House of Paper
The Satya Interview with Shigeru
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
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
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
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 www.shigerubanarchitects.com. Shigeru
Nomadic Museum will be in New York until June 5, 2005; see www.ashesandsnow.org.