In slightly broken English, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban charmingly but steadfastly refutes easy throwaway media-friendly notions and labels. ‘What is a green person anyway?’ he asks. ‘Someone with a low carbon footprint,’ I gamely respond. ‘What do you mean,’ he counters. ‘Someone who doesn’t produce much carbon or pollution ... It sounds like someone living in a jungle!’ he says gently but completely seriously.
Ban isn’t interested in trying to reduce his emissions, or anyone else’s for that matters. He clocks up thousands of air miles in his monthly flights between Paris, Tokyo and New York. To the question where does he spend most of his time he semi-jokingly answers, ‘on the plane’. The fact that many of his projects have environmental overtones is just a by-product, a pleasant coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless. He says a recent piece about him in the New York Times was titled ‘The Accidental Environmentalist’. He thought this was apt.
‘When I started in 1986 nobody was talking about the environment … It’s just that I don’t want to waste materials and that’s how I started developing paper tube structures,’ he explains. ‘Every material is precious,’ he adds. Where does his desire to save materials come from then? Does it have something to do with Japanese culture? He concedes that it probably does, ‘unconsciously’ though. Ban’s affinity with the concept of reusability is pragmatic, connected to the way he thinks architecture is changing and evolving. ‘I feel that architecture doesn’t need to be so permanent anymore,’ he says.
‘Now a developer destroys a building to put something new up, then somebody else pulls it down to put another one up. So the building’s lifespan is not dependent on the materials used but on the economy.’ He goes on to cite the example of factories having moved from Europe, Japan and the US to China, and probably having to move to North Korea or Laos in the future. Homes too are becoming less permanent places. As a result, architecture has to adapt, become more ‘flexible’.
That’s where reusable and recyclable materials come in. His paper church in Kobe (which has been pulled down and reassembled in Taiwan), and his Japanese pavilion for the Hannover Expo in 2000 aimed to highlight the need for architecture to adapt. For the latter Ban designed a sinuous paper tunnel supported by a matrix of recycled paper tubes. (He was asked to add a wooden support structure by the German authorities but claims that this was totally unnecessary.)
Usually the goal of designing a building is completing it, but my goal was the building being dismantled,’ he says of the pavilion.
The same theory goes for his Nomadic museum – a 45,000-square-foot museum made of 148 shipping containers (that make up the outer walls) and a procession of 35-foot-tall paper tubes. The project was commissioned five years ago by New York artist Gregory Colbert, who wanted a traveling structure for his large-scale photographs. With the help of longtime friend and collaborator, New York architect Dean Maltz, Ban built the museum in five weeks. A temporary theatre Ban built in Amsterdam a few years ago has also found a new lease of life. ‘The city of Utrecht bought the structure and rebuilt it as a multi-purpose space; during the winter it’s used as a skating rink,’ Ban says with evident pride.
‘I think we have a prejudice about materials,’ Ban is at pains to explain. ‘Paper can be made waterproof very easily. Paper can be stronger than wood; paper is an industrial material; you can make anything with paper.’ As if to prove his point Ban recently inaugurated a paper bridge built half a mile from the Pont du Gard – a section of ancient Roman bridge near Avignon. The bridge weighs 7.5 tonnes and is made of 281 cardboard tubes; its steps are made out of recycled paper and plastic and the foundations are wooden boxes filled with sand. It was load tested with balloons filled with 1.5 tonnes of water and is strong enough to withhold the weight of 20 people at a time. Though pulled down six weeks after its unveiling (before the rainy season), Ban is adamant that it could be permanent and rebuilt in another location.
Though Ban would also probably eschew the label of ‘humanitarian architect’, he has consistently been involved in projects with a socially conscious angle, mostly as a result of his own sensibilities and concerns. With his interest in lightweight, reusable materials and easy-to-assemble projects, this may seem an obvious area to venture into but Ban is an internationally famous and sought-after architect who could have his pick of projects. This humanitarian work has almost always come about as a direct result of his own concerns. ‘In 1994 I saw terrible pictures of Rwandan refugees freezing in the poor plastic tents used by the UN and thought, we have to improve it,’ Ban says. ‘It was not easy’ to get the proposal accepted, but he says he was ‘very lucky’ that the UN High commissioner for Refugees at the time was a Japanese who had ‘deep concerns for the environment’.