounded by carpentry. His parents’ home in Tokyo was made of wood, which itself was not so strange, but renovations to the house were constant. His mother, a fashion designer, regularly enlarged the house to accommodate her seamstresses; his father worked for Toyota. Ban observed the carpenters moving in and out of his house. “I ended up watching what they do with beautiful tools, and I enjoyed the smell of wood,” he said. Not knowing that there was even such a profession as architecture, he wanted to be a carpenter. It was in art class in middle school, where he was tasked with making a basic model of a house, that he discovered his talent and love for architecture. By chance, he stumbled upon a magazine article about the work of John Hejduk — the dean of the architecture school at Cooper Union in New York from 1975 until his death, in 2000 — and the extraordinary group of figures he had assembled there, including the architects Peter EisenmanRicardo Scofidio and Bernard Tschumi. Ban decided that he wanted to study at Cooper Union, but they didn’t accept applications from non-United States residents, so he obtained a visa and moved to California to study English. He also looked at architecture schools throughout the state. Eschewing a traditional large institution like University of California, Berkeley or U.C.L.A., he ended up enrolling at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc, a new school where then iconoclastic architects like Gehry and Thom Mayne were teaching.

Benjamin HoskingBan’s 2015 Solid Cedar House, located in the mountain town of Hokuto, in central Japan. The house’s minimalist touches were inspired by Mies van der Rohe.
Ban’s 2015 Solid Cedar House, located in the mountain town of Hokuto, in central Japan. The house’s minimalist touches were inspired by Mies van der Rohe.

SCI-Arc was housed in a repurposed factory building in Santa Monica; studio spaces were built by the students themselves using scaffolding. Created in 1972, its co-founder and first director, Ray Kappe, envisioned “an autonomous self-governing institution based upon the premise that the 200 students and 25 faculty members work together to determine its academic direction.” The net result was an extremely open environment in which there were no letter grades, debate was frequent and constant and, as the British architect Peter Cook wrote, one had “to listen hard to tell which is Master or Pupil.”

What Ban drew upon most was the inheritance of California Modernism that animated the school and punctuated the city’s landscape. He was most impressed by the Case Study Houses, a famous series of numbered experiments in prefabricated single-family housing — 36 in all, though not all were built — initiated in 1945 around Los Angeles by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and Ray and Charles Eames were among the homes’ designers. These were attempts to expand upon the ideas embodied in early Modernist homes, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, which had opened up living quarters and dissolved boundaries between rooms and also the exterior landscape. It was through the Case Study Houses that Ban discovered traditional Japanese architecture. “My Japanese influence was made through Case Study Houses by accident,” he said. “Case Study Houses have many Japanese influences: for example, the connecting inside and out, like a Japanese traditional house, and also the way to use the materials, and also the post-and-beam structure. There were many innovative ways of using materials. That really amazed me, and really made my architecture experience in California.”

It was also in California that Ban learned about the work of Fuller, the still-uncategorizable self-taught genius of 20th-century American design. At SCI-Arc, Ban and other students were instructed to create a geodesic dome, the classic elemental sphere of interlocking triangles that Fuller pioneered in the 1950s, which then made its imprint all over the world, from hippie communes to Disney’s Epcot Center. Fuller believed that the dome would be a solution to the global housing crisis, an inexpensive and intuitive structure that could be assembled with a minimum of materials. For Ban, the impressive fact was Fuller’s relentless quest to find a new kind of structure and his total resistance to stylistic trends. Speaking of Fuller and the German architect Frei Otto, who created light, membrane-like roof structures in the 1960s, he said, “They were developing material and structure to create their own architecture without being influenced by the popular style of the day.” It is not hard to hear in Ban’s words an attempt to find a description that suits him as well.

For a world-renowned architect, Ban has a quiet personal life. He and his wife, a jewellery and handbag designer, have no children. He maintains a demure, fairly nondescript three-story office building on a side street in Setagaya, Tokyo, with around 40 employees. The surrounding neighbourhood, where a number of Ban’s works can be found (the office will give you a guided map), illustrates the exceptional diversity of Japanese single-family housing, each building different from the next. One of Ban’s early buildings, the Hanegi Forest apartments (1997), gives the impression of a glass brick apparition in the woods, hoisted on thin pilotis, surrounded by trees, its entrances shielded by one- and two-way mirrors. Nearby, a 2006 building, Atelier for a Glass Artist, couldn’t be more different, with its decisively simple steel angle-shelf system as the core structure, its blue steel frame and its charming porthole window above the main entrance, giving the whole thing the feel of a postmodern barn. Traipsing from house to house, you get the sense not of a unifying style but of an architect in promiscuous search of new means to realize his ends.

After transferring to Cooper Union in 1980, Ban soon found himself in a more rigorous but also more combative environment. He studied with Eisenman; the two did not get along. Ban said Eisenman told him his name was “too complicated to remember,” so he called him “Sugar Bear” instead. He also recalled Eisenman saying things to the effect of, “Because you’re Japanese, you cannot understand this theory, and that’s why you are doing totally different things.” (Eisenman confirmed the nickname, though he claimed it was affectionate. Of the subsequent statement, he said, “That’s not the way I would have said it; I might have said, ‘Because you’re Japanese, you cannot understand Western ideology or Western theory’ — just as it’s difficult for Western students to understand a Japanese idea called ma — that’s really what I meant.”) In a class on the concept of grafting, in which the task was to combine two different architectural styles, Ban repeatedly brought in work that, he said, Eisenman did not appreciate or understand. Ban also had an altercation with another professor. This professor (whom Ban declined to name) and Eisenman decided that they would not accept Ban’s thesis, and he would have to redo his project. (Eisenman said that two voices alone on the committee could not have failed Ban, and that it was more likely under the purview of the dean, Hejduk, who “ruled the school with an iron hand.”) Completely dispirited by the situation at Cooper Union, Ban took a year off from school in 1982, at which point he returned to Japan to intern with the stylistically mercurial Arata Isozaki, who tempered heroic gestures in his architecture with references to the bombing of Japanese cities in World War II, and who would go on to win the Pritzker Prize himself in 2019.

Clockwise from top left: Emma Smales/View; Afyen Hsin-Chu; Takanobu Sakuma; Hufton+Crow/ViewClockwise from top left: Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral (2013) in Christchurch, New Zealand, which replaced another cathedral damaged by a 2011 earthquake; the Paper Church, a design that originated in Japan after the 1995 earthquake and moved to Taiwan in 2008; the Paper Log Houses, temporary housing in Kobe, Japan, created after the 1995 earthquake that left many residents homeless; his Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010), in France.
Clockwise from top left: Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral (2013) in Christchurch, New Zealand, which replaced another cathedral damaged by a 2011 earthquake; the Paper Church, a design that originated in Japan after the 1995 earthquake and moved to Taiwan in 2008; the Paper Log Houses, temporary housing in Kobe, Japan, created after the 1995 earthquake that left many residents homeless; his Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010), in France.
Clockwise from left: Hiroyuki Hirai; Michael Moran/Otto; Hiroyuki HiraiClockwise from left: Ban’s Curtain Wall House (1995), in Tokyo; his Aspen Art Museum (2014); the Paper House (1995), Ban’s weekend retreat near Mount Fuji.
Clockwise from left: Ban’s Curtain Wall House (1995), in Tokyo; his Aspen Art Museum (2014); the Paper House (1995), Ban’s weekend retreat near Mount Fuji.

Ban’s purpose in returning to Japan was to reacquaint himself with the country from which he had been away for several years. “Working for Isozaki one year was not only learning architecture but understanding Japanese society,” he said. Somewhat ironically, he was also impressed by Isozaki’s commitment to working outside Japan — to being an international figure, not limited by the strictures or modes of Japanese architecture. After graduating from Cooper Union in 1984, Ban returned once again to Japan. He worked part-time as a gallery curator while also designing his first building — an atelier for his mother that he later converted into the headquarters for his architectural practice. He also began working for the photographer Yukio Futagawa, the founder of the Japanese magazine Global Architecture, more commonly referred to as GA. It was under the auspices of this job that he first travelled to Finland, where he came across the midcentury work of Alvar Aalto, an experience that seems to have been life-changing. It was not something he had been prepared for. “While I was studying in Cooper Union, I was not interested in Alvar Aalto at all,” he said. “The attitude of Cooper Union was more toward so-called International architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe; Alvar Aalto was not well respected.” Aalto’s work, like 1939’s Villa Mairea in the Finnish countryside, an L-shaped retreat that is also a monument to and celebration of the birch trees in the surrounding forest, depended on the sensual experience of common materials, especially wood. Ban learned about Aalto from books, which made his stature difficult to comprehend. You can understand some architects’ work through pictures, but Aalto’s needed to be experienced: “His work is about context — the environment, the local community, the cultural background,” Ban told Design Build Network in 2007. “He proves that you can design unique, sculptural buildings that clients will want and still be in context, that you can reflect the surroundings, use natural materials such as wood and brick and experiment with new methods of design.”

In 1986, he was commissioned by Axis Gallery in Tokyo to design an exhibition about Aalto, for which he wanted to recreate Aalto’s bentwood designs. The wood was too expensive, so instead Ban created undulating partition walls of paper tubes. Paper had been a kind of recurring motif throughout his development: He had applied to the Tokyo University of Arts in high school, where he was not accepted, by making paper structural models and drawings. At SCI-Arc, paper became a touchstone material because it was cheap and easy to source. At the gallery, paper tubes were used to prop up display cases, and Ban suspected he could get more use out of them. There was nothing special about the material at all — it was not so much developed in any scientific method as willed into existence, made from recycled materials, fire- and waterproofed, if need be, and then recycled again once it was no longer in use — and yet its banality is what made Ban’s use of the material so remarkable.

I visited Ban’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Center on an early summer day that was so heavy with rain that I was unable to see the otherwise unmissable mountain itself. (“In the misty rain Mount Fuji is veiled all day,” Matsuo Basho wrote, in a famous 17th-century haiku. “How intriguing!”) To compare this work to Ban’s other proclivities and inclinations is to feel something jarring. The large upside-down “mountain” at the centre of the structure is a very clear reference of the sort that is otherwise unknown in Ban’s work, since he rigorously avoids the monumentality and symbolism that is typical of contemporary architecture. But in the cypress-wood latticework that covers the cone, you see a descendant of Fuller’s structural emphasis as well as the alternative Modernist preference for sensuous material.

Ban’s houses are usually neglected by critics in favour of his shelter architecture, but each of them represents a version of his ongoing experiment with removing and adding various elements that historically have been considered essential to a structure. In 1995, he created a Curtain Wall House in Tokyo, which is quite literally wrapped in an enormous curtain hung from its roof. Meanwhile, his 1997 Wall-less House is a box on a sloping site in Nagano that dispenses with most of the mullions and walls, using sliding panels to separate the rooms, creating an extreme version of the open floor-plan. Ban called these “my Case Study Houses.” “I wanted to create something experimental,” he said. “Wall-less House, Curtain Wall House, Paper House — every house I built in that period has a different theme.”

Benjamin HoskingBan’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Shizuoka, which opened to the public in 2017. The structure resembles an upside-down mountain, and its most visible material is local cypress.
Ban’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Center in Shizuoka, which opened to the public in 2017. The structure resembles an upside-down mountain, and its most visible material is local cypress.

His move to create shelter architecture came out of seeing the temporary structures offered to Rwandan refugees in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1994. At the time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was handing out plastic tarps and aluminium poles to hold them up, but many people were instead selling the aluminium and harvesting nearby wood to frame their tents, contributing to massive deforestation. Ban wrote to the U.N.H.C.R. several times before flying to Geneva. There, he encountered the organization’s senior physical planner, Wolfgang Neumann, who became interested in Ban’s idea of using recycled paper tubes to build shelters. Ban was hired as a consultant and the concept was later implemented at a camp in northern Rwanda. The first time Ban used paper tubes for a disaster relief project was in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, where a series of small houses — about 170 square feet each — were constructed for victims of an earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. As is typical for Ban’s humanitarian projects, each shelter cost less than $2,000 and took a single day to construct; according to Ban, about 30 were built over the span of a few weeks, mostly by volunteers. These shelters remained in Kobe for about a year, after which they were dismantled and recycled. But a church and community centre in the city, also designed by Ban and built out of recycled paper, stood for 10 years, a testament to the durability of his work. He has also used shipping containers to build thousands of small housing units in Onagawa, on Japan’s northeast coast, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there, and beer crates weighted with sandbags have occasionally served as the foundation for his Paper Log Houses (including in Kobe), illustrating Ban’s commitment to relying on “local materials” in the most expansive sense: whatever is cheap and locally available that won’t result in waste. These structures are off-the-cuff, constructed quickly by staff members of the Voluntary Architects Network, a nongovernmental organization founded by Ban in 1995, along with the help of local students and volunteers. Initially, he was able to pay for them through donations and his own earnings; some of his relief projects now receive public funding. But he often uses his expensive commissions to test out ideas for his aid work, toying with cheap materials in structures for the rich so he can use them later to help those who have lost everything. In this way, his career presents an argument that paper and other cheap, sustainable, recyclable materials are no less durable than the more conventional tools of the architect, and are in fact as appropriate in the facade of a museum or weekend home as they are in a shelter for the displaced. It is in one sense a political gesture, a democratic levelling of class and finance and other subtexts that haunt every architect — but of course, these materials have also become a brand. “Developing a material and structure was important to me, to make my own style,” he said. As we spoke in his office, we were sitting on chairs with seats and backing made of paper tubes.

Nobuyoshi ArakiThe architect Shigeru Ban.
The architect Shigeru Ban.

Ban is not given to displays of pity or indignation; he usually explains his humanitarian efforts by citing his horror at waste rather than some charitable impulse. It is an austere, utilitarian front for the architect to present, considering that, at the moment, he is trying to expand his humanitarian efforts beyond temporary structures and has just begun working with the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to develop housing for its new capital, Amaravati — multistory units for which paper tubes would not likely be appropriate (he has instead been considering fibreglass foam-core panels). But disasters will continue to preoccupy him. He spoke of doing larger urban-scale planning, preparing cities for disaster relief. More earthquakes, certainly in Japan, are likely, to say nothing of climate-change induced nightmares. “This moment, the beginning of the 21st century, is a big moment to change the direction — toward sustainability and disaster relief,” he said. “This will continue as the main theme of this century.” Times had changed since the Modernist era: “Those times, people believed that they would have utopia some day. But we know that it’s not true. There’s no utopia.”

It was the rare idée reçue in Ban’s otherwise searching manner of speaking: that the Modernist quest for utopia is over, and we now live in fallen, or at least more sober, times. That was a commonplace I didn’t need to travel to Japan to hear. Nor did it seem true — not of Ban’s work, nor of the growing political conviction around the world about fighting against the very tragedies to which Ban has spent years responding. In addition to the architects, partly inspired by Ban, discovering, or rediscovering, their sense of social responsibility, we are regularly reminded, whether through the demolition of yet another Brutalist social-housing project or through a new exhibition on the architecture of the former Yugoslavia, that it was not too long ago that entire societies, and their architects and planners, committed themselves to climbing out of the most devastating wars, and to providing for their labouring, needy and vulnerable populations. Though he continued to build “normal” buildings, Ban had at some point recognized the non-normal conditions so many lived in and committed himself, at least partly, to a different cause; what remains to be seen is how many can be convinced to do the same — or even more. In one section of the Mount Fuji World Heritage Center, a sign reminds tourists that the mountain is a still-active volcano. This was, I realized later on, a threat — but it was also a promise.