Generally speaking, an architect’s style is defined by particular forms or shapes. There’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s prominent horizontal lines, for instance; Le Corbusier’s simple white boxes; or, more recently, the deliberately abstract masses of Frank Gehry — of Guggenheim Bilbao fame. But in the view of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, such formal elements are ultimately little more than reflections of current trends — in the first two cases above, Modernism, and in the third, “blobbism,” or the recent taste for irregular shapes made possible by computer-aided design.

According to Ban, the only way for architects to keep their work free from the influence of such transient fashions is to come up with new ways to actually build things — new materials, for example, or new approaches to structural engineering.

His own answer? Paper — or, to be more precise, cardboard tubes.

As he explained to The Japan Times recently, a realization he had in the mid 1980s that paper could be used to create the weight-bearing structural elements of a building gave him the chance to develop his own unique form of architecture.

The use of cardboard in architecture is so counter-intuitive, of course, that most people’s reaction to the concept tends to be along the lines of: “Won’t it get soggy in the rain?”

So common is that question, in fact, that on the website of one of Ban’s current paper projects — a cardboard church in Christchurch, New Zealand — that query is written there for all to see. The answer is, too: “Quite the contrary. The more than 90 enormous 600mm-diameter, 20-meter cardboard tubes (that form the church’s structure) are protected by a polycarbonate roof above, and a very solid concrete floor below.”

Ban’s cardboard cathedral in the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand is among the latest in a succession of projects he has undertaken at the sites of natural and humanitarian disasters. It was the partial destruction of the city’s original stone-built ChristChurch Cathedral in a February 2011 earthquake that prompted him to suggest building a temporary replacement in cardboard.

Then, just a few weeks later, he was drawn to another disaster zone much closer to home. One of the projects he achieved in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, was to design a partition system — again using cardboard tubes — to give residents of evacuation centers in the stricken Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu a modicum of privacy.

And yet, even as Ban has made a name for himself worldwide as the cardboard-wielding architect with a humanitarian streak, he has also completed high-profile commissions using the more conventional materials of wood, concrete and steel. In 2010, he opened his largest public project to date, a branch museum in the northeastern French city of Metz to 1977’s famed Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

A giant structure modeled on a Chinese hat, the Centre Pompidou-Metz consists of a dome-like roof structure pierced through at different angles by long, tunnel-like galleries.

Since then, Ban has been working on a host of other large projects. These include the new corporate headquarters for Swatch, in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland (earlier, in 2007, he had done their flagship showroom in Tokyo’s Ginza district), and Oita Prefectural Art Museum on Japan’s large southern island of Kyushu.

There’s also a stunning, five-story office building of his in Zurich for the media conglomerate Tamedia. In its current state of construction, this is truly a sight to behold, being entirely made of wood. In fact all the joints where horizontal beams meet vertical columns are fashioned with giant wooden pegs — no metal, not even a nail, is used.

“It will be a very relaxing, soothing building to be in,” Ban said of the Tamedia Building, which is due to open in May.

In this, his 56th year, Tokyo-born Ban is also the subject of a retrospective exhibition at Ibaraki Prefecture’s Art Tower Mito — a building designed, incidentally, by the only Japanese architect with whom he ever apprenticed: Arata Isozaki.

The show, which runs through May 12, traces his career from his time spent studying in the United States in the early 1980s. Taking in his early experiments with paper and other unusual building materials, it also features his residential work, his disaster-relief work and other, larger projects such as the Centre Pompidou-Metz — the same topics he expanded on in this discussion.

When was the first time you became aware of the notion of “architecture”?

It wasn’t architecture, but the work of builders that I first became aware of when my parents were having extensions added to our house. I didn’t know anything about architecture; I just assumed that it was the builders who made houses.

But you were interested in what they did?

Well, they were around. I liked the smell of the wood, and the wood offcuts and things that would be lying around. So I would collect those and make things.

In junior high school we had a class called Industrial Arts and Homemaking, and for one of our summer-holiday projects we had to design a house and make a model. I was really good at it, and that was when I decided I wanted to become an architect.

Why did you go to university in America?

From primary school through high school I was a very keen rugby player. I was quite serious about it, so my original plan was actually to go to Waseda University in Tokyo (which has a strong rugby tradition) and do both rugby and architecture.

What did you like about rugby?

Well, it’s kind of like a martial art — very physical. I liked that.

But you didn’t go to Waseda.

In my second year at high school, our rugby team went to the national championships, but we lost in the first round. It was a big shock. I realized how far below the level of the really good schools we were, so I gave up playing.

At the same time, I was becoming more and more interested in drawing, so I shifted my focus from Waseda to the architecture faculty of Tokyo University of the Arts. There I learned about (U.S. architect, artist and educator) John Hejduk (1929-2000) and the Cooper Union school in New York (where Hejduk graduated in 1950 and taught from 1964 until his death). It all seemed really interesting, so I decided I wanted to go there.

Were you happy with Hejduk once you got to Cooper Union?

I was, but I came to realize that the education philosophy at Cooper Union didn’t really suit me. I was much better than the other students but I was always fighting with the teachers and they refused to pass me. I had to redo my graduation work and so my graduation was delayed by six months.

You don’t often hear of Japanese students overseas fighting with their teachers — especially not in English. Were you a confident young man?

I wasn’t confident with my English, but I wanted to remain true to my own principles. I didn’t want to compromise. Maybe I wasn’t in the traditional Japanese mold. And, of course, I had only been educated in Japan up to high school, so perhaps I hadn’t acquired that Japanese mind-set yet.

But after graduating you came back to Japan. Why was that?

After my fourth year, I was really tired so I took a year off from studies and worked at Arata Isozaki’s office in Tokyo for a year. Just by chance, when I was about to go back to the States to do postgraduate work, my mother (a fashion designer) decided to build a new atelier. And that is why I stayed — to build that. Afterward I started getting other work, so I never got back to America to do the graduate degree. And I think that was a good thing.


I got to do practical training in Japan. This country is very different from others in terms of practical training. As you know, Japanese architects are quite successful overseas. I’ve thought a lot about the reason for this, and I think it’s because Japan is the only country where even members of the middle class are willing to employ architects. Elsewhere it is only the very rich who do that. Consequently, there are plenty of opportunities for young architects to improve their skills here.

The other thing is that the Japanese conception of privacy is quite loose; it’s not as strict as you see in some Western countries. And I think that makes it easier for architects to propose new types of architecture here.

One of your breakout works was a structure that took advantage of those loose Japanese conceptions of privacy — the Curtain House, where the external walls are in fact curtains.

Yes, that’s right. And, you know, if you go to a ryokan (traditional inn) in Japan, then on the other side of the fusuma (sliding doors covered with paper) is a different family. Japanese are fine with that.

In the 1980s you made a lot of houses …

That’s right. Houses are the most important element of an architect’s training.

Why is that?

Designing a house is far more difficult than making an art museum or an office building. With a house you have one particular client whose lifestyle it has to suit. With an office you are dealing with generalities.

So, when architects get famous they tend to stop doing residential projects. There is no money in them, they are difficult and the responsibility is large.

But the kinds of architects I respect — people like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe or Alvar Aalto — continued to make houses their entire lives. It was in their houses that they did their experimentation.

Is there anything in particular you try to achieve when you do residential architecture?

The work itself is the same as with any other job. But with houses, the requests and desires of the people who are to live in them are always different. Incorporating those desires into the house is the difficult part.

And the other thing is working out how to make the most of the location. People who have bought land always have something about it they like. By ascertaining exactly what it was about the land that attracted them, then you can usually come up with a solution that capitalizes on that.

How did you come to start working with paper tubes?

Well, it stemmed from my research into building materials and techniques.

When I was young, I studied a lot about architects and I realized that at every period in history, architects have been influenced by the trends and movements of the day — Postmodernism, Baroque or whatever.

At the same time, there have been a few architects who have managed to keep their work insulated from such trends. For example, Buckminster Fuller and (German architect) Frei Otto. I realized those people had all developed their own unique materials or approaches to structural engineering and decided I should do the same. Paper, or paper rolls, was one of the things I came up with.

The first time I used paper was for an interior, but I realized it was strong enough to be used as a structural element — to actually hold up the building. Wood and paper can stand up to earthquakes where concrete can be destroyed. In other words, I discovered that the strength of the materials is unrelated to the strength of the building.

What kind of design characteristics stem from the use of paper as a building material?

Unlike steel, paper rolls are difficult to shape, so the methods of joining the pieces are pretty much fixed. The other thing is that instead of erecting the rolls in lines, it is nicer to line them up so they form gently curving walls — in terms of light and shadow. And it’s stronger to have them curving, too. So the use of paper lends itself to gently curving walls.

Is there a limit to how big a paper building could be?

Of course, just as there are appropriate uses for materials there are appropriate scales. Paper would not be suited to making a 10-story building.

I like paper, but it is not the only material I use. I use wood and steel and concrete, too. The important thing is that the material must match the function.

I see, and one of your largest projects in wood is currently under construction — the Tamedia Building in Zurich. If anything was going to test the limits of possibility for a wooden structure, it would be that!

Not at all. In terms of its size, the building goes beyond what would be allowed by law in Japan, but it is certainly not transcending the limits of wood. It is an appropriate use of a material.

I guess I haven’t seen a multistory office-style building like this made of wood before. Surely it is unusual?

You could say that it is a Japanese style of building — in that no metalwork is used in the joints, and so on. It is like the old Japanese temples and shrines.

The thing is that if you were to use metal at the joints, then there would actually be no reason to use wood at all. In that case, you would simply be replacing metal beams and columns with wooden ones. I’m not interested in that. If I use wood, then I want to make something that can only be done in wood.

Why did you want to make that particular building in wood?

The president of the company wanted to have a workspace that felt comfortable, that felt like his own living room. And I was interested in wood so that’s what I proposed. He liked the idea a lot.

Another consideration was that in Switzerland they have very advanced woodworking technologies. The engineers I worked with on the Centre Pompidou-Metz were all Swiss, too.

I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be inside such a large wooden building. Will it feel different to walk around in? Will the sound — the acoustics — be different, perhaps?

The sound probably won’t be that different. Wood is not being used on the surfaces, but in the structure, and it is the surfaces that receive sound. But I think it will certainly be a relaxing, soothing environment. It will be something like being inside a giant log house.

How did you arrive at the large domelike shape for the Centre Pompidou-Metz?

It was an international competition. I had done the Japanese pavilion for the Hanover Expo in Germany in 2000 — in collaboration with Frei Otto — and it had a large shell made of cardboard tubes. At that time, by coincidence I happened to come across a Chinese hat on a street corner. It was made with woven bamboo, and on top of that frame it was covered with waterproof oilpaper. It was also lined with dried leaves, so it had insulation, too. It essentially had the same elements as a building, and when I looked at it, I realized I wanted to create a structure like that for Metz.

Right at the time we were working on that project there was a lot of talk about the so-called Bilbao Effect — referring to how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, managed to boost the local tourism industry. The city officials in Metz were hoping for such an effect because it is quite a small town — but the fact is that if you talk to the artists and curators about the Guggenheim Bilbao, they say it is actually a very difficult building to use. I think it goes without saying that a building needs to be easy to use — but it needs to be architecturally interesting, too. At Metz, I tried to achieve both.

Underneath the wooden roof structure are very easy-to-use galleries — three of them that are each about 90 meters long and 15 meters wide. They pierce the entire structure from end to end. And they are placed at different angles so that at each end they form giant windows overlooking different monuments within the town.

Is the city happy with the building?

Oh yes. For the first time ever since I have worked as an architect, people actually recognize me on the street. People will come up to me and thank me for making such a wonderful museum in their city.

I’d also like to ask about your disaster-relief work, which I believe began with the Rwanda refugee camps set up during and after the genocide there in the 1990s. You obviously have a very strong notion of an architect’s social responsibility.

That’s right. Architects tend to work with the privileged classes of society. Historically speaking, it is people with money or political power who hire architects to change that power into something visible, a symbol of their status.

I realized this when I started working as an architect, and it was actually very disappointing. But at the same time I also noticed how, when disasters happen, people lose their houses or they suffer through lack of shelter — and I realized that this was where we could help. I had seen photos of the Rwanda refugee camps and so I went to the UNHCR in Geneva to make suggestions about how they could be improved.

How did they respond?

At that time they were having problems with their tents in Rwanda. They had been using local wood and 4×6-meter tarpaulin sheets, but there was not enough wood, so people were cutting down trees and causing deforestation.

The UNHCR then switched to aluminum frames, but that was problematic too, because in Africa aluminum is a valuable commodity and so the refugees would sell the tubing and go back to cutting down trees. I was suggesting something completely new — that the frames could be made with paper tubes — and so the timing was good.

What was it like to go and actually build those in Rwanda?

It was an eye-opening experience. I went with the intention of providing the people with more comfortable shelters — but I realized that if you give them shelters that are too good, then they lose their motivation to ever go back to rebuild their own homes. You need to provide just the bare minimum.

Anyway, my task was to come up with a material that could be used instead of wood. The budget was just $50 for each shelter, and we achieved that.

How did you respond to Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in March 2011?

After each of the major recent earthquakes — at Kobe (1995), Fukuoka (2005) and Niigata (2007) — I had tried to propose paper-tube-based partition systems for evacuation centers to give the displaced people there a little privacy.

However, I always bumped into the same problem, which was the gap between the evacuees’ desire for privacy and the center administrators’ desire for ease of control. The administrators would worry that if we gave the evacuees privacy, then they would drink or get up to no good. Gradually I came to realize that if you made anything too substantial, then the officials just wouldn’t accept it.

This informed the proposal I made in Tohoku (with semi-transparent fabric being used for the partitions). Basically, officials don’t want to do anything for which there is no precedent. So what we did was go firstly to the evacuation centers that were administered by NGOs or, in a few cases, universities. They were very happy to work with us, especially if we didn’t charge, and from there we could demonstrate a precedent and gradually it expanded.

We were eventually able to build them in 50 evacuation centers, for a total of 1,800 units.

I believe you have also been active in New Zealand since the series of major earthquakes there around the same time.

Yes. Earlier I said that architecture is for the privileged class, but that is an extreme position. In New Zealand, I am building a church using paper rolls. It’s a church so, in a way, it is for a limited sector of society, but it was always that city’s symbol, a tourist destination. They held concerts there and so on, and so it was a part of the city’s life.

I took on that job on a voluntary basis to be able to help give that back to the city. So, I think in some cases monuments can actually be for a particular sector of society — but at the same time for the entire community.

I see. And that work is voluntary?

Of course. If I can build the kind of thing I want to build, and if people are happy with that, then that is enough for me. It doesn’t matter if I get money for it or not. There are more important things than that.

What’s the most important thing when making architecture?

Even something that I intended as a temporary structure, like a paper church I made in Kobe in 1995, can end up being permanent. That church was relocated to Taiwan in 2006, after they had an earthquake there, and it still exists today. Ultimately, what determines the permanence of a building is not the wealth of the developer or the materials that are used, but the simple question of whether or not the resulting structure is supported — loved — by the people.

Architecture made simply for profit — even if it’s in concrete — is in fact temporary. Commercial architecture is precisely that. If it is made for making money then eventually some other developer will come along and try to make more money out of it by demolishing it and rebuilding it. And it just repeats. In that way concrete is in fact temporary.

However, if you make architecture that is loved by the people, then regardless of what it is made of, it will be kept.

“Shigeru Ban — Architecture and Humanitarian Activities” at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, Tokyo, runs till May 12. Open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥800 (junior high school children and below are free). Closed Mon. www.arttowermito.or.jp.

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