The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban operates in two very different worlds. Ban became known for his simple refugee accommodations in almost all crisis zones of the world. At the same time, he was designing monumental buildings for Shiseido and Swatch, as well as the Aspen Art Museum and the Pompidou Centre in Metz.
When Shigeru Ban was awarded the renowned Pritzker Prize in 2014, the jury praised him for his creative use of construction materials. Ban utilizes bamboo, paper or plastics in unconventional ways and combines them into extraordinary design. His projects stand out for their experimental approach – whether it concerns emergency accommodation or a new residential tower block in New York, each Ban design is the result of research, prototyping and testing.
Ban is famous for the economy and ingenuity of his work, rather than for the style of his buildings. “My designs are always problem-solving,” says Ban of his projects. He puts the utility of his buildings before their styling. Ban’s approach to design stands in stark contrast to the works of star architects like Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. Toyo Ito, another Japanese Pritzker winner, compares Ban to other prevalent architects of our time: “Many architects only compete with regard to the beauty of the architectural style. Ban represents the new model of a socially-responsible architect.”
“In response to urgent challenges, he has expanded the role of the profession,” explained the Pritzker jury in their assessment. The jury thus honoured Ban’s humanitarian work, starting in 1994 with the conflict in Rwanda, for which he designed refugee shelters.
Recyclable accommodations and churches after earthquakes, tsunami and hurricanes
The following year, Ban developed the “Paper Log House” for the victims of the Kobe earthquake. In that same year, he founded the Voluntary Architects Network in order, together with indigenous people and students, to build worthwhile, cost-efficient and recyclable accommodations for the victims of earthquakes, tsunami, tropical storms and war in numerous regions of the world.
According to Ban, nature is not so much to blame for catastrophe, but rather mankind itself. “Earthquakes never kill people, but collapse of the buildings kill people,” Ban said at the 2013 TEDx conference in Tokyo (see video below). “So, the responsibility is with the architects.” However, architects are “too busy working for the privileged, people with money and power,” declared Ban in Tokyo. “They hire us to visualize their power and money by making monumental architecture.” Ban divides his time between lucrative projects and voluntary work in crisis regions – i.e. for those with power and means and for others for whom architecture represents a means of survival.
Ban’s emergency accommodations might seem temporary. This fulfils an important requirement of the local administrations in the refugee zones, because they try to avoid having permanent accommodations in their regions. “Ban’s work with paper and cardboard creates an aesthetic of temporariness,” explains Alexander Betts, a professor at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. In truth, Ban’s structures are so well-favoured that they still remain in existence years after the earthquake – for example the two churches built out of paper and pasteboard in Taomi, Taiwan and Christchurch, New Zealand.
Ban’s pro bono work also assists in his acquisition of more lucrative projects. According to Heidi Jacobson, Director of the Aspen Art Museum, Ban’s social engagement was a decisive factor in commissioning him for the new building of the museum: “Everyone was so taken by the humanitarian work, because people here are so philanthropic,” Jacobson explained. The opening exhibition was accordingly named “Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture”.
Alongside his humanitarian work, Ban was also able to test materials and structural systems that would not be permissible outside of catastrophe zones. In the year 2000, Ban was able to apply the experience he has accrued in using unconventional construction materials for his refugee accommodations – for the Japan Pavilion at the Hanover Expo, for which “the environment” was the central theme. In collaboration with the German architect and engineer Frei Otto, he designed the virtually entirely recyclable exhibition hall, made out of paper tubes, wooden ladders and sand-filled steel foundations.
Most famous of Ban’s buildings is the Pompidou Centre in Metz, which was opened in May 2010 by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The city of Metz was keen to create a new landmark, along the lines of the Spanish city Bilbao, where the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, attracts over a million visitors annually. “The Mayor was looking for a monumental building to promote tourism,” explains Ban (quote from “Paper Palaces” by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker, August 3, 2014). Inspired by the airy bamboo webbing of a Chinaman’s Hat, Ban created a complex hexagonal wood-lattice mantle and covered it with membranes. Unlike Gehry with the Guggenheim Museum, Ban put the utilization of the building to the forefront: “I felt the building had to be architecturally interesting but also very practical.” In its first four years, the museum attracted 2.2 million visitors, whilst the building had almost paid for itself already in its first year.
Sustainability as a central element in building design
The Centre Pompidou has a highly complex structure, from an engineering point of view, for which Ban made use of wood, an inherently renewable material. In his project, Ban makes use of products and materials that are in harmony with the environment, whereby renewable and locally-produced materials are used as far as possible. A further example of sustainable architecture is the Tamedia office building in Zurich. Ban designed the seven-storey headquarters of the Swiss media corporation entirely in wood. The interlocking wooden beams could be installed using no fasteners or adhesives whatsoever.
Also, for the concert hall “Seine Musicale” in Paris-Boulogne, Ban designed a complex structure. This comprises over 3000 parts made of spruce, having 2800 different intersection points. Outside of the building, there is a 45 m high metal sail, fitted out with 800 m² of photovoltaic cells. It travels along a 100-metre-long rail and produces electric power, whilst simultaneously shading the glass façade from direct solar irradiation, which enhances thermal comfort within the building and reduces the cooling load in the summertime.
On the 28th October 2019 Shigeru Ban will deliver the keynote address at the Conference on Advanced Building Skins.
You can download the program here: Advanced Building Skins – Conference Program 2019
Article courtesy of Advanced Building Skins