Revisiting the 11th Tsai Lecture: Works and Humanitarian Activities by Architect Shigeru Ban

July 5, 2017

Winner of numerous prizes, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014, Shigeru Ban of Shigeru Ban Architects in Tokyo, Japan, delivered the 11th Annual Tsai Lecture in the Tsai Auditorium at Harvard University. He talked about many of his projects through a panoply of beautiful photographs of various constructs with innovative features, adapted to local conditions, especially for his humanitarian work in man-made and natural disaster areas throughout the world.

Ban graduated from Southern California Institute of Architecture and Cooper Union School of Architecture in 1984. He opened his own practice in Tokyo the following year and began an intense design, teaching and scientific career, through which he developed a personal style that blends traditional Japanese styles with elements of American modernism.
When designing exhibition halls in the mid-1980s in Japan, he found it too expensive to use wood as architects in Finland would do. He began to experiment with recycled paper and cardboard materials. To test their strengths under compression, he built a weekend house for himself with these materials. With this new technique, he built temporary exhibition halls in Japan after obtaining building permits.

He also used waterproof paper materials for the Japanese pavilion at the 2000 World Expo in Hanover, Germany, where preservation of the environment and other ecological concerns were prominent. He replaced concrete and PVCs in building the foundation and the main structure of the pavilion and built the scaffolding in the ceiling by hand in order to avoid industrial waste after the six month exhibition. In building temporary theaters and museums in Canada and the U.S., he used easily transportable and readily available building materials, such as rentable storage boxes, for structures that needed to be built quickly and later torn down easily.

Ban was imaginative in designing structures suitable to each specific situation. In his award-winning design for a very vertical and narrow building in the Ginza area, a commercial center of Tokyo, Ban wanted to give consumers equal access to all of the seven boutique stores in the compact building. He decided to leave the same amount of display space for each of the stores on the first floor, and then have an elevator to take customers to any of the upper floors where the seven boutiques were located. He used glass shutters, sun shading and other techniques to provide both a pleasant and inviting appearance and security at the same time.

Ban showed slides of his temporary office in Paris, which he built in 2004 on top of the Pompidou Museum. He ended up using this office for six years for free in an extremely high-rent area, which he had thought unaffordable. Pictures of his projects also included a seven-story building with no metal joints in the center of Zurich, Switzerland, a museum in downtown Aspen, Colorado, and another museum in Kyosho in southern Japan, all thoughtfully designed in many respects to attract visitors.

Since he became a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1995, Ban has spent considerable amount of time and energy to support disaster relief efforts in many corners of the world through the Voluntary Architects Network, an NGO he founded. In refugee camps in Rwanda, Congo and Vietnam, and after numerous natural disasters, Ban led his team of architects to all these areas and used paper tubes as primary building materials, adapted to various local conditions (such as fortifying paper tubes with sand bags or using beer crates or coca cola boxes as foundations) to build temporary shelters for millions of people. The disaster areas where he worked included the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan; the 2001 earthquake in western India; the 2004 tsunami in Kirinda, Sri Lanka; the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China; the 2009 earthquake in Italy; the 2010 Haiti earthquake; the 2011 tsunami in Japan; Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013; and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Ban and his team also built local churches and school classrooms to quickly reinvigorate community lives in a land of wreckage.

One of the churches made of paper materials was so well loved by the local community that it was used for ten years, after which it was donated to another disaster area in Taiwan. One priest was initially uncomfortable with the holy cross made in paper in his church. After Ban explained to him that “paper” in Japanese also meant God, the priest felt much better and enjoyed leading the services there. In other affordable housing projects for thousands of ordinary people, he used pre-fabricated factory-made cabinets and other structural parts that can all be installed in a time span as short as one day.

After all these experiences, Ban has a dialectical view of what is permanent and what is temporary. If a project is purely profit-driven and people don’t like it, the structure must be temporary even if it is made entirely of concrete and steel. On the contrary, if a structure is made with recycled paper materials, but people like it and will keep using it, then it is alive and becomes permanent in people’s lives. This is the reward of Ban’s humanitarian works, directly impacting lives of millions of people in dire situations, which is very different from designing and building monuments for the privileged few with money and power.