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April 2005
A House of Paper
The Satya Interview with Shigeru Ban


Immokalee Worker
Photo: Rocco Cetera

While most architects think of paper tubes as mailing containers for their design drawings or as reels for the paper rolls used in plotters, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban opts to build with them. Using recycled cardboard paper tubes as structural columns, sand-filled beer crates as foundations, and cargo containers as walls, Ban finds innovative, economical, and elegant uses of recycled, recyclable, and reusable materials in building construction. His recyclable Japanese Pavilion at the Hanover Expo in 2000 showed that a large building footprint doesn’t have to leave a large ecological one. While he has been garnished with many accolades, such as “Best Young Architect of the year” in 1997 by the Japan Institute of Architecture, “Best Designer of the Year” in 2001 by Interior Magazine, and “Best House in the World” for his Naked House in the 2002 World Architecture Awards, Ban doesn’t consider himself a revolutionary architect, but rather one that is “just using existing technology and materials in a different way.”

Ban’s innovations and resourcefulness are also coupled with a sense of social responsibility and in 1995 he established the NGO Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN). Over the past decade, he has worked to provide cheap, easy to build, eco-friendly solutions to natural and man-made disasters. This humanitarian work included efforts to provide paper tube shelters to those displaced by the earthquakes in Kobe, India and Turkey, and also by the genocide in Rwanda.

Ban, whose team was a finalist in the World Trade Center Ground Zero design competition, recently finished the Nomadic Museum on Pier 54 in Manhattan providing a unique space for photographer Gregory Colbert’s traveling Ashes and Snow exhibit. While currently in France working on the new Pompidou Center for modern art in the city of Metz, Shigeru Ban took a break from his hectic schedule to speak with Sangamithra Iyer about paper, disaster relief and the recent tsunami.

What role does waste minimization play in your designs?
I just try as much as possible to make simple structures and cost-efficient buildings, so I have to minimize the use of materials and not waste them, whether I am designing permanent or temporary structures.

What is your design philosophy regarding temporary versus permanent?
Well, the ‘temporary’ paper church I built in Kobe after the earthquake has become a permanent building because the community loves it and continues to congregate there. I try to minimize the materials I use both for temporary and permanent building because permanent buildings sometimes become temporary, and temporary buildings become permanent. So I don’t design them differently. It’s the same; just the budget is usually different.

You are known for successfully implementing non-traditional building materials in your work. Can you tell us why you have chosen the paper cardboard tube as a key structural element in many of your designs?
The paper tube is kind of an engineering wood and can be very strong. It’s much cheaper than wood, and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use it for structures.

And it’s recyclable, reusable, bio-degradable, and non-toxic.

Yes. And it’s available almost everywhere. It’s also very pretty.

Have you found any challenges from building authorities in using non-conventional materials in construction?
Many building authorities have no experience with these materials or know of any examples of these types of structures. But every country has a regulation that as long as I can prove by testing and calculations that it can work, they’ll give me special permission. And once I used the paper tube in Germany, I could use it in France because they both use the Euro Code.

Have you found that other architects have chosen to go to such extents to get alternative materials approved?
Other architects? I don’t know. Because it’s such a cheap material, nobody wants to spend that much time and energy on low-cost building—not so many people are interested in doing it.

Who has been a great influence on your work?
John Hejduk, the former Dean of Cooper Union. Because of him, I came to the U.S. to study architecture.

Here in New York, your Nomadic Museum just opened featuring Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow photo exhibit. Can you talk about why you chose shipping containers for this exhibition space?
Because this exhibit has to be transported—and it’s very expensive to transport a building that is over 45,000 square feet. I tried to come up with an idea of a transportable museum where we wouldn’t need to transport the building itself. I had previously designed a small exhibition to travel from Tokyo to Osaka using the small storage containers, so I just developed this idea further.

I first learned about you from your work on shelters for post-earthquake disaster relief in Kobe, India and Turkey. Can you cite some of the social or cultural challenges in using alternative structural materials like paper and having them accepted by the local populations?
When I designed a paper shelter for Turkey, my local architect there warned me before I built it. He said, maybe paper is accepted in Japan because there is a long history of living in wooden houses, but in Turkey people are used to living in masonry houses—concrete and brick buildings—and he assumed that the victims of the earthquake would not feel comfortable living in a paper house. But the reality was totally different. People were afraid of sleeping in masonry buildings because of their terrible experiences witnessing the collapse of these structures during the earthquake. So they felt very comfortable, safe, and secure sleeping in a paper house. The results were unexpected and well received.

How did you get involved with the refugee shelter work in Rwanda?
In Rwanda, many people were displaced by the genocide and refugees were cutting trees to support the plastic sheets provided to them by the UN for shelter. This became a huge deforestation problem, so the UN provided aluminum pipes as an alternative to trees, but the refugees sold the metals for profit and continued to cut the trees. That’s when the UN commissioned me to develop paper tube shelters and how I got involved in the project. I was working under the UN High Commission for Refugees.

I wanted to talk a bit about the regions affected by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Are you and Volunteer Architects’ Network, your NGO, involved in any of the reconstruction efforts?
Yes. In Sri Lanka, I’m rebuilding homes for the fishermen. I usually organize a team when I get a project with local architects and university students. Right now we are in Sri Lanka teaming up with local architects but we are not a big NGO with many people.

Do you find there is a large need for technical professionals like architects and engineers in these relief efforts? How can technical folks here get involved with some of these humanitarian efforts for post-tsunami reconstruction?
Right now there are many NGOs from all over the world working on these efforts. The first stage of the relief—medical care, food and water—is finished. Now the biggest problem is rebuilding the houses. There is a great need for the help of architects. So if they are interested in working, they can contact different NGOs. But usually we are not paid, so as long as they have the time and can financially survive, they can come to the disaster site and volunteer with NGOs, where I think there are many opportunities.

How has working in post-disaster environments affected you personally?
Affected me? Well, it’s made me very busy.

To learn more about Shigeru Ban visit Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum will be in New York until June 5, 2005; see



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