Role Model > Shigeru Ban


“We don’t need innovative ideas. We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly. A house is a house.”

When the northeastern coast of Japan was devastated in March 2011 by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunamis, imagery of the destruction was broadcast in real time and continuously replayed throughout the civilized world. The apocalyptic scale in which numerous coastal settlements were wiped off the map by unrelenting walls of water soon made the natural disaster Japan’s greatest tragedy and loss of life since World War II, and prompted a huge outpouring of support from well-heeled government and private aid organizations.

To date, Japan has tallied over 13,000 fatalities and the total loss of over 45,000 buildings, with hundreds of thousands more standing but significantly damaged. In the immediate wake of this calamitous physical loss, I couldn’t help but think of the acclaimed Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who is internationally known for his work with paper architecture and its implementation in the aftermath of numerous disasters around the globe. As the leader of a successful architecture practice with offices in Tokyo and Paris, Mr. Ban has designed a wide array of permanent residential and institutional projects in addition to his portfolio of paper works. In 1994, Ban first made his name in disaster aid by deploying a design for temporary tents to shelter Rwandans displaced by that country’s civil war.

Presenting a low cost and low impact alternative to aluminum or wood structural supports, Ban was able to build fifty paper tube and tarp shelters to temporarily house a portion of the war’s displaced, his first chance to evaluate the paper architecture system in practical use. Sixteen years later, Ban also employed a similar design for fifty relief structures in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, which is still reeling from the devastating earthquake of January 2010 and coping with a refugee population lingering in the hundreds of thousands.

After proving that his paper housing prototypes could be deployed with minimal cost and effort, Ban furthered his expertise with relief architecture after a January 1995 earthquake devastated the city of Kobe, Japan. The temporary shelters that he designed for occupation by disaster survivors there consisted of a beer crate and sandbag foundation, 4mm thick paper tube walls with waterproof sponge tape for insulation, and a tensile fabric roof. By deploying common and easily recyclable materials to their maximum effect, Mr. Ban’s prototype for a dry and sturdy 170 sqf home cost under $2000 and took a matter of hours to build. The comfort, expedient fabrication, and low cost of these paper relief structures caught the attention of many in the architecture and disaster aid fields, and soon helped establish Mr. Ban as architecture’s preeminent designer of temporary relief structures.

In the nearly two decades since these early relief projects, Mr. Ban’s expertise has been utilized to shelter disaster victims in places like Turkey, Sri Lanka, China, and Italy. The latest of these projects in the town of L’Aquila, Italy, which was struck by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in April 2009, infuses Ban’s signature paper shelter template with a civic and artistic component.

Completed in May of 2011, the Temporary Concert Hall is a simple circular structure surrounded by a square peristyle, with four sides of operable window walls providing enclosure from the elements. This scheme of a rectangular columned perimeter enclosing a circular interior partition creates a transitional zone defined simply by the paper columns and their shadows. A similar design has also been employed in other paper projects of Mr. Ban’s without a disaster relief function, such as the Paper House in Yamanashi Japan, seen below.

Outside of their capacity to simply and quickly house the newly homeless, Mr. Ban’s paper structures have also been utilized as temporary schools, theaters, architecture studios, exhibition pavilions, and even an arched bridge. By arranging slender tubes in a rigid triangular space frame, Ban pushes their ability to constitute a variety of arched and planar shapes and reveals the capacity of paper architecture to embody a more complex and poetic function than is required from simple relief shelters.

Demonstrating remarkable dexterity across a range of budgets and clients, this year Mr. Ban’s practice has simultaneously completed work on a boutique residential project in burgeoning West Chelsea, Manhattan while also providing design services for the temporary housing of northern Japan’s quake and tsunami victims. As opposed to the freestanding and afield tube structures seen in Rwanda and Kobe, in this instance many Japanese refugees are being sheltered for months at a time in large gymnasiums or stadiums until they can be moved into temporary government housing. Mr. Ban was tapped to design simple paper tube and canvas partitions in order to subdivide the open plan of these facilities and give families a variable measure of privacy among their neighbors. The contrast between these simple partitions and the automated metal shutters in his luxury Chelsea project epitomize Ban’s flexibility with a diversity of project scales and budgets.

With the impending completion of his Chelsea condos and a new 12,500 sqf. art museum planned in Aspen Colorado, Mr. Ban’s reputation and portfolio continues to grow in stature. Though these permanent projects help to bolster his status as an internationally recognized designer, Shigeru Ban’s greatest contribution to the architectural canon will surely be his innovative paper structures and their repeatedly successful deployment for humanitarian purposes around the world.

For more on the wide variety of architectural and logistical responses to major disasters, follow the jump.