A drama lies at the heart of architecture: the eternal struggle between utility and beauty. Le Corbusier, the paragon and avatar of modernism in architecture, expressed it as follows:
“You work with stone, with wood, with concrete; you make them into houses and palaces; this is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy, I say: ‘It is beautiful.’ This is Architecture. Art is present.” 1
In Le Corbusier’s formulation, construction, involving ingenuity, is distinguished from architecture, involving art. The architectural dimension of the constructed environment is encountered when the emotions are triggered and an aesthetic experience occurs. But while this aesthetic experience can be distinguished from the satisfaction of the function or purpose of a building, it cannot be separated or rendered independently from it. In short, you can’t bottle it.
The work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban participates fully in this drama, enmeshed in the tension between construction and art, ingenuity and beauty. In doing so, regardless of the particulars of the time and place that he finds himself in, his work occupies the centre of the long river of the discipline. But, as for any architect, it is in the details of his negotiation of these terms – construction, art, ingenuity, beauty – that his distinctiveness is to be found.
Ban’s portfolio is remarkably varied. Elegant private houses, audacious landmark museums, high-street retail stores, churches, schools, offices, exhibition halls and, not least, temporary shelters for disaster victims. While the nominally “temporary” works using paper tubes in situations of disaster and adversity have gained attention for their innovative material, these constitute only a small proportion of Ban’s oeuvre. What unifies this great range of work?
Of all these building types, the house is a good starting point for exploring this question. Three key aspects of Ban’s architecture can be traced through his houses: space, which tends toward the increasingly flexible and undivided; enclosure, which aims as much as possible to disappear while still offering protection when needed; and structure, which is an integral aspect of the built work, but ultimately finds its fullest expression through an overarching roof element.
Ban’s earliest houses, designed in the first five years after his return to Japan from his studies at the Cooper Union in New York in 1985, are vaguely reminiscent of the language of the group of architects known as the New York Five, which included his teachers John Hejduk and Peter Eisenman, as well as Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier.2 As it was with the Five, white – an index of abstraction – is the preferred colour of Ban’s early houses, with compositions formed as rectilinear patternings of solid and void in pure volumes, with geometrical primitives such as cylinders and cubes deployed in counterpoint to a dominant order. Increasingly, however, the compositional format divides into two main fractions: a larger overarching space established by a structurally expressive system providing the shelter, and an independent system of space-defining walls or elements dividing up the interior space.
By the 1990s, as Ban’s practice became securely established, these strategies became conscious formulas to investigate and refine. The PC Pile House (1992) clearly distinguishes the elements of platform, roof, pilotis and enclosure, giving each a distinct role in a rectilinear architectural composition. The series of houses known as the Furniture Houses (1995–1998) developed an approach in which furniture modules provide the structural support between the floor platform and a parallel flat roof. Here, storage elements are employed as both space definition and structural support. In their reduction to a simple square plan form, and their careful distinction between structural, enclosure and programmatic elements, these houses have resonances with the early nine-square house studies of John Hejduk3 and with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s purified language of slab, column and lightweight panel. These sources are explicitly present in the Nine Square Grid House (1997), in which the deep walls of the furniture elements harbour sliding panels that can freely divide up the square plan according to use or occasion; in the Sagaponac House (2006), an interpretation of Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt Brick Country House (1924); and most recently in the Solid Cedar House (2015), another interpretation of Mies van der Rohe.
These manoeuvres achieve their apotheosis in the Wall-Less House (1997), in which the house has been reduced to two parallel and rigidly connected horizontal slabs defining the floor and ceiling, with the slenderest of columns taking the remaining vertical forces only. Internal partitions have atrophied here to a mere gesture, with a series of tracks in the floor and ceiling into which sliding panels can slot if needed, and one furniture module for storage, as if orphaned from the Furniture Houses. Photographs of this house present an extraordinarily abstract scene, with a verdant slice of nature intruding into a white field, and a freestanding toilet and bath marooned in the space like Marcel Duchampian art installations. These images betray no traces of human occupation or broader urban context: the lack of walls and the uniform white floor render the spatial patterning of domestic occupation mute, while all accretions of lived existence, save a chair or two from Ban’s own paper collection, have been banished.
For those who came to Ban’s work through his innovative use of recycled materials, his articulated structures or his humanitarian interventions, the purified abstraction of this corner of his oeuvre feels anomalous, yet it is in these works that Ban’s enduring architectural concerns regarding space are rendered most visible.
By the mid-2000s, Ban’s mature work had settled on an approach that combined flexible interior spaces, operable enclosures and structurally and materially innovative roofs. On a dense urban site, such integration is demonstrated in the design of the Nicolas G. Hayek Center (2007) in Tokyo. But its most audacious culmination, for now, is found in the Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010) in France.4 The new contemporary art museum, built on an open site, consists of a fluidly undulating roof built from LVL timber “in the form of a Chinese bamboo-woven hat.”5 Beneath this are three large tubular volumes, each ninety metres by fifteen metres, forming a contextually responsive ensemble of gallery rooms with glazed walls giving onto spectacular exterior views, which in turn are propped above an open ground plane with large operable walls consisting of glazed roller shutters. All the strategies of Ban’s architecture are incorporated at the Metz: the materially innovative and structurally audacious roof, the large open interior spaces, the openness to the exterior through flexible enclosures – here, they are all deployed in the service of art.
Disasters are clarifying events. The shock they deliver throws a society back to basics, revealing its essential qualities and patterns, and focusing attention on what is genuinely important. Ban’s celebrated humanitarian work providing temporary housing in disaster areas not only constitutes an extension of charity and the fulfilment of an instinctive sense of compassion, it also represents an implicit critique of the values of a profession that has lost sight of its underlying raison d’être – the provision of shelter.
Ban’s engagement with the provision of emergency shelters started with a response to refugees fleeing the genocidal convulsion in Rwanda in 1994. The temporary shelters provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which consisted of plastic sheeting and aluminium supports, were problematic, as the impoverished occupants would sell the aluminium tubes for cash, replacing them with branches from cut-down trees, exacerbating deforestation. Ban’s proposal, taken on his own initiative, to use paper tubes as structural replacements for the aluminium poles solved a number of problems (economic, environmental and structural) in one stroke and was eagerly adopted and tested as a prototype. Since then, this humanitarian work has extended across the world, responding to disasters in Japan, Turkey, India, the USA, China, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Italy, New Zealand, the Philippines and Nepal. The precise details of the response vary from place to place, reflecting climatic conditions, access and material availability, local capacities and resources.
After disasters, the provision of housing addresses the immediate physical need for shelter, but often aid agencies are ill-equipped to address an equally important need in the wake of tragedy: that of finding psychological and spiritual solace. It is in his temporary church projects for communities that have suffered disasters that Ban is able to most convincingly reunite the twin dimensions of utility and beauty essential for architecture. The Paper Church was erected as a temporary worship space after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The simple yet profound structure was formed from fifty-eight columnar paper tubes arranged in an ellipse pattern. It was so beloved by its community that it lasted ten years before being disassembled and re-erected in Taiwan as a permanent structure. A similar story can be told of the Cardboard Cathedral, erected as a temporary space for worship for the Anglican faithful of Christchurch after their devastating earthquake of 2011. The enduring life of these buildings up-ends our conventional notions of temporariness and permanence, and demonstrates a striking truth: the lifespan of a building is not a property of material durability, but of emotional investment. As Ban observes: “In order to be a permanent building, it has to be loved by people. Even a concrete building, if that building is to make money, is very temporary. That is my definition of what is temporary and what is permanent.”6
There is a core ethical and constructive principle in operation in all these projects, one that permeates Ban’s oeuvre: the principle of economy of means. This arises from deep within Ban’s own makeup: his hatred of waste was the compulsion that caused his initial discovery of the paper tube as a construction material. This principle, which can be restated as the maximization of utility, resonates with the axioms of the modern movement, such as truth to materials, formal simplicity and functional adequacy. In addition, making do with less, or re-using what you already have, are powerful drivers of design innovation at the level of materials and construction systems. These days, such ambitions are typically listed under the banner of “sustainability,” but Ban’s commitment to this principle in contemporary architecture has reminded the profession of a wellspring of modern ideals that, at the time that he entered the profession, appeared to have been forgotten.
In both sensibility and technique, Ban continues the quest of modernism into this century. But the significance of his architecture lies less in its concern with modernist aims “internal” to the discipline – its spatial language, its approach to material and construction – than in its dogged pursuit of goals facing “outward” to the world at large: the role of the architect in society and the broader mission of the profession. Ban’s work reminds us that the ethical agenda of modernism was integral to its constitution. For the apostles of modernism, the equitable provision of adequate shelter through design intelligence and the ennoblement of the everyday environment through the furnishing of aesthetic quality were not separable goals. Utility must be married to beauty, because both are key dimensions of “the good.”
Yet architecture today has largely abandoned the goal of the provision of shelter, the realm of utility. Powerful forces and inexorable tendencies have contributed to this abandonment, such as the privatization of former collective or state mandates for housing provision, the commodification and financialization of real estate, and the emphasis of capitalist economies on novelty and mass consumption rather than on the satisfaction of human needs of longer duration and slower rhythm. Ban’s example demonstrates, however, that architects themselves have also contributed to this situation by choosing to ignore the egregious under-provision of adequate shelter to those in our midst cast, by disaster or conflict, into homelessness or poverty.
Choosing instead to focus the profession’s attentions on the goal of aesthetic improvement to the built environment may seem to constitute a specialization in the area of the architect’s particular skill and competitive advantage. But, however desirable this goal may be in itself, its motivation becomes hollow and its sources thin when the underlying purpose of the profession is abandoned. The danger for architecture today, as the history of modern architecture itself teaches, is that once something loses its underlying purpose, it becomes ornamental and hence ultimately dispensable. Ban warns us to avoid the fate of ornaments.
1. Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 233. Translated by John Goodman. Originally published as Vers une Architecture (Paris: G. Crès 1923).
2. The group was brought together in 1969 by the Museum of Modern Art, and the moniker was popularized by the title of a book first published in 1972, which featured work by the five architects.
3. For a detailed excavation of these unbuilt projects from the 1950s, see Kenneth Frampton, John Hejduk: 7 Houses (New York: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, 1980).
4. Taro Igarashi, a prominent Japanese architectural historian, described this building as “the compilation of Ban’s works in architecture” in “What Makes Japanese Architects So Significant? Vol. 03,” Xamoschi , 20 May 2015, xamoschi.com/2015/05/20/what-makes-japanese-architects-so-significant-vol-03 (accessed 11 December 2016).
5. Project description on Shigeru Ban website, shigerubanarchitects.com (accessed 14 December 2016).
6. Shigeru Ban, interview by the author. Tokyo, 11 November 2016.
This is an abridged and condensed version of “The Passion of Shigeru Ban” by Julian Worrall, to be published by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) ahead of the exhibition The Inventive Work of Shigeru Ban, the architect’s first Australian project. The exhibition will be held at SCAF in Sydney from 25 March until 1 July 2017.
Published online: 21 Mar 2017
Words: Julian Worrall
Images: Hiroyuki Hirai, Stephen Goodenough, Thekla Boven, courtesy of SCAF
Architecture Australia, March 2017