Reviewed by Thomas Fisher
We typically think of architects designing large, permanent structures, immobile and immensely expensive. However, a young generation of designers, led by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, has begun to invert our expectations of what architects do, focusing instead on small, temporary structures, light in weight and largely made of recycled or reusable materials.
Matilda McQuaid’s new book, Shigeru Ban, reveals the mix of moral commitment and technical competence that makes his work so powerful. Divided into five sections —paper, wood, bamboo, prefabrication, and skin—the book’s table of contents gives the impression of its being a technical manual, which it partly is. At the end of each section, the book contains highly detailed test data that Ban has conducted to demonstrate the viability of using unconventional materials or common materials in unconventional ways.
Ban has become best known for using paper tubes as structural elements. He first used the leftover tubes from carpet rolls in an exhibition he designed in 1986 on the work of Alvar Aalto. But he has subsequently used paper tubes in ever more daring applications: as roof trusses in a library for a poet, as structural walls in a “paper house” and “paper church,” as vertical “logs” or tubular tent frames for emergency shelters, and as vaults in the sculpture garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art or in the Japan Pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany.
In this last project, Ban worked with the architect Frei Otto and engineers at Buro Happold, to create an undulating doubly curved, three-dimensional vault made of paper tubes fastened with fabric tape. The mix of low-tech materials and high-tech structural form, and of Japanese paper construction and German light-weight engineering, made the Japanese Pavilion a landmark of a globally sustainable architecture, fusing the best of Eastern and Western thought.
Ban has not stopped with paper tubes. He has brought the same daring to wood products, using particleboard as exposed fireproofing in the GC Osaka Building, a basket-weave vault of laminated-veneer lumber for the IMAI daycare center, a dome of laminated-strand lumber at the IMAI gymnasium, and a woven structural plywood vault for the “wickerwork house.” Ban takes structural ideas from sources such as baskets, mats, and lunch boxes and enlarges them to make lightweight, inexpensive buildings.
He has done the same with bamboo, making lattice shells, box beams, and plywood walls and furniture from the material. And he has used common prefabricated elements in uncommon ways—off-the-shelf storage units as structural walls, oriented strand board as ceiling surfaces, fabric drapes as a “curtain wall,” and nylon membranes as interior walls attached using hook-and-loop fasteners.
Not since the 1960s, when people such as Frei Otto or John Dinkeloo were at their height, have architects been so inventive and adventuresome with materials. Shigeru Ban has brilliantly melded that tradition with the concerns for sustainability, social justice, and affordability that have come to characterize our own era. As Frei Otto writes in the book’s introduction, “Shigeru Ban is the future.” Amen.