Shigeru Ban

“Then I wonder what is permanent and what is temporary building”

Shigeru Ban 

In architecture, imposition and permanence are implied. I have been taught how buildings pay homage to broader architectural trends where they reach across time and freeze it in a foundation of brick, metal, wood, or glass.  What if architecture refocuses and takes into account its impermanence?  What if buildings were erected not to ‘set in stone’ a singular conception, but to realize a temporary space?  What if you could build using only paper?

Shigeru Ban first realized this possibility before we became aware of our carbon footprint and the development of sustainability.  In 1986, he started using paper tubes to build, finding that they could support a building for about 50 years and that issues with water and fireproofing were easily manageable. Ban put his ideas to practice in 1990 when he built his first temporary building, a cylindrically-themed paper tube house that was fully equipped for human use and included a functioning bathroom.  This experiment gave way to a new mode of architecture; since then, Ban has had a career full of temporary building projects that saw him win the 2014 Pritzker Prize. 

Ban is from Tokyo where he has steeped himself in the Japanese tradition, but Ban also studied in California and New York. He entered the international spotlight thanks to his calculated mix of traditional Japanese schools of architecture with more modern and western techniques.  A decade and a half ago, however, Ban went through a transformation.  He realized the cultural inequality inherent to popular and renowned architecture, which privileged wealthy developers that commissioned elaborate and large projects.  He refocused his design from the dominant, popular domain to helping with housing the displaced in areas undergoing tragedy.  He wanted his work to truly benefit society, as he puts it.  

In 1994, Ban traveled to Rwanda in order to design refugee camp shelters. Rwanda had just endured tribal genocide that left millions of displaced refugees.  Joining with UN relief, Ban was allotted USD 50 per housing unit for refugee support, and he decided to build these units using paper tubes. Very soon after, he traveled to the Kobe in south-central Japan after the 1995 earthquake.  Kobe suffered nearly 7,000 casualties due to falling buildings and rampant fires.  Ban’s response was to build a temporary church for the community to remedy the dearth of hope and community wrought by the earthquake.  Many people were dubious of Ban’s choice of building material, paper, after having seen their city in flames, but the final product calmed those in doubt. 

In 2004 Ban was off again, this time a tsunami-ridden Sri Lanka. He worked with a team to reconstruct a Muslim fishing village while introducing his architectural ethos. Using earth bricks and local rubber wood, Ban built 100 homes and community spaces that worked in tune with the area’s climate, religion and community.    

In their announcement of Ban’s achievement, the Prizker Prize Jurors said,

“his buildings provide shelter, community centers and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction. When tragedy strikes, he is often there from the beginning.” 

Ban illustrates that when the tools of development are focused in the right way we can help those most in need.  Architecture through his eyes is a medium for social change that links creativity, sustainability and even transience.  He has not only pushed society to redefine the boundaries of what is considered architecture, his attainment of the most prestigious international architecture prize shows that this is a model to follow.

For millennia, architecture has erected structure with the intention of leaving a lasting impression in its environment. To the architect and to the people’s eye, the building’s expiration date was not in question. In the last few years, Shigeru Ban has shown that we should give the question due weight. Today we are interconnected and structural mobility is at a premium; metropolitan pop-up shops and food trucks, for example, have become commonplace.  Architecture attunes itself to the reusable, recyclable, and provisional situation in which we find ourselves.  Architecture will now and forever be a projection of the times, projected by the times.  We are now just in a time of flux.  Architects like Shigeru Ban attempt to solve the unsolvable, without shying away from the creative.   

In August 2013, Ban’s Cardboard Church opened, to the astonishment of the entire world.  This church was conceived after an earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, three years ago. He chose the sight right next to the famous Christchurch Cathedral, which stood in ruins.  The church is made of cardboard tubes, timber, polycarbon and the material used for shipping containers.  It is massive and awe striking, from the interior to the exterior.  The cathedral can seat 700 people, and is engineered to let light in only where Ban wanted it. He placed a large wooden cross above the central altar with two-inch wall gaps behind the cross to draw the light in a way that gently and respectfully outlines the magnificent cross. 

In my opinion the most aesthetically exceptional elements are the stain glass windows that Ban incorporates into his conception of a church.  They have become a mark of the building’s beauty and have proved that temporary buildings have less limits than was previously thought.  Although Ban has truly reshaped the landscape of recent architecture, he remains respectful and modest.  When asked about receiving the Pritzker, he stated matter-of-factly, “I’m trying to understand the meaning of this encouragement.  It’s not the award for achievement. I have not made a great achievement.”