The Materials of Shigeru Ban

On March 24 Chicago's Pritzker family announced that Shigeru Ban is the recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize, what is considered the profession's highest honor. The official announcement acknowledges how the 56-year-old architect with offices in Tokyo, Paris and New York "uses the same inventive and resourceful design approach for his extensive humanitarian efforts" as he does in work for private clients. Much of the press around the award has focused on Ban's disaster relief shelters and the fact most of them are made from paper tubes. This material innovation extends to all aspects of Ban's buildings, be it temporary shelters, other structures built with paper tubes, complex wood structures, and buildings made from prefabricated components or modern materials like glass. Below we highlight these material strands in Ban's oeuvre to get a strong grasp on how his design sense permeates all types of buildings.
All photos courtesy of Shigeru Ban Architects 
Shigeru Ban's award comes exactly 30 years after he returned to Japan upon graduating from The Cooper Union in New York City, then led by John Hejduk, one of his main influences. In 1985, one year after his return to Japan, he designed and built screens for an exhibition on architect Emilio Ambasz at the Axis Gallery in Tokyo. The screens utilized square paper tubes as supports for translucent honeycomb panels. While the tubes served an important yet aesthetically diminished role in the exhibition, one year later they became the primary means of expression and the start of Ban's "paper architecture" when the cardboard tubes were used for ceiling panels, partitions and display stands in an exhibition on the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Budget constraints and the recyclability of the tubes were the main justification for the tubes, and these have since become the main arguments in Ban's widespread use of the materials.

The architect was not content in limiting the role of paper to exhibitions and, subsequently, furniture. So in the ensuing years Ban extensively tested cardboard tubes – the type used to form concrete columns, oversized versions of what we find in the middle of rolls of toilet paper and paper towels – to determine their feasibility in architectural applications. For the 1989 World Design Expo in Nagoya, Ban designed a cylindrical Paper Arbor built from a series of tubes mounted on a concrete base and topped by a roof with a compression ring. The tubes were coated with paraffin wax and strengthened with glue. After dismantling the structure the tubes were tested, and to the architect's delight their compressive strength actually increased. Since the construction of the arbor, Ban has realized dozens of structures with paper tubes, many of which can be categorized as long-span structures and his now famous disaster relief projects.

Paper tubes (long-span):
The paper tube projects that immediately followed the Paper Arbor treated the material as vertical elements – columns and walls. But in 1998 Ban finished an arched enclosure for a contractor to store his materials, a design that greatly expanded the architectural and structural potential of the paper tubes. Two years later Ban collaborated with German architect/engineer Frei Otto (another one of Ban's main influences) on an even more daring and highly visible long-span structure for the Japan Pavilion Expo 2000 Hannover. Addressing the Expo theme "Man, Nature, Technology" by using materials that could be easily reused or recycled after the five-month exhibition period, Ban and Otto developed a lattice-like structure of paper tubes more than 35 meters long that were erected in the horizontal position and then jacked up into the resulting billowy form. A secondary wood-arch structure above the tubes held the roof membrane and provided secondary support for the tubes.

The same year Ban realized a similar arching, latticed canopy over part of the Abby Aldrich Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Paper Arch MoMA, carried out with Dean Maltz Architect, was a porous cover, and it benefited from this by using cardboard for the lateral arches, not wood like in Hannover. Subsidiary steel wire and plastic ties were the only departure from cardboard, making Ban call this temporary installation "pure paper architecture." Executed shortly before MoMA closed for its Yoshio Taniguchi expansion, the paper arch recalled another of Ban's heroes, R. Buckminster Fuller, who actually installed three structures on the site in 1960.

The most recent paper tube long-span structure is the Cardboard Cathedral, a temporary replacement for the Christchurch Cathedral that was damaged in the 2011 earthquake that hit New Zealand. Completed last year, the church is built from two rows of 2-foot-diameter, concrete-filled tubes in an A-frame structure lifted upon shipping containers. While not as structurally daring as the arch and dome structures in Germany and New York, the leaning tubes nevertheless create a soaring space that is appropriate to its function. Like the Paper Church in Kobe, below, the Cardboard Cathedral is envisioned as temporary, but it may last longer thanks to the appreciation it has garnered from locals since opening.

Paper tubes (disaster relief):
Ban's first relief structures were prototypes for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in response to the millions of Rwandans fleeing Tanzania and Zaire in 1995. In order to curb the deforestation that followed from refugees obtaining wood to frame the plastic sheets given out by the UNHCR, Ban proposed an assembly of paper tubes, plastic connectors and bracing rope, similar to the Paper Emergency Shelter for Haiti shown above. While only 50 shelters were constructed in association with Doctors without Borders between 1995 and 1999, the experience readied Ban for more disaster relief, most notably in his country of origin.

In response to the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake near Kobe, Japan, in 1995, Ban designed Paper Log Houses that primarily served Vietnamese refugees in the area. The same year he also started, with architect Koh Kitayama, the Voluntary Architects' Network, which unites and enables architects that likewise want to respond in times of need. For the Paper Log Houses, paper tubes that served as structure and walls sat atop empty beer crates weighed down by sandbags; a waterproof sponge tape filled the gap between tubes to make the walls watertight. A canvas roof protected the interior and the tops of the walls from the elements, while illuminating the space during the day. Ban modified the design of these houses when earthquakes hit Turkey (2000) and India (2001).

The structures in Kobe, which cost about $2,000 each at the time, were partially built in the nearby Paper Church before being carted to the site. The Takatori Church was destroyed in a fire caused by the earthquake, so Ban designed a temporary home of cardboard and polycarbonate panels for the congregation of Vietnamese refugees, many of them living in his shelters. Like the houses, the tubes define the walls – here in an elliptical shape inside the rectangular footprint formed by the translucent and operable panels – and is capped by a fabric roof. The church stood for 10 years – 7 years longer than planned – after which Ban designed its successor, which retains the elliptical shape and the conical form of the roof.

The most recent disaster relief structures in cardboard saw Ban move indoors, specifically to gymnasiums after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit eastern Japan. The Paper Partition System aimed to give evacuees some means of privacy in the communal conditions they were forced to endure for months afterward. Paper tube frames demarcated an area for an individual, couple or family, while curtains allowed that space to be closed off from its neighbors.

Timber (structures):
Even though Ban has made a name for himself through his untiring advocacy of paper in architecture, his designs are not limited to one material alone. Just as the disaster relief housing was modified depending on what materials and skills were available locally, each commission becomes a synthesis of form and material. Many of Ban's recent high-profile projects happen to be structured out of wood, although he first used wood as surface and structure in I House in Tokyo back in 1991.

While I House used plywood sheets as lining and structure, projects like the Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Club House in South Korea and Centre Pompidou-Metz in France found the expressive potential in wood. The branch of the Pompidou in Metz consisted of an undulating roof of Teflon-coated fiberglass atop a woven structure of laminated wood. The woven structure created a hexagonal pattern visible from below. In the clubhouse, carried out with KACI International, timber was used for three-story columns that melded into a lattice-like ceiling below a roof punched with oculi. Due to building codes in South Korea that restrict timber buildings to 6,000 square meters, the 16,000-square-meter project was only partially framed in timber.

For the construction of the clubhouse in South Korea, Ban relied on Swiss woodworkers. Therefore it made sense that he would eventually realize a building in Switzerland. This happened last year with the completion of the seven-story Tamedia Building in Zürich. Timber columns and beams were fitted together without any mechanical or adhesive connections, making it an important step in the growing trend to build taller with wood structures, while also providing a pleasing work environment for Tamedia's employees.

Prefab (containers):
While prefab is less a material than a way of building – fabricating structures off-site and transporting them to the construction site ready to be fit together with other components – Ban has exploited the potential of prefabricated construction in various ways, from the "Case Study Houses" that incorporated prefab structural and furniture systems, to two projects built from shipping containers. The first container project was the Nomadic Museum, which began in New York in 2005 and later traveled to Santa Monica, California, the following year, and to Tokyo in the spring of 2007. Containers were stacked on piers in a checkerboard pattern to create a long, nave-like space capped by a fabric roof supported by large cardboard tubes. In 2011, as part of his response to the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, Ban designed the Onagawa Container Temporary Housing. Like the Nomadic Museum, he stacked the containers in a checkerboard pattern, but here he turned the units 90 degrees to give the apartments sunlight and create open spaces between the units.

Glass (sliding walls):
This last material, glass, is one that Shigeru Ban literally lets disappear – through the use of sliding and retractable walls. He explored the way full-height glass walls could open to the outside in a number of his "Case Study Houses" (inspired by the 20th-century California houses of the same name) but none did it better than the 1995 Curtain Wall House in Tokyo. The name refers to the glass enclosures of Mies van der Rohe, but in execution the house is a playful way of alternatively creating privacy and opening up the house to the city literally through two-story curtains. Behind the curtains were glass walls that could slide out of the way to extend the living spaces onto the wraparound terrace or completely open the house to the exterior.

Two later projects take the same approach as the Curtain Wall House but stack it into vertical urban configurations. The Metal Shutter Houses near the High Line in New York City, completed with Dean Maltz Architect in 2010, replaced the curtain with metal shutters and the sliding glass walls with retractable, garage-like glass walls for duplex apartments that opened up to the city. Back in Tokyo, the Nicolas G. Hayek Center, completed in 2007, was hidden behind glass panes at certain times of the day. Four-story, operable glass shutters at the front and back facades created an open street on the ground floor and atrium-like spaces above that opened to the city.

John Hill
John Hill
Published on
Mar 31, 2014