Shigeru Ban, international architecture superstar, is considered by many to be something of a brilliant Gyro Gearloose character in his field. A seminal “green” architect before ecology became fashionable, the Japanese mastermind has created spectacular buildings out of the most unexpected material: tubes of paper. Since he first pioneered his paper structures—best evidenced in his now-iconic Paper Church in Kobe, Japan—he has been constantly searching for new materials to recycle.
Recently he’s been thinking about using sand to create buildings in Dubai. The 51-year-old Ban is fascinated by technical prowess,but he is also sensitive to a certain morality in architecture. A former consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he is renowned for being an “emergency architect,” capable of intervening rapidly to create temporary structures, as was the case after the Kobe earthquakes in 1995, for the Congo refugees in Rwanda in 1999, and again in China’sSichuan Province in 2008. I met up with him in Paris this past January in his “temporary paper studio” (conceived like a long ship’s cabin), which has literally been anchored to the sixth story of the Centre Pompidou since 2004. Dressed in black and surrounded by a team of 10, BAN is currently working on his most eagerly awaited project of the moment: the Centre Pompidou-Metz satellite museum, in Metz, France, to becompleted next fall.
JUDITH BENHAMOU-HUET: Where do you come from?
SHIGERU BAN: From the Empire of the Rising Sun. [laughs] I like saying that. It’s also a reference to the Japanese flag. But usually in Japan my friends tell me I don’t behave like I’m Japanese.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Why? Do you think you’re not typically Japanese?
BAN: This week I’ll be spending about four days in Paris, then I’ll be going to my New York office for about four days, then to Tokyo for about the same length of time. I constantly live at that pace. I travel a lot. Japanese culture is very ancient and very strong. That’s why most people who commission work from Japanese architects expect them to create works that have an element of exoticism, the kind typical of Japanese culture. I don’t do that.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Did you always want to be an architect?
BAN: I started wanting to be an architect at the age of 12. I made a model of a house for a craftwork class at school. It was a big house that swiveled around and lit up.
BENHAMOU-HUET: When did you decide to leave Japan for abroad?
BAN: My mother was a fashion designer, and she used to come to Paris regularly for the shows. I would go and wait for her at the airport and, when we got home, I would open up her suitcase and discover incredible things: a Swiss watch, a beautiful leather jacket . . . It was from that time that I kept a fascination for everything foreign. Later on, I wanted to become a designer, and one of my teachers preparing us for art school advised me to follow a more general training. At his home, he had a scale model that had been made by the director of the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York. I was fascinated by it. I went to study in Los Angeles for three years, for administrative reasons, then I went to finish my studies in New York, at Cooper Union, as had been my wish. That’s why my work isn’t more exotic. My references are international. BENHAMOU-HUET: Who do you consider to be your masters in architecture?
BAN: At the time of my studies, I admired Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, but when I started traveling, I went to Finland, in 1985, and it was there that I understood that the contribution of Alvar Aalto was capital. To understand his work, you have to go to the sites in question, because he really created buildings that function in their environments. I think I had a sort of vision very early on, but it wasn’t as clear then as it is now. The most important thing, in order to forge one’s own creative personality, is to travel, to see different environments, different cultures. I wanted to try to imagine a new kind of structure in architecture. In general, architects follow fashions. They’re neoclassical, postmodern . . . After the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the demand was very much for “museum sculptures.”
BENHAMOU-HUET: Do you consider yourself a “green” architect?
BAN: I hate that word, which is used so much these days. When I started getting involved in humanitarian or ecological questions, no one was really interested in the subject. I made the Kobe church from tubes of paper in 1995, but I’d started developing the idea of structures made from paper as early as 1986.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Do you feel you have a genius for inventing materials?
BAN: Not really. My main principle consists of reusing or recycling pre-existing materials. It took me several years to work out how to use the paper tubes. Today, I’m working on using sand for some condominiums in Dubai.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Hasn’t the work been stopped because of the current economic crisis?
BAN: To my great surprise, no, it hasn’t. But to go back to the previous question, people are always asking me what my next material is going to be. I don’t have any one material of predilection. The paper tubes represent barely 10 percent of my production. The architect Louis Khan had a beautiful expression. He said something like, “You have to listen to the will of the brick,” meaning, you have to use materials to function as what they’re destined for.
BENHAMOU-HUET: How did the idea for the rolls of paper come to you in the first place?
BAN: By observing the solidity of rolls of fax paper. It took me three years before I put the idea into practice, in Nagoya, in 1989. I did a lot of tests, and I finalized my research. Paper has become a part of my visual vocabulary. You know, paper is an industrial material. You can do almost anything with it. Wood, for example, is much more difficult to adapt to different needs.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Do you like readdressing pre-conceived ideas?
BAN: For me, there’s no difference between what’s temporary and what’s definitive. I built the church in Kobe, which was supposed to be temporary, and people liked it so much that there’s a version of it still there today—unlike some concrete buildings that were just built for money and that can be destroyed from one day to the next. Concrete can be very fragile during earthquakes.
BENHAMOU-HUET: At the end of the day you find your inspiration in day-to-day life, don’t you? What was the origin for your roofs in the shape of Chinese hats, like the one in your prospective project for the airport in Zagreb, Croatia, which you won second place for in the competition, or the one at the Centre Pompidou-Metz?
BAN: It was in 1989, in Paris, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I came out of a restaurant, and I went into a store—La Maison de la Chine. I bought a traditional wicker Chinese hat. I was struck by its architectural shape. I took it as an example and it became the basis for my reflection on a weaving system in timber.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Do you consider the Kobe church your masterpiece?
BAN: It had a big effect on me. Before, I was in some ways envious of other people. From then on I understood that what I did could have a real impact.
BENHAMOU-HUET: What was your most recent success in terms of architecture?
BAN: This past summer I built a school with my Japanese students in the area in China where there was the earthquake. Twenty of my students collaborated with a local Chinese team. It took them one month to build nine classrooms using a structure of paper tubes. Here—in the Centre Pompidou—we’re in a similar structure. It took my students three months to build it. When I asked them why it took them three months to build it in Paris and only one month in China, they said it was because there was so much else to do in Paris in the evenings. [laughs]
BENHAMOU-HUET: Is being famous important to you?
BAN: Not really, but you come to realize that the more well known you are, the easier things get. The technical problems go away, and people listen to you and have more faith in you. BENHAMOU-HUET: Why do you have offices in three different cities around the world?
BAN: I have associates in three countries—Japan, the United States, and France. In New York, I’m in business with a friend, a former classmate of mine from Cooper Union. We’re doing a building in Chelsea, the “Metal Shutter Houses.” It should be finished in August. It’s being built in keeping with the surrounding area. It’s a work on the idea of transparency. Because the site is in the shadow of high-rise buildings for much of the day, each residential unit has been designed with doubly high spaces on the southern side with retractable glass shutters. In the United States, I’ve also just won the competition for the Aspen Art Museum, which reuses the principle of a roof in the shape of a Chinese hat.
BENHAMOU-HUET: In France, you and your team won the competition for the Centre Pompidou-Metz. What’s your interest in working in France?
BAN: Here, I’ve received a medal from the National Order of Merit. There’s no such thing in Japan. Here, you’re chosen, people put their trust in you, and the projects you’re given help you to move forward. Look at Renzo Piano. He was given the Centre Pompidou, and he made his way from there.
BENHAMOU-HUET: What do you do when you travel?
BAN: I watch the films offered in airplanes one after another. I spend so much time in airplanes! I eat too, and I sleep, and I read Chinese or Japanese historical novels.
BENHAMOU-HUET: What do you enjoy doing outside of architecture?
BAN: Eating. Eating well. I wouldn’t like working in a country where the food’s no good. But don’t ask me which countries. I won’t say.
BENHAMOU-HUET: What kind of architecture do people need today?
BAN: They need love. Today there are no more rules in urBANism. It’s the property developers who decide how to build towns. Their aim is to make money. You need love to carry out good projects.
BENHAMOU-HUET: What is your next objective?
BAN: I want to find a balance between my humanitarian work and the rest. You know, there was a journalist from The New York Times who called me the accidental environmentalist.
BENHAMOU-HUET: Do you have any regrets in your professional life?
BAN: Yes, all those projects done for architecture competitions that didn’t get built. That’s painful. All that work . . . But it’s the same thing for all architects.
Judith Benhamou-Huet is a Paris-based journalist.