Shigeru Ban: between function and beauty

by Julian Worrall

Special To The Japan Times

Every profession has a fundamental underlying mission that is rooted in some basic human need. For medicine, it is health; for the law; it is justice. In the case of accountancy, it is the universal human need to minimize tax.

Architecture is rooted in the basic human need for shelter. But the profession today pays little attention to situations where the need for shelter is most urgent, such as after a disaster. Much of architecture’s energy, and the creativity of its most celebrated practitioners, is preoccupied with constructing glamorous baubles for the gratification of wealthy individuals and corporations. It is rare to find an architect as committed to the provision of shelter as to that of architectural delight.

Shigeru Ban is such an architect. Born in 1957, Ban first made his name in the mid-1990s with his use of lightweight paper tubes as structural and enclosing elements in buildings. In paper tubes, Ban found a material that is cheap, strong, sustainable, and readily available, but its wholesome brown blandness is hardly glamorous. Yet Ban’s portfolio also boasts eye-watering houses overlooking sea horizons with walls that roll completely away; a luxury high-street shop with futuristic cylindrical glass elevators; and a spectacular museum with a roof structure that appears to have been woven in timber. Most surprising is his parallel career as an architect of emergency shelters for people in the most abject situations — victims of war, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

These varied facets of Ban’s career are currently being shown in a large solo exhibition at Art Tower Mito, in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. Titled “Architecture and Humanitarian Activities,” the show spans the full breadth of his career, from an early design for an exhibition on the Finnish master Alvar Aalto, to his recent audacious structures in France and Korea executed in massive interlacing strands of timber — an innovative constructional approach that opens up exciting new spatial possibilities. As the title suggests, Ban’s projects for disaster relief form an intrinsic part of the story.

Architecture exhibitions face the inevitable challenge of not being able to show their most representative artifacts — buildings. Models and photographs are the usual expedients, but these are inevitably poor substitutes for the material and spatial force of real constructions. A strength of this show is the use of large-scale models or full-scale mockups of built elements, of a size and presence that invites direct engagement with one’s body, enabling their architectural qualities to be tangibly experienced.

This treatment has been particularly reserved for the disaster-relief projects. You can squat in the basic tents built of paper tubes and tarpaulins used by Rwandan refugees, the project that kicked off Ban’s career as an “humanitarian architect.” You can step inside the dignified “Paper Log House,” used as temporary housing after the 1995 Kobe quake, and later in Turkey and India. You can wander among the simple privacy partitions built of paper tubes and canvas curtains that Ban and his apprentices erected in dozens of emergency shelters across Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Most ambitiously, you can even get a sense of the living conditions in a temporary housing facility built from converted shipping containers that Ban has recently erected in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, as a full-size unit has been built in the courtyard of the museum, complete with furnishings supplied by Muji.

All this admirable verisimilitude, however, reveals a fundamental aesthetic difficulty for the curator, Sayako Kadowaki, one which illuminates the nature of Ban’s architecture. For want of better words, this problem might be termed the “banality of the real.” The nagging question faced by a casual visitor wandering through the mockups is: “How should I be looking at these things? As works of art? Or as products in a trade show?” The closer the displayed artifacts get to “the real thing,” the less aura they bear as aesthetic objects, and the less effectively they work as receptacles of conceptual or emotional content. Eventually these dimensions evaporate, replaced by a set of technical or practical concerns, of interest to be sure to practitioners, but which no longer direcltly engages aesthetic experience or cultural questions.

This exhibition reveals how conscientiously Ban takes architecture’s fundamental mission. The aesthetic delight or experiential rush that may come from the resulting buildings arises as an outcome of the core concern: providing shelter or space, economically, efficiently, rationally. In this, Ban’s architecture is rooted in the modernist credo that function begets beauty. Such an architecture sees its main task as “problem-solving.” Disasters create huge problems; architecture’s mission is to solve them.

Another approach to architecture sees its mission less as solving problems, but as posing questions. A disaster then becomes a giant existential question mark, asking, as fellow architect Toyo Ito has recently done: “What are we here for? What is architecture for? Is architecture even possible here?” These are questions that Ban’s architecture does not consider, for as this exhibition suggests, it already has the answers.

“Shigeru Ban — Architecture and Humanitarian Activities” at Art Tower Mito runs till May 12; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. www.arttowermito.or.jp

Next week, Julian Worrall’s first On: Architecture column will be featured on this page. The column will run each time there is a fifth Tuesday of the month.