Shigeru Ban: the paper architect and humanitarian pioneer 27.03.20

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The Paper Log House is one of Ban's humanitarian designs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.The Paper Log House is one of Ban's humanitarian designs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban is best known for his innovative work with paper, especially his disaster relief-housing and humanitarian design.

World-famous architect Shigeru Ban is best known for his innovative work with paper and cardboard. His unique blend of Japanese traditions and American modernism, as well as his innovative use of material has ensured that his work has received critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the Pritzker Prize in 2014. Ban is often praised for his surprising use of materials and for his dedication to humanitarian architecture. 

Born in Tokyo in 1958, Shigeru Ban grew up in a wooden house, and came to have an early respect for the workmanship of carpenters. He played around making things with small pieces of wood, and at school was accomplished in arts and crafts. 

Ban’s aspirations towards carpentry evolved into the desire to become an architect. He moved to the US to study architecture at the University of California in 1977 before moving to New York's famously experimental Cooper Union, where he was taught by the rationalist John Hejduk.

Following his studies, Ban immediately opened his own practice in Tokyo. Despite having no prior portfilio, he was soon commissioned for several exhibition projects. He also began to work on a series of houses that served as case studies for different design elements that he was playing with, including 'PC Pile House,' 'House of Double-Roof,' 'Furniture House,' 'Curtain Wall House,' '2/5 House,' 'Wall-Less House,' and 'Naked House.'

Ban’s work mixes traditional Japanese and contemporary aesthetics. He aims to create a sense of flow between the rooms of a house, and many of his projects feature a single floor with no change in the elevation. He was the first Japanese architect to construct a house primarily using paper. He even required special building approval to pass the country’s building code. His interest in the materials stem from them being light weight, recyclable, low-tech and easy to replace.

Read more: An in-depth look at Shigeru Ban's sustainable architecture

Ban's international reputation rests on his work desinging disaster shelters. Ban first poposed paper-tube shelters to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as a possible solution to the influx caused by the two million refugees who had escaped the Rwandan Civil War in 1994. His DIY refugee shelters have since been in various locations across the world, including Rwanda, Turkey and Japan. They are very popular and effective low-cost disaster relief-housing. 

Ban began experimenting with paper tubing architecture as early as 1986. He noticed how structurally strong the material was, and how commonly available. The tubing that Ban uses, found most often in textile manufacturing, is inexpnsive. In Turkey in 1999, Ban was even able to acquire paper tubing for free. 

His paper tubing houses were used successfully in the Rwanda refugee crisis in 1994. Before Ban’s solution was implemented, shelters were being built using wood, causing rapid deforestation. The wood was supplemented with aluminium provided at high cost by the United Nations. The transition to paper tubing for the housing frames was vastly cheaper, and prevented the theft and resale of the building materials.

Ban’s paper houses came in very useful during the 1994 Great Hanshin earthquake that destroyed much of Kobe. The temporary houses were quickly built through community participation. These modular houses had paper tubing walls with gaps for air and a roof made of waterproofing tent material. The foundations were made of donated beer crates and sand bags. A distance of 1.8 metres was left between the houses to use as common areas. When the houses were longer needed, they were swiftly dismantled and their materials were recycled.

In Kobe, Ban also designed the Paper Dome, to replace a chruch destroyed in the earthquake. Constructed in five weeks by volunteers from donated materials, it had an elliptical pattern based on those in Bernini’s designs. The church was removed in 2005 and donated to a town in Taiwan which had itself suffered from an earthquake. It remains permanently installed there today. 

Ban also built a temporary Paper Concert Hall in Italy in response to an earthquake in 2009. The concert hall was funded by the Japanese government to support the reconstruction of the city of L’Aquila, which was known for its music. 

More recently, Ban has created disaster relief buildings from other materials. In 2015, he provided homes for the victims of a catastrophic earthquake in Nepal. These quake-proof homes were made of wood and brick, and were – like his paper houses – quick and easy to build, and used rubble from the damaged buildings.

A humanitarian pioneer as well as an innovative architect, Ban's work has expanded the idea of what an architect can contribute to the world. 

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