Shigeru Ban: the sustainable architect 27.02.12

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Shigeru Ban has used recycled cardboard tubes, his signature material, to build everything from shelters for earthquake victims to pavilions for luxury brands. As work begins on his replacement building for quake-damaged Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, he explains what he means by "temporary" architecture.

It sometimes seems that Shigeru Ban has a number of different architectural careers. There is the builder of experimental structures using unlikely materials, especially cardboard. Then there is the architect designing a steam of stylish modernist houses across the globe, or the Shigeru Ban who creates pavilions for luxury brands such as Hermès or Issey Miyake. At the same time however, there is also Shigeru Ban the activist, builder of emergency shelter in disaster areas all over the world. And this last aspect of his work means his career is at a crucial moment. After its chain of disasters earlier this year, his native Japan needs his talents more than ever before – in circumstances no one would wish for.

"This is a situation that we have never experienced," he says. "This mixture of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear problem – no one nation has experienced this." Ban is currently constructing emergency housing for Onagawa Town in eastern Japan, in the rubble and carnage left by the tsunami. It's a role he has previously performed in Sri Lanka, New Orleans, Haiti and other stricken places – in fact, disaster relief makes up a large part of his work, beginning in 1994 in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. After seeing images of refugees freezing as a result of not being provided with the correct shelters, he decided to get involved. "I thought: we have to improve the shelter otherwise any medical care doesn't happen," Ban says. "I went to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva to propose my idea and I was hired as a consultant for this project. That was the beginning." 
Since then there have been a steady stream of emergency projects, from simple partitions dividing up the space in halls where families have taken shelter, emergency structures for rapid deployment, to low-cost housing to replace that which is destroyed. Many of these projects are directly commissioned, but equally as often Ban simply takes his expertise to wherever it is needed.

The earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, in February this year gave Ban an opportunity to work in a more substantial way in a post-disaster context; he was approached to build a temporary replacement cathedral for the city after the George Gilbert Scott original was badly damaged. The structure of the new 700-capacity cathedral will consist of a splayed A-frame made of cardboard columns, Ban's signature material, with a stained-glass facade to recall the rose window of the lost building. "They had a second earthquake in June and the cathedral was completely destroyed," Ban says. "After the first one, it was partially damaged. They thought they might be able to repair and re-use it but after the second earthquake, they gave up. The area of the downtown was totally closed." Ban's replacement will be builtat the edge of the "no-go" zone downtown. "In order to have some kind of memory and relationship, I used the geometry of the original cathedral for the new temporary cathedral,"
he explains, describing how the project starts to blur the boundaries between pragmatic, emergency structures and the more "architectural" world of cultural context and social meaning.

Indeed, the Christchurch Cathedral, designed to be used for at least 10 years, also starts to ask questions about the very notion of the "temporary" building. "There is no difference between temporary and permanent," Ban suggests. "The church I built after the Kobe earthquake, [in 1995], it was there for eleven years. Then it was donated to another disaster area in Taiwan and then it became permanent." To Ban, the very notion of the permanence of architecture is suspicious: "If a concrete building is made by the developer just to make money, it is always temporary because another developer will destroy it to build a new one. That's a huge waste. Temporary is not because of the structure. Temporary is just the purpose of the building." It's true that if there is one thread that links all of Ban's projects together it's a sense of ephemerality, from the recycled materials that go into the buildings to the ease with which they can be taken down and reused afterwards. Take his Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo, the cardboard and paper gridshell collaboration with Frei Otto which brought him world renown; "Normally the pavilions for an Expo are there for only half a year, then they dismantle them and they create alot of industrial waste. But my goal was not when the building was completed, but when it was dismantled. So I carefully chose the material and also the construction method in order to recycle or reuse the building material after it was dismantled. That was how I designed. Not to make the completed building, that was not the goal."

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It's tempting to see in this "cradle-to- cradle" approach a possible method for building in disaster contexts, although Ban is doubtful: "If you wanted to reuse, you would have to separate the materials – the wood, the plastic and so on. It's impossible. If you see the amount of rubbish, you can imagine." That said, his work is not all just elaborate uses for recycled cardboard tubing: Ban has recently been getting involved in the use of shipping containers – a rather crowded field, ranging from trendy dockside flats which use the very objects that rendered the docks redundant, to "pop-up malls" that stuff boutique shops into containers on recession-hit development sites. Ban is not impressed by this kind of thing, however: "This is nothing new," he says. "Many architects have built buildings out of shipping containers. The inside of the container is a terrible space – made for things, not for people." Instead Ban uses the containers to create in-between spaces, using the boxes themselves for the very minimum of programme. This is visible in the emergency housing under construction in Japan, or in the "Nomadic Museum" a massive (and again temporary) art-space with walls created by containers stacked in a chessboard pattern with a roof supported by the ubiquitous paper tubes, which migrated from New York to Los Angeles to Tokyo. Ban's logic for using the container is again about reducing the waste of the building project: "I had to make a building to travel from country to country, city to city, because the container is an international standard, I can rent the same container anywhere in the world so that I do not have to transport them. I can rent them locally and temporarily for the exhibition period. The material is locally available anywhere. It just happens to be a container".

By now his architecture is beginning to sound like a 1960s dream come true; the mobile, plug-in, standardised "zoom" architecture that would eventually become the "style" of high-tech. But there are other projects in Ban's oeuvre that begin to stand out from this pragmatism; his recent Pompidou Centre in Metz, France, for example, is draped in a large drooping timber roof structure, all double curves and bespoke connections. Buildings like this one, or his recent Korean Golf Clubhouse seem to have far more in common with the extravagances of Gehry 
or Hadid than, say, Cedric Price, and the former are not exactly known for their efficiency. Ban is reluctant to accept that there is a contradiction, however; "For the construction, the preparing and cutting of timber, we take advantage of the most advanced digital machines – it's important, but the design doesn't depend on that." But this expressive, high technology timber work has its significant uses as well: the altogether more conventional "Tamedia" office building in Zurich – currently in construction – uses similar techniques to achieve an entirely timber structure, and it's not long before we return to the question of materials and their lifespans: "I think we have no choice," he says. "Concrete and steel are a limited resource, only timber is unlimited as a structural material. We have to use more timber – the timber that Europe is consuming is much less than the rate the trees are growing".

So across all scales and variations of building it all seems to return to questions of waste and efficiency for Ban. But does this mean that he's coming more into step with the "green" architecture movement? "I started using recycled paper and materials for buildings in 1986 when nobody was speaking about recycling or the ecology, the sustainable issue, which has become totally fashionable now. I started doing this because I don't like to waste things; it's not because of this fashionable movement." He seems keen to distance himself from the more "beard and sandals" stereotype of environmentally conscious architecture, and it's Ban's ability to apply the same approach across so many different types of project that sets him apart from others.

For example; which other "sustainable" architects have clients that are drawn equally from the worlds of art, fashion, politics and industry? But it's obviously an issue that he cares deeply about: "Architects' biggest interest is in ecology," he says. "They try to use technology even if the building becomes more expensive. The overall costs, the lifespan, costs more. It's a very important issue for us. People are more interested in using ecological technology commercially. Nobody talks about how to reduce the waste."

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Shigeru Ban Architects

 

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Douglas Murphy

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I started doing this when nobody was speaking about recycling or ecology

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