Hans Ulrich Obrist on Sat, 21 Aug 1999 14:14:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviews Shigeru Ban, Paris May 1999

Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviews Shigeru Ban,
Paris, May 1999

HUO Let's begin at the beginning: could you tell me about where you
studied, the first firms you worked for...

SB I studied at Cooper Union (in New York)  and took a year off from
school to work for Arata Isozaki in 1982. Then, after one year, I went
back to Cooper Union to finish my thesis.  Then I came back to Japan to
design a small building for my mother.  I was going to go back to the
United States as soon as I'd finished it, but I got stuck in Japan.  I
think I was really lucky to start my career at that time in Japan because
the United States it's somehow very conservative; it's difficult for young
architects to get projects.  So I started my practice without any working
experience right after I graduated from Cooper Union.

HUO There is this early building of yours which you built for your mother.

SB Yes, and now it's my office and my mother's studio.

HUO How many people work in your office now?

SB Seven people full-time, and I have a couple of part-time students.  I
currently have two internship students from Germany and Portugal.

HUOHow was it to work for Isozaki?  I just read this morning this text by
Peter Cook where he says that "formal events, podium discussions,
exhibitions that are prepared three years in advance, keeping your head in
the direction of those of power and influence, none of them have been
there at the special magic moments in architecture". he goes on to say
that what is much more important than all these projects prepared in
advance are these "magical moments" when for example Gropius and Le
Corbusier worked briefly in the same office, Venturi and Saarinan, so did
Isozaki and Kurokawa in Tange's office...  Did you experience any of these
"moments" in Isozaki's office?

SB It was such a great moment working in Isozaki's office because many
young, interesting architects were working there.  Although I could not
have had a big influence from Isozaki I had a really wonderful time
working with his young staff. Isozaki has an great capacity to accept
young architects doing different things their own way. He doesn't put too
much pressure on young architects to follow his way, so the selfish (I
mean that in a good way) young architects can do whatever they want.  
That's why they are now working well on their own in Japan; some of them
are very good and should become known.

HUO So you think there is a whole generation of architects to come out of
the Momentum Isozaki?

SB Yes, because he's the only one to accept differences in people.  Other
Japanese offices really force people to do it their way.

HUO So he doesn't form an Isozaki -school but allows dialogues.

SB Exactly.  Shinohara or Toyo Ito have so called "schools", but we never
called Isozaki's school.  He is unique.

HUO It's nice that we can talk about Isozaki just two days after you
bumped into him in the CDG airport. Was the meeting a total coincidence ?

SB Yes, and I never had such an intense two hours with him.  When I was
working for him I was a student and we didn't have common ground for
discussion, but now I'm very happy that Isozaki knows what I'm doing.

HUO He knew your work?

SB Yes, he said he wrote a short article on Casavera and spoke to him
about me.

HUO What did you discuss in this long conversation?

SB I talked about my new French client who has a site in Portugal.  He
knows Isozaki well, and he used to organize lots of projects with Aiko,
Isozaki's wife.  I told Isozaki I just met him and he replied that those
people are doing very interesting projects. We also discussed what I'm
doing for Hannover Expo, and he asked me why I'm working with Frei Otto.  
I told him that when I was a student I was a big fan of Frei Otto.  He's
quite different from other architects because he loves light-weight
structures.  Instead of inventing very high-tech buildings, he always
tries to use the potential of existing materials.  So I'm having a
wonderful time working with him on the Hannover project. I set very
clearly the limits of the technology we can use .Frei Otti and I have the
same ideas on this. But somehow the structural engineer prefers more high
tech materials and technologies.

HUO Can you tell me more about the collaboration with Frei Otto?

SB The training process is very important for me, discipline... working
for refugees, working with Frei Otto, those are the processes of ,
training myself.  When we architects become the bosses of their own
office, the staff does whatever we want, and the engineers listen to us.  
But I really need somebody who gives me a hard time. I always like to put
myself into difficult situation.  I would like to continue training

HUO The project for Hannover...

SB The total floor area is 4310 m2, and there are two different spaces
created by paper tube:  the first space is a corridor which surrounds the
main exhibition hall, which is like a Greek temple.

HUO It looks very monumental in the photographs of the maquette you showed

SB Because I'm building in Germany, I wanted to use some of the German
context.  One of my favorite architectures in Germany is the Altes Museum
in Berlin built by Schinkel in the 18th century.

HUO There's a sort of paradox in making monumentality out of cardboard,
suggesting both permanent impermanence and impermanent permanence.

SB The building site is occupying a complete block; we are creating the
big avenue and small boulevard; it's a very urban context. So if I make a
structure with a very organic shape, it breaks the urban context, like the
Guggenheim in New York. I wanted to pick-up the urban block using the
idea of Schinkel, and also the papertube corridor to give the audience the
shade while they are waiting to get into the main exhibition hall. This
space is very much like the gallery I made for Issey Miyake; you can enjoy
the movement of the shadow and light. Then after you wait in the corridor
you get into the main exhibition hall which is made by the paper tube
gridshell, a structure I have been developping. This is a huge space 35m
wide, 75m long and 15m high. We put membrane on top of the grid shell.
Usually we use PVC, but PVC makes a dioxin. The environmental issue is the
theme of this Expo. I'm designing the Japanese Pavilion using recycled
materials, like recycled paper, and after we dismantle the building in a
half-year we won't be wasting any building materials. One of the biggest
problems with expos is that they have to destroy all of the building in a
half-year and they waste so much materials.  Our materials will be
recycled or reused.

HUO What will you do with your Pavilion materials, for example the
cardboard tubes?

SB They can be recycled to make more paper tube. Because the whole
structure is very light-weight, I'm using scaffolding as a foundation to
support the structure.  As I said, the PVC membrane is a problem because
of the dioxins, so I'm now developing a new membrane made of paper, like
a Japanese "shoji" screen.

HUO Can it also be used for projections?

SB It can be done, yes. And this membrane can be recycled with the
papertube itself, so the whole building can be recycled or reused. That's
the main theme of my Expo pavilion.

HUO Can you tell me how the paper tubes idea was triggered, because it
seems such a revolutionary idea, so complex and at the same time so
simple. It corresponds to ecological issues right now and at the same time
corresponds to this idea of housing less as a property...  Buckminster
Fuller said that housing should not be a property but a service.  So it
seems to resolve all of these problems... When and how did you invent

SB I used paper tube for the first time in 1986 for the installation of an
Alvar Aalto exhibition... But when I started using papertube nobody was
talking about "ecology" or "environmentally friendly" or "recycling",
especially in Japan as we were heading into the "bubble period" , an
economically crazy period. Everyone wondered why I was using such cheap
materials.  Now everybody is interested in the environment, so it's easier
to discuss the idea.  When I designed an exhibition for Emilio Ambasz in
1985, I designed translucent screen to make partitions, and after all the
screens were hung , lots of papertube remained.  It was supposed to be
thrown away, but I kept it because I really hate to throw things away. So
it came out of an ephemeral exhibition structure.  The next year I
designed an exhibition for Alvar Aalto, one of my favorite architects. I
wanted to design an Aalto-like interior for the exhibition, but I didn't
have a large budget; I couldn't use a lot of wood like Aalto used.  So I
looked for other materials and I found the papertube in my studio; its
brown color is very much like wood.  I went to the factory and found out
it's very inexpensive and they can make various sizes, lengths,
thicknesses and diameters. I used it and it was very successful.

HUO You made a virtue out of necessity.

SB Yes. And I found by using this material that it is much stronger than
I expected. People have the preconceived idea that paper is very weak,
but paper is an industrial material: we can make it fireretardant or
waterproof, and we can make it as strong as wood. I started testing the
strength of paper tube and found it was strong enough to make a building

HUO When did it lead to the first building and outdoor use?

SB In 1989, for a regional expo in Nagoya.  I built a very small paper
tube structure, only 6 meters in diameter, for people to rest.

HUO Your structures got global recognition for the first time in Kobe...
You went to Kobe very soon after the earthquake. What was your motivation?

SB There were so many people injured or killed by the buildings
themselves.  None of them were designed by myself, but as an architect I
felt big responsibility for the tragedy and wanted to do something for
Kobe. I wanted to use my skill, not just help as a volunteer.  As I had
been developing the papertube structure, I knew it could be used very
cheaply and easily.  Half a year before the earthquake happened in January
of 1995 I began working for the United Nations on refugee problems of the
Rwanda crisis of 1994.  As I was familiar with refugee problems, I went to
the church in Kobe where many former Vietnamese refugees were gathering.  
These were the people who had the most problems after the earthquake. The
whole church building had been destroyed by fire ensuing from the
earthquake, and I proposed to the priest to rebuild it in papertube
structure.  Because all the houses in this very poor area were destroyed,
he said they had no plans to rebuild the church until the neighborhood had
been rebuilt.  He also said that after he lost the building, it became a
real church, because the peoples' hearts became unified.  He said we don't
need architecture to have a church.  But I didn't give up. I would commute
to the church almost every Sunday to join in their morning service, and
little by little I got to know the priest and members of the church. The
priest then proposed that although they didn't need a church, they did
need a space to bring the neighbors together. They specified that if I
could raise money and build it by myself, they would like to have me build
a community space. So I started simultaneously raising money, designing
and finding student workers. Three months after the earthquake, I found
that the Vietnamese were still living in a park under plastic sheets,
where water leaked in and the temperature could reach 40 C. So I started
building temporary houses for them as well as the community space.

HUO Hassan Fathy wrote in the 1960's on architecture for the poor. He says
that for very few dollars it would be possible to grant housing to
everybody all over the world, and solve the world's housing problem. This
seems to be a contemporary form of Fathy's philosophy:  housing for all.  
Was this social dimension of architecture always important for you, or was
it triggered by some special momentum?

SB When I came back form the United States, I was very shocked to know
that in Japan, people didn't respect architects.  I thought about why:
historically we didn't have architects only 120 years ago we invited
English architects to educate the people.  Before, all Japanese building
was built by carpenters, and none of their names remains.  We don't have a
long history of architects. I thought it is the reason why architects are
not respected in Japanh, , but that was not the real reason.

When I experienced the economic boom, many architects were just building
monuments to show their ego.  Architects are generally very egoistic,
including me, I'd like to build my monument, too; there's no doubt about
that.  But it's not the only thing I want to do. I wanted to use my skills
and knowledge for for a society.  The reason I worked for Kobe and Rwanda,
is, obviously, the humanitarian feeling, but also to develop my ideas
further and apply them at the same time, as long as I'm satisfying the
humanitarian need.  The two things are mixed together.

HUO What's the link of this double situation to Buckminster Fuller?  
Because he, being an engineer, inventor, architect, often referred to
housing, cars etc. as services and no longer as property.  Was Buckminster
Fuller an influence?  How do you relate to his work?

SB I read his books when I was an art student. Obviously when we design a
low cost project, we need new ideas to make it interesting and happening.  
Working in a poor situation, creativity is needed for turning existing
poor materials into new dimensions.  If we had money and could do anything
we wanted, we wouldn't need interesting ideas for using raw materials.  I
also have rich clients, and I'm very happy about it, but sometimes I feel
sorry to spend so much money! (laughs)  The client is happy, but I feel
that I've only made a single client happy.  If I design low cost housing
systems, I can make many people happy.

HUO Could you tell me about your system of pre-fabricated houses?

SB I invented a pre-fabricated house system called the Furniture
 House, using factory made cabinets as structural elements to support the
whole structure of the house.  Instead of using carpenters to build
on-site, as well as space defending elements, factory-made cabinets
(closets, bookshelves, staircases...), the insulation and outside inside
finish (painting) are done in factory. The modular cabinets are connected
to each other and to the basement, then just put the roof on top and
windows in.  In pre-fabricated housing there are always two options: you
make either big panels or container units and assemble them on site -- but
these need a big container or crane to bring it to the site, a big street
with a big site, but in Japan the streets are very narrow and the sites
very limited.  In my system each cabinet weight only 100 kilograms, so you
don't need a crane or a big vehicle. You just go to a do it yourself shop
and get the components you need. It can go anywhere, no boundaries.

If we can save labor cost, and make the constructions less expensive, and
the finishing much better, prefabrication is a good idea. When using
students labors, , the erection procedure has to be simplified.  And
simplification makes things very cheap to build. I like to think of
minimal space, with simple details that can be built by anybody.

I'm also teaching, and students always want to make something. It's an
interesting training for the students to build a house by themselves,
instead of just maquettes.  When I was working with students during the
summer on the Kobe project after the earthquake, they became really
excited to make something by themselves. They felt the potential power to
do anything.

HUO So the teaching becomes like a building workshop, which reminds me of
Buckminster Fuller practice.

SB They knew they were part of society, otherwise they are just graduating
from a school of architecture and think they are something different from
other people.  Like Paolo Soleri who in the 1960's -- 80's was building
the new city Arcosanti in Arizona.  I knew friends who went there during
the summer to help him, and it was such great training.

HUO It was a real life situation.... Now we are working on your Kobe house
for the Hayward Gallery.  You said that for you it's conceptually
important that students build it; it's part of the story.

SB Yes, also I think it's important for Western people to see that a house
can be built in paper.  Western people, who have a great history of
masonry structure (stone, brick...), think that building materials have to
be very strong.

HUO Buildings are ephemeral...

SB I'm always asked how long the paper structure will last.  I always ask
them in return how long they think wooden construction lasts.  There are
so many buildings in Japan which have lasted over five hundred years and
more .  Wood is very weak for water, even termite, but we invented
beautiful joineries to replace damaged parts, so the life span of the
material has nothing to do with the life span of the building, even when
the material is weak, we can exchange it, so the life span of the building
can go on forever.  I don't know about the durability of the life span r,
but it must last a very long time.  But it doesn't matter how long the
paper tube lasts; if it's damaged I can change it, so the building itself
lasts forever.

HUO So it's actually a cliche.

SB Yes.  I think it's interesting to show Western people the cliche.  
Also, this may be the traditional way of Japanese thinking.  We use weak
materials the way they are; I can build the papertube much stronger, even
much stronger than wood, but I have no interest in making stronger
materials. I'm interested in using a weak material the way it is.  So that
I need a weak material to create this very special space.

HUO Also in Europe, the idea that a building can die is somehow a very big
deal.  Toyo Ito gave a wonderful lecture at Cities on the Move in Vienna
where he spoke about a small house he built for a family, that at a
certain moment died, because the man died.  In Vienna this idea that a
building can die was like a revolution.  In Europe there is always this
idea that a building goes on forever.  That is why in Europe it comes as
such a surprise that a building can be made out of cardboard.

SB Even in Europe, everywhere, we sometimes need temporary buildings,
sometimes we want to move the building to somewhere else...  Also we have
to know, very clearly, that we can no longer waste materials.  We must
think about the limitation of materials.  We should know the life span of
a building; we don't always need concrete, better substitutes can be

HUO You mentioned Alvar Aalto as one of your heroes; why Aalto?  Are there
other historical or contemporary figures in architecture you admire? Who
would you include in your "family" or your imaginary "museum" of

SB Aalto is not the only architect I admire, there is also Mies van der
Rohe, Le Corbusier... but it was such a shock discovering Alvar Aalto's

HUO You saw it in Finland?

SB Yes, when I was a student I studied so much about Mies van der Rohe and
Le Corbusier. We can analyze their work geometrically, and we can study
their theory in books, but when I saw their architecture directly, it was
nice, but it was not beyond the image I gathered from books.  But when I
happened to be in Finland and saw Aalto's work (actually I was not
interested in his work by books before this), it was really shocking,
because I had never seen an architecture which was beyond my imagination.  
I had to see it by myself; I couldn't understand anything through books.  
So I traveled through most of Finland to see his architecture.

HUO You know that Cities on the Move goes to Finland after London, to
Kiasma, the new museum by Steven Hall in Helsinki.  Maybe we can do
something there with you and Aalto, make a link...

SB Have you seen Aalto's summer house?  Although he started with a quite
international style, he found vernacular architecture and also found a
wonderful way of mixing different materials: wood, different types of
brick and so on, and this has a very similar feeling to Frank Lloyd Wright
architecture --using local materials and articulating the elements and
materials.  In the international style of Le Corbusier or Mies van der
Rohe there is no articulation of the materials, they would just paint the
materials in different colors.  But if you take a look at Aalto's
architecture, different materials were used like a concept: the materials
want to be something, they are waiting. Each material has its own function
and potential.  I'm very interested in finding the interesting potential
characteristic of each material, and to use it in new ways.  If I see a
material that exists, pavement for example, I see it can be something

HUO So Aalto triggered your sensibility to see the potential of cardboard.

SB Yes. Madame Aalto brought us to her summer house, walking through the
forest, as originally it was only accessible by boat, and fed us wild
berries on the trail.

HUO Did you visit the sanitorium?

SB Of course, a long time ago.  last time I was in Finland I went to Villa
Mairea. It was the second time.  Each time I find something new and

HUO My last question is about the Museum. We just visited together the
Mark Rothko exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris,
and we are working now on the Cities on the Move for the Hayward Gallery
in which you will show one of your constructions.  So I wondered how you
see museums, their potential and what you would like to change about
them...?  And then tell me about your own museum projects.

SB The museum is very interesting as a showcase for collecting what's
happening in the world;  installations are especially interesting. When I
installed my Kobe house in Kwanju, Korea, I got lots of response,
including my new Portuguese friend.  He happened to see my Kobe House in
Kwanju, and he connected his problems with it.  We cannot expect or
predict what people will feel from our work; we make it with our own idea
and concept in mind, but the way people respond to the work is quite
different.  It's not important whether we can fully explain our intentions
or not, they have their own interpretations and program; they are always
trying to connect their program with what they see. So the museum is an
interesting showcase for connections for their problems.

HUO You are building a museum for Dijon...

SB Yes, it's a museum for the history of a canal, so it's not an art
museum.  My museum has a particular purpose, it's kind of a shelter for
their archive, and not a very flexible project because of the particular

HUO Will it made out of cardboard?

SB My first project is to restore a 100 year old boat which had sunk in
the canal and has recently been recovered. My second project is the whole
body of the museum which will recount and preserve the history of the
canal.  I'm not sure whether I will use paper tube for the second part of
the project, but I will use it for the boat restoration.

HUO Any other museum projects?

SB I am also building a memoria museum project in Japan, and a small art
museum for disabled children using a paper honeycomb panels for the roof
(also in Japan).  I was amazed by the children's paintings and pictures...
so shocking!  It will be completed in the middle of May. Because of the
papertube structure I also have many projects in Europe. It's an
interesting communication tool for me; people try to connect their
different programs with what I'm doing.  Usually, architects are offered
projects in other countries after they become very well known in their own
country, but in my case, I'm not well known in Europe or in Japan either.  
The papertube structure gives me many interesting connections.

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