It was his work and architectural career which drove my interest in the field of sustainability. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (Tokyo, 1957) shows a way of understanding architecture far from the recent “green movement”, which could remain a mere fad if not thoroughly developed. However, Ban´s approach to environmental architecture, established since the 1990′s, started from a humanitarian perspective and pragmatic point of view.
“Paper Tower”, London, UK, 2009. Source: Dezeen
“Haesley Nine Bridges” Golf Club, Korea, 2010. Source: Designarium
The modus operandi of this architect is to get political commissioned projects or high-purchasing clients, hence allowing him to finance temporary housing for victims of natural disasters. Thus, his studio has its own NGO, called VAN (Voluntary Architects Network), which since 1995 has developed projects in countries such as in Japan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, India, China and New Zealand. According to an interview with La Vanguardia after the great earthquake in March 2011, Ban collaborated with the UN after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where he realized that his expertise as an architect could be of great help. Since then he claims that “being poor and having suffered a catastrophe does not make them less demanding than powerful and wealthy clients”, and he actually admits that his prefabricated shelters have made great progress thanks to the constructive criticism provided by its users.
“Paper log houses” for refugees, Kobe, Japan 1994. Source: Shigerubanarchitects
Beyond the humanitarian purpose of Shigeru Ban, the sensitivity and materiality of this architect´s work should be also considered. Most of his projects are built with recycled materials such as paper, plastic and plywood, or waste products such as industrial containers and plastic bottles, defying their appearance and physical qualities. Among these materials, stands out the legacy of tubular structures made of recycled paper, because this has been his main “research material” since the 1980′s. Already in Rwanda he proved the advantages of this material, for its local availability anywhere in the world, for its lightness and portability, and strength as well as ease of assembly, which overall provide a very low-cost construction. Moreover, due to the urgency and precariousness of these situations, the workmanship is accomplished with volunteer labor, either architecture students or local people, who should build such projects within days or weeks. For this reason, an easy maneuverability of the material is also very relevant, and cardboard structures fulfill this requirement perfectly.
“Paper House”, Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi, Japan, 1995. Source: Shigerubanarchitects
Therefore, Ban´s long experimentation with recycled paper has provided aesthetic quality to this material, leading him to apply it in greater investment projects and also to optimize its construction detailing, like in Hermès “Paper House Pavilion” designed for the Salone del Mobile 2011 in Milan. However, according to Tank Magazine, Shigeru Ban stated that he likes his job mostly when the users are happy, and this is the reason why many of his ephimere projects have ended up being permanent, such as Takatori Kyokai church, built to shelter the devoted citizens after Kobe´s earthquake and later on moved to another damaged place in Taiwan, where it still remains. The architect is currently building a cathedral made of cardboard for the residents of Christchurch, New Zealand, in response to a major earthquake in 2011 which left the existing building unusable.
In brief, this pioneer of “environmental architecture” does not identify himself with the concept of “sustainable construction”, since his oeuvre is not a consequence of this movement but the result of his own developed work for almost thirty years. And I can confirm that his design approach does not correspond to the graphs or numerical control that we have to deal with in this field, but it is a more intuitive, logical, and ethical process developed from the starting point of the project. Therefore, when he is asked about renewable energy, Ban answers diplomatically: “It would be nice to construct buildings with alternative energy, but developers reject it because it rises the budget by 20%.” Pragmatism or criticism?.