1957, Tokyo, Japan
Southern California Institute of
Architecture (1980), Cooper Union (1984)
Practice: Established Shigeru Ban Architects in 1985
in Tokyo; Offices in Tokyo, New York, Paris
Projects: Cardbord Cathedral, Christchurch, New
Zealand, 2013; Centre Pompidou, Metz, France (2010); Sagaponac House, Long Island, New
York (2006); Nomadic Museum, Manhattan (2005); Japan Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover, Germany; Paper House, Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi, Japan
Wall House, Tokyo,
Japan (1995); Paper Church, Kobe, Japan (1995, disassembled in 2005);
Ban (Taschen, 2012); Shigeru Ban, Complete Works 1985-2010
(Taschen, 2010); Shigeru Ban, Paper in Architecture (Rizzoli, 2009);
Shigeru Ban (Phadon Press, 2003); Shigeru Ban (Princeton
Architectural Press, 2001); Shigeru Ban, Projects in Process (TOTO,
Teaching: Professor of Kyoto University of Art and
Design; taught at Yokohama National University, Keio University, Columbia
University, Cornell University, Harvard University School of Design
Awards: Pritzker Prize (2014); L'Ordre National du Merite, France (2011); Thomas
Jefferson Medal in Architecture (2005); Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in
Architecture (2005); World Architecture Award: Best House
in the World (Naked House, 2002); Time Magazine Innovator of the Year (2001);
The JIA Prize for the best young architect of the year (1997);
Did you always want to be an architect?
Since childhood, I
wanted to become a carpenter and loved to visit construction sites. My mother
is a fashion designer. When I was in high school I came across an issue of Architecture
and Urbanism magazine (A+U), which featured spatially innovative houses by a
group of architects called The New York Five: John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Charles
Gwathmey, Michael Graves, and Richard Meier. They ignited my love for
architecture. Hejduk, Meier, and Eisenman, were teaching at Cooper Union then.
So I went to America to study. In 1984, I graduated from Cooper Union and
immediately opened my own architectural practice in Tokyo. My first project was
a design studio for my mother. To this day, we share this space.
What kind of questions do people usually ask you?
People always ask me the
same questions: how long my paper houses can last and if they are not afraid of
Is it true that you are the first architect to employ paper as a
Buckminster Fuller used
paper tubes in his famous geodesic domes. But no one before me built permanent
structures primarily out of paper.
How did it all start?
accident, when I just opened my practice in 1985. While working on Emilio
Ambasz exhibition in Tokyo’s Axis Gallery I used transparent fabric to
partition the space. After the exhibit, I was left with a lot cardboard tubes,
which are used to transport and store fabric in rolls.
year later, in the same gallery I was working on an exhibition of the works by
Alvar Aalto who is well known for using natural wood in his warm and cozy
interiors. But the use of natural wood for the exhibit would be prohibitively
expensive. Then I remembered about the tubes, went to a local paper factory and
found out that cardboard tubes can be fabricated of any diameter and length.
That is how this cheap material, imitating wood, appeared in the show and then
again, and again in so many other of my projects.
So how long can a
paper house last?
It has nothing to do with the material.
Do you mean that the worn-out elements can be replaced but the
life of a house can potentially go on for as long as there is a need for it?
Sure. The same happens
with any other building, made of wood, concrete, or steel.
Aren’t your paper houses afraid of rain, fire, or cold weather?
You have to understand
that it is not about the material. Any building, regardless what it is made of,
has to be fireproof and isolated from bad weather. So what the difference does
it make what a building is made of? The paper that I use for construction is
specially treated to make it fireproof and waterproof. Don’t forget that the
same cardboard tubes are used to pour wet concrete to make monolithic
cylindrical columns. So this material is well tested. No one argues that wood
is a stronger material than paper and that steel is stronger than wood. But in
different situations we prefer one material over another for various reasons.
Paper has many important qualities. For example, it is easy to manufacture, to
transport, to treat, to cut, and finally, it is very affordable.
You were the member of the international team of architects THINK, whose
project, World Cultural Center was second after Daniel Libeskind’s winning
project for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center in New York. Whose idea
was it to form the THINK team?
I was contacted by
architect Fred Schwartz. While still at school, I was working as a model maker
at Robert Venturi’s office in New York. There I first met Fred. Many years
later, we met again. Fred offered me to be a part of the team that was headed
by Rafael Viñoly.
Your first reaction after the tragedy of September 11 was a drawing
of a small paper church. Why?
Yes, here is this
drawing [Ban reaches for his sketchbook and finds a page with a drawing of a
tiny cylindrical structure, composed out of cardboard tubes, holding an austere
hollow-cone shaped roof that was sketched on September 16th, 2001]. For me,
this is a great tragedy. I studied in New York and now I come here every month
for business. Just a few days after the tragedy I visited Ground Zero. I
witnessed a whole sea of flowers and photographs of thousands of people who
perished there, affixed to the fence around St. Paul’s Church, just across the
street from where the towers of the World Trade Center stood. I wanted to
create a modest memorial, where all of those who are in mourning could come and
pay homage to the dead.
Let’s go back to the competition. Was it your idea to propose two
hollow latticework structures, to remind us of the destroyed twin towers?
This was a collective
work. And it doesn’t matter whose idea it was first. From the very beginning, I
was against this competition. But when I was invited, I decided not to refuse
the offer. Here is the drawing, which I brought to the very first team critique
of the project [Ban shows a computer rendering, depicting two twin towers,
resembling the final submission by the THINK team].
Are these towers hollow?
No, they are office
towers. After many discussions, they were transformed into hollow, symbolic
latticework steel structures with concert halls, a museum, and an observation
deck at various heights.
Libeskind is against going back to geometry that recalls the
towers of the World Trade Center. He thinks this would exhibit the nostalgia
and turn our attention to the past, as appose to the future.
I don’t think it is
nostalgia. For us this is a symbol of rebirth. There are so many people who
remember the powerful image of the twin towers! Our towers would bring back the
image, so familiar and dear to millions of people.
What do you think about the Libeskind’s project?
I like it. I was sure
that he was going to win this competition.
Could you talk about your involvement in the Houses at Sagaponac
project on Long Island? There is a new community being built there with dozens
of one-family homes, many to be designed by world-renown architects: Zaha Hadid,
Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Eric Owen Moss…
Yes, it is very
interesting. There is one condition in Sagaponac: the architects can not
oversee the construction. That is why I have decided to propose a furniture
house. All walls, exterior and interior ones are prefabricated plywood
furniture units, holding flat roof. Such house can be assembled only in one
particular way, even by inexperienced builders. This way I am guaranteed to
have an invisible control over the final result. Previously I built several
such houses in Japan and China. Why waste potential living area on solid walls?
Wardrobes and book units can serve as structural walls as well.
What is architecture for you?
Architecture is my life.
What is the most important thing about architecture?
People’s reaction. I am
happy when I can meet the people who will move into my houses. That is why I
don’t like working on apartment complexes, since I don’t know who is going to
live there. Occasionally, I like visiting my museums or churches, and hide
behind one of the paper columns simply to observe the visitors. I enjoy doing
that a lot.
What kind of project do you dream about?
Many years ago, my dream
was to design a bridge. Now I have been working on a pedestrian bridge in
Portugal. When I was a student, I wanted to build a Japanese pavilion for World
Expo. I have done that two years ago in Hanover, Germany. I also wanted to work
with Frei Otto, world-renown German engineer, who designed covered Olympic
stadium in Munich in 1972. When I found out that I would be working on a
Japanese pavilion in Germany, I made an effort to find Otto. At that point, I
didn’t even know whether he was still alive. He agreed to help with a great
deal of enthusiasm and at the very first meeting he brought cardboard tubes and
was very involved.
It seems that you realized all of your dreams.
Now I have been working
on a new city planning for the central district of Tianjin in China. I have
never even dreamed about working on such scale. This project is ten times the
size of the World Trade Center in New York!