Spotlight: Shigeru Ban

Aspen Art Museum. Image © Michael Moran Aspen Art Museum. Image © Michael Moran

Shigeru Ban (born August 5th 1957) is a Japanese architect who won the 2014 Pritzker Prize for his significant contributions in architectural innovation and philanthropy. His ability to re-apply conventional knowledge in differing contexts has resulted in a breadth of work that is characterized by structural sophistication and unconventional techniques and materials. Ban has used these innovations not only to create beautiful architecture but as a tool to help those in need, by creating fast, economical, and sustainable housing solutions for the homeless and the displaced. As the Pritzker jury cites: “Shigeru Ban is a tireless architect whose work exudes optimism.”

Courtesy of Shigeru Ban Architects Courtesy of Shigeru Ban Architects

Born in Tokyo to a businessman father who enjoyed classical music and a mother who designed haute couture clothing, Ban's upbringing was a creative one from the start. He grew up in a Japanese wooden house that was often being renovated by carpenters, which sparked the child’s fascination for traditional carpentry. As a teenager, Ban originally intended to attend the Tokyo University of the Arts, until he came across an article on John Hejduk, who was the dean of the Cooper Union School of Architecture at the time. The models and plans of unbuilt buildings by this "paper architect" were revolutionary for the young Shigeru Ban and convinced to him to pursue his studies in architecture at Cooper Union.

Aspen Art Museum. Image © Michael Moran Aspen Art Museum. Image © Michael Moran

Unfortunately, Cooper Union did not accept international students at the time, so in 1977, Ban travelled to California to learn English and to attend the Southern California Institute of the Architecture (SCI-arc). While in Los Angeles, Ban became interested in the Case Study Houses, many of which showed traces of the influence of traditional Japanese architecture.

Nomadic Museum, Santa Monica. Image © <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/paolomazzoleni/248929123'>Flickr user paolomazzoleni</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a> Nomadic Museum, Santa Monica. Image © <a href='https://www.flickr.com/photos/paolomazzoleni/248929123'>Flickr user paolomazzoleni</a> licensed under <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>CC BY 2.0</a>

Ban transferred to Cooper Union in 1980, where he met his future partner, Dean Maltz, as a classmate. He was taught by Ricardo Scofidio, Tod Williams, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, and John Hejduk. Before graduating in 1984, he took a year of absence from his studies to work at Arata Isozaki’s office in Tokyo. He also accompanied the photographer Yukio Fukagawa on a trip to Europe, where he became inspired by the materials of Alvar Aalto’s architecture in Finland.

Curtain Wall House. Image © Hiroyuki Hirai Curtain Wall House. Image © Hiroyuki Hirai

The effect of Ban’s upbringing and early life experiences can be seen in the development of his architectural projects. When Ban started his own practice in 1985, he had no prior working experience; he spent this first year designing installations for various exhibitions as the curator of Axis Gallery in Tokyo. For an installation exhibiting Alvar Aalto’s work, he developed and utilized paper-tube structures, which has since become a recurring theme in his work. Around the same time, he also designed a series of Case Study Houses (PC Pile House, House of Double Roof, Furniture House, Curtain Wall House, 2/5 House, Wall-Less House, and Naked House) which reflected the experimental nature of domestic architecture in his native country.

Tamedia Office Building. Image © Didier Boy de la Tour Tamedia Office Building. Image © Didier Boy de la Tour

Ban’s developments in architecture focused on experimental approaches to materials and structural systems. In many cases, he uses ordinary materials such as paper, wood, fabric, and shipping containers, to assemble buildings in extraordinary ways. He used shipping containers as a building material for the Nomadic Museum, and applied traditional joinery techniques to create the Tamedia Office Building in Zurich; the building’s interlocking timber structural system is completely devoid of joint hardware and glue. Ban’s unconventional approach leads to an elegant simplicity and apparent effortlessness in his work, a quality seen best in the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Paris, a competition he won in 2001.

Centre Pompidou Metz. Image © Didier Boy de la Tour Centre Pompidou Metz. Image © Didier Boy de la Tour

In the 1990s Ban realized that his innovations could be used to improve the lives of displaced refugees and victims of natural calamities. In 1994, he proposed his paper-tube shelters to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he was subsequently hired as a consultant. After a few temporary housing projects, Ban established the NGO Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN) to start disaster relief activities, providing assistance in Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, China, Italy, Haiti and Japan among other countries. His paper-tube structures proved to be cheap, easy to assemble and most importantly customizable.

His expertise in resilient architecture and post-disaster design has made him a valuable commodity to cities and governments around the world. In 2017, Ban visited Mexico City to advise on reconstruction efforts after a devastating series of earthquakes rocked the country in September of that year. He has also developed housing prototypes for refugees in Kenya, and as recently as July 2018 designed shelter for victims of flooding in Japan. 

Shigeru Ban Named Pritzker Laureate for 2014

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Material Masters: Shigeru Ban's Work With Wood

Shigeru Ban on Growing Up, Carpentry, and Cardboard Tubes

Archiculture Interviews: Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban's "Kooky" Architecture: Just What the World Needs?

Shigeru Ban Creates Temporary Shelter System for Japanese Flooding Victims

TEDxTokyo: Emergency Shelters Made from Paper / Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban to Design Up to 20,000 New Homes for Refugees in Kenya

See all of Shigeru Ban's work featured on ArchDaily via the thumbnails below, and more coverage of Ban below those: