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Shigeru Ban: I’m Not A Starchitect

When asked what his design philosophy is, Shigeru Ban says simply “I look for a problem to solve by design.”

Addressing a rapt crowd in the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House in March Shigeru Ban said, “Normally the goal of any building is its completion—mine is when it will be demolished.” The Pritzker Prize winning Japanese architect is best recognised for his pioneering temporary relief shelters, an entirely pro bono practice he began in 1994 in an effort to assist refuges navigating life in the aftermath of the Rwandan crisis. Typically split between commercial and humanitarian projects working within his Paris and Tokyo offices, Ban stopped in Sydney just briefly to unveil his first Australian project of sorts.

The Inventive Work of Shigeru Ban is a retrospective exhibition currently on show at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). Ban is the last design thinker to exhibit in gallery director Gene Sherman’s decade-long architecturally centred Fugitive Structures series.

Earlier that morning, Ban visited the Paddington gallery as final touches were made to life size and smaller scale models of his work. Dressed head to toe in black linen, Ban was reserved but cheery. While we spoke, he chose to sit on a Carta Chair, a seat rendered in plywood with Ban’s signature rolling cardboard tubes. The piece is a part of a collection the architect designed for Cappellini in 1999.

“I wanted to be carpenter when I was small,” he told me of his first experience with architecture and design—watching traditional Japanese carpenters regularly renovate his childhood home. Ban was born in Tokyo and later emigrated to the United States to study architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York. In 1985, Ban founded his practice Shigeru Ban Architects, which now has offices in Tokyo, Paris and New York. His commercial projects include—among many—the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Lorraine in France, and the Rose Art Museum in Rotterdam. He also designed the Nomadic Museum, a travelling structure built of paper tubes and 148 shipping containers. The msueum housed artist Gregory Colbort’s Ashes and Snow exhibition and first appeared on the banks of the Hudson River in West Harlem in New York City to house artist Gregory Colbort’s Ashes and Snow exhibition.

Though his architectural accolades are numerous, Ban seems distanced from his profession’s archetypal showmanship and ego. Shigeru Ban is not a ‘starchitect’. When asked what motivated him to approach the United Nations in 1994 with an upgraded refugee shelter design, he says he had become “tired of working for privileged, powerful people.”

Ban’s paper tube shelter abetted the issue of steady deforestation in East Africa, and used only local manufacturing. “Paper tube exists anywhere in the world. It’s cheap, lightweight and strong,” he says. “I am interested in humble materials. Steel is such a wonderful material; you can do anything with steel. Wood and paper are limited in what they can do. I’m interested in working within the limitations of that material, the way it is. I want to take advantage of its weakness and to make something different.”

Indeed, Ban and his buildings are inspired but innately humble—there are no airs and graces. He also has no lofty goal to heal the world. “For me there is no difference between commercial work and disaster relief, the only difference is I am not paid,” he told me resolutely. “When I started [pro bono work] 20 years ago, it was very difficult for me to continue those projects and I had to make a balance. Now I have bigger commissions, and those projects help me to work pro bono. And I have developed a greater donor base. So by chance I have developed that balance, but really for me there is no difference. I have the same interest and energy for both, and I get the same sense of satisfaction.”

Ban is also unfussed and unfazed by design fads and trends. I ask about his influences—nature perhaps. He says he “hates to be influenced by fashionable styles of the day.” Instead, he offers Frei Otto’s work as earnest inspiration (Ban has reappropriated Otto’s double curvature gridshell in paper tube in a number of his auditoriums). “I’ve learned a lot from [Otto]. He always tries to use minimum material and minimum energy to make maximum space.” Ban is unwaveringly stanch and practical. “I like architects who are able to design a new system according to the material,” he continues. “I don’t take inspiration of other things.”

Described by scholar of Japanese architecture Riichi Miyake as the ‘architectural iteration of Doctors Without Borders’, Ban has worked at most, if not all, of the world’s significant natural and manmade disasters of the last two decades. At the SCAF exhibition is a model of the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, a life-size version of the Paper Log House built in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and a shelter design for relief effort in Equador just last year—as well as some of the architect’s altruistic designs.

For a man so absorbed in limited materials and the development of temporary structures, Shigeru Ban seems to seek permanence most fervently. He grins widely as he says, “The problem is people don’t want to move out of my temporary housing. Many of them are becoming permanent.” As he wrapped up his presentation in the Utzon Room, he told the crowd that the battle between temporal and permanent structures was not based in hardy materials, but simply “whether the building was loved or not.”

The Inventive Work of Shigeru Ban is on display at SCAF Gallery in Paddington, Sydney until 1 July 2017.


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