Intercontinental Curatorial Project Inc.

E x h i b i t i o n s / L e c t u r e s / P u b l i c a t i o n s

Follow Us




Shigeru Ban: No one before me built permanent structures primarily out of paper

New York City: February 2003

By Vladimir Belogolovsky

Born:              1957, Tokyo, Japan

Education:     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 (1995); Curtain Wall House, Tokyo, Japan (1995); Paper Church, Kobe, Japan (1995, disassembled in 2005);

Books:            Shigeru 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, 1999)

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 rain.


Is it true that you are the first architect to employ paper as a building material?

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?


By 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.


A 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?  


Forever! 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!

Japan Pavilion, EXPO 2000, Hanover, Germany

Photo © Hiroyuki Hirai

Paper House, Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi, Japan, 1995

Photo © Hiroyuki Hirai

Axis Gallery, Tokyo, Alvar Aalto exhibition, 1986

Photo © Shimizu Yukioi