Shigeru Ban

by Branka Bozic

Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban is one of the rare architects of today who is equally responsible to nature and humans. His words and deeds truly speak the same language. Crucial moment in his career happened in 2014, when he got the Pritzker’s Prize. Japanese architect, Toyo Ito, who won this award one year before, described Shigeru in these words: “Many architects in the world today are competing only for the beauty of the architectural form. Ban’s attempt is a counter-punch against these architects, and I think he represents a new model of a ‘socially responsible’ architect.” Shigeru Ban changed his architecture perception, it became sincere and noble. That is why we can say that not only a great architect was awarded in 2014, but a great man as well.

Persistence Builds Universality

Shigeru Ban was born in Tokyo in 1957. Jobs of his parents weren’t related to architecture. But, accidentally, they brought one craft similar to architecture closer to their son. They often renovated the house which they lived in, ever since Shigeru was a child. He enjoyed watching how repairmen changed wooden elements and connected them in traditional manner. Back then he was sure he wanted to be a carpenter, without imagining that he would change the lives of millions of people in future. During high school, within an artistic school subject, he got an assignment to make a model of a house. The model was declared one of the most successful and Shigeru realized what he truly wanted to become – an architect

Soon, he started to prepare for entrance exam at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Tomoharu Makabe was his mentor. He taught Shigeru how to work with bamboo, paper and wood. One day, he found an article about John Hejduk in the workshop. John Hejduk was a Dean at the Cooper Union’s School of Architecture at the time. This text changed Shigeru’s plans. Suddenly he decided to go to the USA in order to learn from Hejduk directly.  However, non-American citizens couldn’t attend the Cooper Union’s School of Architecture.

Shigeru Ban didn’t give up. He went to California in 1977 and entered Southern California Institute of Architecture. At this newly founded school, more famous as SCI-Arc, Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry were lecturers. Even though he saw this school only as a base from which he would later transfer to Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, he remained there until the last year of his studies. Raymond Kappei, the founder and professor of SCI-Arc, had a great influence on Shigeru. He was so delighted with Shigeru’s portfolio that he immediately transferred him to the second year of studies. Later, Shigeru Ban succeeded in entering Cooper Union’s School of Architecture where he graduated in 1984. John Hejduk inspired him to a large degree to start studying basic geometrical forms and their usage in space. Besides John Hejduk, many famous names like Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Ricardo Scofidio and others were lecturers of this school.

Architectural identity – paper tubes

After years of education in America, Shigeru Ban went to Europe where he discovered Alvar Aalto’s work. This Finish architect was always inspired by local materials, community and their cultural background. Aalto’s work principle reflected in Shigeru’s career. In fact, Shigeru’s creativity could be considered a hybrid of different influences. While he recognized unbreakable bond between people and their environment in Aalto’s work, every other school of architecture that he attended found its expression as well.

Only a year after gaining the title of an architect, he founded his own bureau in Tokyo in 1985. Although he didn’t have much working experience, he often experimented with materials. He was famous for the innovative usage of natural materials such as wood, soil, cardboard, paper. “I’m not inventing anything new, I’m just using existing material differently.” In 1986, he realized how great paper’s potential was, especially of paper tubes. They carry far more than we can assume, they don’t harm the environment, could be recycled and easily changed. Their good side is also an economic aspect, being cheap and available everywhere in the world. Their role isn’t only functional but aesthetical as well, being unobtrusive and modern at the same time. The peak of Shigeru’s tube usage happened in 1995 when Japanese Minister of Construction gave him an approval for using them for building houses. 

Many people regard him as the leader of futuristic design since his approaches are sustainable. But he explained briefly: “I have no interest in ‘Green,’ ‘Eco,’ and ‘Environmentally Friendly.’ I just hate wasting things.” Shigeru’s interest is to help those who are the most vulnerable: “An architect does not need to spend his whole career making monuments for rich people.” He designed numerous temporary residential buildings for the victims of climate changes and migrations around the world. They were inspired by context and modularity.  

Objects as Furniture Inspiration

Furniture that Shigeru Ban designs brings cosines to interiors. Materials like wood, cardboard and paper make the atmosphere warm with their natural tones. One of the first pieces he designed was the famous L-Unit System from 1993. This collection consists of tables and chairs made of plywood covered with recycled wood. If you ordered furniture from this series, you would get several flat L-shaped units. By simply merging parallel units, unique pieces are made. The successor of this collection was presented at Milan Furniture Fair in 2009. The 10-Unit System is more modern version, shaped from plastic composite and recycled paper. Pieces are moisture resistant and aren’t toxic. Elements are easily assembled, combined and disassembled. Artek Company’s ideology, the one that produces this furniture, is based on sustainable development and protection of the environment. 

Carta, the series of furniture from 1998, consists of a table, chair, deck chair and room partition. Plywood is the basic structural element, shaped with paper tubes of several inches in diameter. Tubes are parallel, thus making a surface from line elements. Form and weight of these objects are accordant, they are light. Certain elements are hollow in order to be practical and economical. There are no sharp angles, all parts merging one into another. The old series of Carta furniture was complemented with a new deck chair, table and bench in 2015. They were designed in the same manner as the previous collection. 

The elegance of Shigeru’s work reflects best in his lamp designs. Yumi floor lamp is a black, arched lamp whose height reaches 210 cm. Although it seems fragile, it’s very stable. Circular, metal base keeps balance with curved carbon fiber stem. This lamp is a product of rational material usage and minimalism.  Mirror Ball Lamp from 2018 has a circular base, like Yumi. But, a strong vertical dominates its form. At its very top, it is refined with ball-shaped shell in which a bulb is inserted. The shell’s volume abruptly turns to surface, so the contour of lamp’s main part becomes square-shaped. 

The Role Model for Every Generation

Architects speak through their work, through everyday situations in which the usage of their creations is reflected. Tod Williams, New York architect, describes Shigeru’s work: “It’s barely architecture. There’s no real depth to the work, and that’s why it’s a good, clear message.” Shigeru Ban sends a simple, comprehensible message to all generations. The essence of his approach isn’t hiding, it is everywhere around us. Although, he considers sustainability to be an empty word, he keeps working in accordance with nature. Arrogance in using natural resources in architecture requires special attention. Selflessness and empathy should become this world’s priorities. Attractiveness is in the background since it can be achieved in various ways. Shigeru says: “Everyone used to want to be star architects. That’s no longer the case.” This says a lot about modesty of a “Pritzker” winner, who puts others before himself. He strengthens the relationship between nature and men through architecture. His words and deeds truly speak the same language, and that is the language of humanity.

Featured image: Shigeru Ban – Portrait by Forgemind ArchiMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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