Give 'Em Shelter: Shigeru Ban on Creating Innovative (and Cheap) Refuges for Natural Disaster Victims

Give 'Em Shelter: Shigeru Ban on Creating Innovative (and Cheap) Refuges for Natural Disaster Victims

In 1985, Shigeru Ban kept all the fabric tubes left over from the cloth interior he designed for the Emilio Ambasz exhibition at Tokyo's Axis Gallery. They were motonai, a Japanese word that means "too good to waste." A year later, those tubes became the interior of the Alvar Aalto exhibition in the samespace, and it was then the paper architect was born.


After 26 years, recycled and natural fibers have become signature in Ban's work. Aside from his unusual choice of materials, what further separates him from the rest of the architecture community are his prolific pro bono humanitarian efforts. At "Shelter From the Storm," his aptly titled New Yorker Festival event this weekend, Ban discussed a handful of these: the 1995 homes he built for Vietnamese refugees in Kobe, Japan; a temporary music hall still in the works in earthquake-torn L'Aquila, Italy; and a cathedral set to open next year in New Zealand. All were designed in cardboard tubes. 

"What is temporary and what is permanent?" Ban asked a theater of New Yorkers. "A concrete building made by developer commercially just to make money, maybe some few years later, a developer buys the land then destroys the building to put new building. Even buildings in concrete can be very temporary as long as this building, it makes money. But even thebuilding made in paper, if people love the building, it becomes permanent. So whether it's permanent or temporary depends whether people love the building or not."

Ban went into detail on his current project, a government-funded complex of 190 family houses for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami scheduled for completion this month. Going far and beyond the expectations of government housing, he designed a checkerboard of stacked shipping containers to create a community, complete with a café and market for its residents' use. Using the West Coast style he adopted at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, he created outdoor covered areas that could be used as common living areas. Concerned the lack of closet space, Ban outfitted each shipping container with simple shelves and cabinets. He also furnished the spaces with wooden dining tables of adjustable heights to accommodate the traditional preference of taking meals on the floor. 

"It's incredibly elegant," commented the New Yorker's Judith Thurman. "I think most of us born New Yorkers have lived in infinitely worse studio apartments."

Over the course of the one-hour talk, Ban shared his insights to some of his most ambitious projects in the private sector as well, from France's Centre Pompidou-Metz to the Aspen Art Museum. He also discussed his vision as an architect, how he hates waste, and the architectural practices he never wants to see again. ARTINFO highlights the best points from the discussion.


For privileged people, the money and power is invisible, so they need an architect to visualize their power and money to the public. So that's what our profession is about. I'm not talking negatively. I also like to build monuments. I was disappointed that the profession is not helping the general public, even the people who don't have a house. I was looking for an opportunity to use my knowledge and experience for those people... If I design the refugee shelter, or the expensive house, then people are very happy to move into the house, I get thesame satisfaction, and that's all about my passion to architecture. It's not depending on whether I'm paid or not. Even the Centre Pompidou-Metz, we've been contracted for five years, and it's been seven years. We've lost lots of money. So it's more pro bono projects.


It's not a common material, but I use paper because there are factories all over the world. And also, with building materials, the price goes higher after disaster, but because this isn't building material, the price is always stable... We can use paper tubes again and again. I think it's -- you see, you see a book, a hundred years old, the paper can be used almost permanent material. Also, concrete is not really permanent; we don’t have any historic buildings more than 120 years old. It's also when its damaged, it's not easy to fix the concrete, but the paper tube building, we can easily replace it if it's damaged.


All my architectural education was done here in the U.S. I never built a traditional Japanese house. I never studied Japanese architecture... If you see the house I designed, always I try to combine space, inside, outside. I always try to use local materials. This influence came from Case Study Houses in California where I started to study architecture. I loved the architecture of Eames, Neutra, Schindler… They are much influenced by the Japanese way of using space, also using industrial material from the shop. It was my first exposure to architecture. Not totally Japanese architecture. My influence came from Case Study architecture, which happened to be similar to Japanese.


Because Aspen is very famous for skiing, I designed the main lobby of the museum on the rooftop. I put in the corner a big elevator. I call this kind of the reception area. You take the elevator to go up to the rooftop, then you come down. It's like the experience of the skiing -- you take the ski lift to come up and come down. You go up and see the beautiful view. Being on the ground of downtown is not nice. It's just like anywhere else. First I bring people to the rooftop to enjoy the view of the mountain.


The Pompidou Center is very special because it's very innovative, not just the museum, but the architecture style is very innovative and also designed by two architects I respect so much, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. Instead of having the same kind of style, I wanted to carry on the innovative way ofmaking building for Centre Pompidou-Metz. Also the biggest challenge at the time was everybody talking the so-called Bilbao effect, even the city of Metz. I'm sure nobody knows this city. It's a rather large city but not known. [The Bilbao effect is] having some unusual museum, doesn't need to be by a starchitect, but some unusual shape... Many of the people, art scene and also artists, say that the museum is just becoming a sculpture for architects and not exhibitions, very difficult to exhibit the art. So that's why some museums like the Tate Modern, they just bought industrial building to renovate into museum. The very successful museum in New York, Dia:Beacon, just bought industrial space innovating into the beautiful museum. There are two attitudes. One is try to make a sculptural monument, the other one is making industrial, just very functional building. I thought it's too bad to go one direction to the other. I wanted to combine two together so first it's a very functional, practical museum, but it has to be site-specific, a very nice, wonderful space for the public as a nice gathering space.


By chance I bought this [Chinese] hat in Paris 1989, and I was really shocked to see this hat because it's so [architectural]. There's a structure in woven bamboo, and the oil paper as waterproofing, and underneath there is dry leaves as an insulation. It's just like the combination of a building roof. 


In the neighborhood it used to be lots of shutters closed.When I went there all the surrounding buildings were covered in metal shutters. I thought it was a very contextual material. It's perforated metal shutter, always translucent… It's a floating door to open totally to connect inside outside. Even the summer, you can close the metal shutter in the evening. It works as a mosquito net also.


After disaster, always architects try to make a group, talking to the government, looking for funds. It's going to be too late. I go there by myself to the site and look for collaborators locally, local students. So that if you have the group of people, it doesn't really work. Also, if  youhave too many leaders, it's a really delayed project. I don't have a buddy. I look for buddy in the site.


I'm not supposed to say... Well, I don't like the building that's so many waste, actually, just to make a funny shape. That's the total opposite of my building.