Japanese architect and Pritzker award-laureate Shigeru Ban’s contribution to sustainability is unparalleled. He is renowned for his extensive and innovative use of recyclable paper and cardboard in his projects. Since 1994, he has been passionately supporting displaced disaster victims by providing temporary shelters and schools for shuttered communities in, among other places, Rwanda, Japan, Haiti, Turkey and China. He’s built temporary yet memorable architecture, such as churches and music halls, for local people who tragically lost the previous ones in earthquakes.
He uniquely distinguishes himself in today’s “hyper-modern” world of architecture which focuses on aggressively pursuing highly advanced, super sleek and overwhelmingly sophisticated design, supported by state-of-the-art technology. Where does his passion and belief come from? His recent exhibit “Projects in Progress” provides us some critical perspectives.
TOTO Gallery·Ma specializes in architecture and design, and is operated by Japanese company TOTO (widely known for bathroom products) as part of the company’s social contribution program. Its exhibitions are selected by its Planning and Management Committee, which is comprised of renowned architects/designers. Current members are: Tadao Ando (Special Advisor), Kazuyo Sejima, Manabu Chiba, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, and Erwin Viray.
“Projects in Progress” featured Ban’s ongoing works in Europe, Japan and Asia, from small to big, from large-scale public works to disaster relief projects. The exhibit focused on showcasing mock-ups and samples, not just models and plans, so that visitors could actually “feel” his works. And it really made a difference: it was amazing to see how the details of his designs appeal to our raw senses vividly and directly.
There were ten projects on display. We will update the reports on each project soon. Stay tuned.
|La Seine Musicale||Vicinity of Paris, France||Opened Spring 2017|
|Taketa City Kurhause||Oita, Japan||July 2017|
|Kumamoto Wooden Prefabricated Housing (disaster relief)||Kumamoto, Japan||August 2016|
|Napal Reconstruction Project (disaster relief)||Napal||In progress|
|Team 7 World Headquarters||Ried, Austria||In progress|
|Watch Company Headquarters||Biel, Switzerland||July 2018|
|Keio University SFC Education & Research Center||Kanagawa, Japan||July 2017|
|Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center||Shizuoka, Japan||July 2017|
|Yufu City Tourist Information Center||Oita, Japan||Construction to start March 2018|
|Tainan Museum of Fine Arts||Tainan, Taiwan||Construction to start Fall 2018|
During the exhibition, Ban appeared at a talk session on July 8th along with Tomoharu Makabe, his long-time mentor, and Kou Kitayama, an architect/professor who has worked with him on various occasions.
In opening up the session, Makabe cited “ 漂うモダニズム (Modernism Set Adrift) ” (Sayu-sha, 2013) by Fumihiko Maki, pioneering Japanese architect and a Pritzker Prize Laureate. To cut a long story very short (we are going to discuss “Modernism Set Adrift” in a separate article, so stay tuned), Makabe observed that today’s architecture focuses too much on the “architecturizing” phase, out of three critical elements Maki identified in his book as needed to bring architecture into reality. (In his book Maki had identified three critical elements needed to bring architecture into reality: spacialize, architecturize and socialize. The term “spacialize” requires some explanation: according to Maki, who has done substantial work/analysis surrounding the issue of architecture and space, “space” is a three-dimensional extension through which various types of relationships are defined and established.)
So Makabe suggested that excessive focus on the “architecturizing” phase has been detrimental to architecture. Project developers and architects have become too concerned about out-performing competitors and stunning the public by offering the most sophisticated, sleek and advanced designs possible, supported by state-of-the-art technology that enables unrealistically complicated design practices in terms of material/structural engineering. By forgetting (or being deprived of) opportunities to be fully involved in the spacializing and socializing phase, or efforts to put plans in real context within the real community, real relationships and real people, architecture has become a series of extraordinary buildings to be merely consumed by modern economy.
Makabe’s context-setting was helpful to appreciate the beauty of Ban’s work. Ban could be called a social entrepreneur and a problem solver rather than an architect, who specializes in designing buildings. He has unique abilities to leverage the potential of “architecturization” to marry the three elements to deliver solutions for communities. For him, the spacializing and socializing phases should not be subordinate parts of architecture, but the very reasons why he works as an architect.
Three elements stood out in “Projects in Progess” which highlighted his unique ability to elevate architecture as effective problem solving device: physical, scalable and relatable.
Ban used to play rugby at high school. Training hard to stay physically in-shape and competitive became second nature to him, says Ban, to put himself in challenging positions to maximize opportunities to learn, and acquire the ability to take on bigger challenges.
Ban the “rugger” trusts things that are physically verified and validated. In his book ”坂茂の建築現場*,” (Heibon-sha, 2017) Kou Kitayama (who also appeared at the talk session with Ban) remembers Ban’s early days when he used to make real-size mock ups using his own hands, testing the structure by himself. Kitayama describes Ban’s approach as more of a carpenter who is capable of coming up with hands-on techniques to process/structure materials. To this day, Ban works closely with structural engineers while many other architects simply outsource the engineering process.
* there is no English translation available as of Aug 2017. The tile can be translated as “From Shigeru Ban’s project construction sites”
No matter how large a structure might be, Ban’s work is the accumulation of small and physically relatable details that directly appeal to your senses. Even the Centre Pompidou-Metz, his splendid-looking signature piece of architecture in northern France, uses a simple structure based on a regular hexagon at a unit level, which, according to Ban, is physically and geometrically stable.
Taketa City Kurhaus, Oita, Japan
The Taketa City Kurhaus is located by the river, and features a 50 meters-long “walking spa,” outdoor baths, sauna and a bar so that the visitors can enjoy the view while soaking in hot water. If you are not used to traditional Japanese-style community bath (no clothes allowed!), Ban offers uniquely designed bathing suits as part of his proposal.
What catches your eye is the beautifully curving wooden roof which is realized by a reciprocal structure. It is surprisingly simple: you use four strips of wood to form a base rectangular unit. When layered clock-wise, they form a convex curve. When layered counter clock-wise, they form a concave curve. Connected together, the roof delivers a soothing undulation.
Ban uses leftover materials from plywood making called “芯材” for wooden strips. 芯材 is the very core part of timber that cannot be used to make plywood because of the cutting technique used today. For Kaketa Kurhause, Ban uses 芯材 that is 8 centimeters (3.15 inches) in diameter and 1.6 meters in length. Leftover wood that thin could be used as sturdy construction materials when reciprocal structure is applied.
La Seine Musicale, Vicinity of Paris, France
La Seine Musicale is a large project that extends nearly 280 meters along the riverbank of the Seine. Nonetheless, the entire complex retains some sort of cuteness, partly because of the spherical shape of the landmark auditorium that comes with a “sail” made with arrays of solar panels. There are various details making this architecture look organic. The entire project is almost like a ship, or rather a “bateau” in French, floating on the Seine.
The egg-shaped auditorium is realized using an hexagonal grid timber structure. It looks especially beautiful when the Seine reflects its round profile, absorbing the color of the sky. The egg, or the bateau, is accompanied by a “sail,” which softly envelopes the shell with arrays of solar panels. The triangular sail changes its direction to maximize the input from the Sun, and is supposed to generate the majority of electricity for the facility during daytime.
One of the surprising reminders at the exhibit: a solar panel could be beautiful in itself. The panels on display looked something like a kelp forest in the ocean. I’ve been involved with renewable energy for quite some time now, but it never occurred to me that solar panels could be this beautiful. And it makes a difference: they dissolve into the landscape much more naturally.
The egg inside the wooden grid is covered by walls finished with iridescent mosaic tiles. Depending on the direction of the lighting, the tiles change their color.
Inside the music hall, you will find uniquely fabricated walls and ceilings: walls are furnished with corrugated plywood panels that are laid and woven irregularly to optimize the acoustic effect. Ceilings are undulated using Ban’s signature material: paper tubes. In this case, he uses tubes of different diameters that are cut and assorted in hexagonal frames. They are connected together to let significant organic waves emerge that would be sure to match the audience’s excitement.
Tainan Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan
Ban designed this facility by blurring the boundaries between architecture and park. Rather than installing a box-shaped museum surrounded by an outdoor area, he designed layers of gallery aisles. The roofs of each aisle is loosely connected to function as a park. People could spend time relaxing, spontaneously wandering in/out, without even knowing they are visiting a museum.
The facility uses a pentagonal shape. It’s partly because Tainan’s “flower of the city” is pentagonal, but also because people are less bound to four directions and can wonder more freely when there are five peripherals, instead of four.
Again in this architecture, Ban stuns us with the roofing. Taiwan is sub-tropical and exposed to strong sun throughout the year. Ban proposed to cover the facility with fractal roofing, which would provide comfortable shade for the visitors.
“Fractal” structure is designed based on polyvinyl-chrolide triangular unit, developed by Satoshi Sakai of Kyoto University. The units are connected to form a fractal tetrahedron module, 3 meters x 5 meters in size. They are assembled to form large roofs, capable of shielding sunlight, coming from different directions/angles. (Fractal modules create complex shade which move the air and make the space feel cooler.)
It’s fascinating to understand how simple geometry – the triangle – could be connected together to form something large and complex like “fractal roofing,” providing effective shade. But even more fascinating is to see the delicate, beautiful shadows that the structure produces. Especially at night, along with its metallic texture, it casts fine shadows under moonlight. It quickly reminded me of tree shade. Big trees produce complex shade patterns with massive layers of leaves. Even though the shape of each leaf is simple and identical, their shade forms something breathtakingly complex and fine.
Yufu City Tourist Information Center, Oita, Japan
Shigeru Ban is also acknowledged for his focus on structure. For the Yufu City Tourist Information Center, he used glue-laminated timber columns (made of four components bound together like a cross), which branch off in four distinct directions as they climb towards the ceilings. Each branch forms a catenary, meaning it is capable of supporting its own weight when supported only at its ends.
The beautiful curve is realized by using single curvature components only which are enhanced to ensure constructability and manufacturability. They are functionally strong yet delicately beautiful.
And by the way, these columns function as the main structure.
I did not know that load-bearing structure could be this beautiful in itself.
Ban is widely respected for his relentless voluntary work to support disaster victims all over the world. He has provided countless numbers of shelters and community facilities in various parts of the globe. In this exhibit, disaster relief projects in Kumamoto and Nepal were on display.
One concept popped up in my mind – “scalability,” which is typically used in computer/networking industry. A system is scalable if it’s capable of handling a growing amount of work, or its potential to be enlarged to accommodate that growth. It’s critical in computer networking which is supposed to self-propagate seamlessly. Disruption due to increased nodes, data or processes is not acceptable.
People may think scalability is not needed for architecture, because it should be one-of-a-kind, unique monuments that cannot easily be copied and scaled. However, it seems that Ban is trying to achieve “scalable” architecture, using his know-how accumulated by working directly with people in disaster-ridden regions all over the world. He has produced devices/tools and architecture for shattered communities that can easily be made, deployed and applied, even when no professionals/experts are available – which is often the case in an emergency.
Unlike computer networking industry, “scalability” in architecture calls for participation of real people. Ban has been realizing scalable systems, involving local people, volunteers and his students, leveraging locally available resources, which were effectively enhanced using universally applicable techniques/technology.
Through his projects, he leaves a tremendous amount of knowledge and sense of engagement in the communities he works for. Even after “temporary” shelters are replaced, local people could still “scale” up their lives using what they’ve learned, which is by no means a temporary asset. “Scalable” architecture empowers people.
Nepal Reconstruction Project, Nepal
He visited Nepal right after the earthquake and quickly found that local communities had beautiful traditional architecture using wooden frameworks and bricks. But sadly, it was those bricks that were shattered and turned into piles and piles of debris, making recovery process difficult
He decided to take advantage of the traditional construction style because wooden doors were locally standardized and widely used: they could easily and quickly be supplied by local vendors. He designed houses based on the size of the standardized doors as you can see in above pictures which would also function as load-bearing walls. Shattered bricks would be utilized around the doors as non-load-bearing materials. This approach would allow local people get rid of debris on their own without affecting the structure/sturdiness of the house.
He also conducted seismic tests in Japan to make sure the houses would be earthquake-proof. The houses would be safe as long as local people followed his design. Again, no experts are necessarily needed, if they are not available, to ensure safety; local people could go ahead and work on their own.
Kumamoto Wooden Prefabricated Housing, Kumamoto, Japan
Ban was commissioned to design temporary housing project for Mifune Cho which was hit hard by the earthquake. But there was one critical problem: carpenters and construction experts were all tied up in rehabilitation projects elsewhere in Kumamoto, overwhelmed by the intensity of the damage.
Ban decided to design something that could be quickly and easily deployed by non-experts. It was based on L-shaped, pillar-like plywood units that would require no special skills to assemble.
The units would be placed at one-meter intervals to become load bearing walls. They could also be used as closets, delivering much-needed storage room for victims. (Ban knew, from his previous experiences building temporary shelters commissioned by local authorities, that people were struggling to organize their belongings in a typical bare, rectangular shelter. They will have lost all their furniture, as if we needed to be reminded.)
Closets have another advantage: plywood is thin and doesn’t do much to block noise traveling through it. Full closets placed in between the rooms could cut unwanted noise substantially.
After the plan was complete, he actually made some units with his students and volunteer workers. He wanted to make sure they would really be deployable (and scalable) by local people.
Because Ban’s architecture appeals to our physical senses and is scalable by ordinary people, it is “accessible.” You don’t necessarily have to have technical knowledge or experience to appreciate his work. He is capable of crafting stories that are relevant to people, by looking at us, and at the problems our society faces.
But it does not mean that he makes architecture plainly simple so that even a layperson could understand. Rather, he maintains solid design principles that connect his work – physically and emotionally – to people. Tomoharu Makabe summarized some of them at the talk session on July 8th:
- Design for problem solving.
- Use limitations and restrictions associated with materials as framework for design and structure. Leverage the potential of “fragile” materials.
- Understand structure through the hands and physical senses.
- Imagine large-scale systems as an assembly of small units.
- Make architecture “relatable,” by pursuing the logic and rationale that supports it. No compromise allowed.
It wouldn’t be too much to say that Ban’s design principles follow the law of nature. Materials found in the natural environment are NOT meant to exclusively serve human beings, thus are associated with various “shortcomings” from our perspective. But humans have the inherent potential to overcome those restrictions because we’ve accumulated wisdom through sincere efforts to live in harmony with nature that reach back hundreds of thousands of years.
The law of nature is embedded in all of us and can be a common denominator when pursuing the well-being of the society as a whole. It could be a more intuitive, unifying and soothing one, compared to state-of-the-art technology that keeps elevating our life to the next level. While we almost unanimously believe that advanced technology is the primary solution for our problems, relentless competition for even more advanced technology could divide society, isolate individuals, and mercilessly create clear winners and losers.
Ban does not deny technology at all. He just seems to trust the approach that leverages technology to empower people, not a technology that empowers itself and alienates people. He believes in systems conceived as an assembly of physically relatable small units because they can be open to anyone who wants to be involved and engaged.
And as a fighter in the real world, he knows that such organic systems don’t come for free: he is determined to keep fighting to elevate the law of nature so that it can stay relatable and competitive in today’s highly advanced, but increasingly uncertain modern economy.
There’s a lot more we can learn from Shigeru Ban’s work. We’ll add more articles in the next several weeks. Check back this page or sign up for our newsletter.