The ideology and philosophy of Shigeru Ban are based on two pillars: the use of wood, paper, and bamboo as the main materials in architectural projects, and support for the most vulnerable in times of crisis. These principles are the characteristics for which the Japanese architect has stood out in the world, earning him the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014. His work has revolutionized the world of architecture since its inception due to the implementation of structures made from cardboard tubes in buildings since the mid-1980s. What may seem unconventional, Ban managed to perfect and develop techniques to turn a simple, economical, and accessible resource like cardboard tubes into a construction material resistant to water, fire, and other extreme weather conditions that disrupt people’s lives. Furthermore, the discourse of Shigeru Ban reflects on the importance of architecture in serving not only society but also those who need it most, those who lack the money or power to access the services of an architect.

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Toyota City Museum_© Shigeru Ban Architects

The discourse of Ban has always been oriented towards sustainability through materials. From the outset, he saw cardboard and wood as potential materials for creating building structures. In the year 2000, he was called upon to construct the Japanese Pavilion at the Hannover Expo in Germany. The theme of the exhibition was sustainability; therefore, Shigeru designed a pavilion made entirely from recycled materials. The design featured a curved structure of paper tubes, reinforced with wooden arches and covered with a fire-resistant paper membrane. Like this landmark project, his works reflect his principles, from utilizing cardboard to addressing social impact.

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Japan Pavilion Expo 2000 Structure_© Shigeru Ban Architects

Temporary cardboard structures for exhibitions and shelters

The architect’s recognition has propelled him to design cultural, academic, and residential buildings, such as the second Centre Pompidou in Metz, France. A cultural center built with a curved laminated wood tensile structure, covered by a membrane of fiberglass and Teflon, allows the passage of natural light during the day and the reflection of interior lighting at night. Nevertheless, his purpose was not solely to serve the most privileged when there exists a parallel universe of people in need of urgent assistance during times of war and natural disasters.

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Centre Pompidou Metz_© Badrig Baghdikian, Flickr.

His work has focused on regions affected by natural disasters and has supported temporary shelter projects as well as educational and cultural activities in countries such as Rwanda, Japan, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, China, and Haiti, to name a few. The commitment of Ban to these projects stems from the basic principle of the architect’s responsibility to ensure the quality of life of people, from safety to dignity. In times of crisis, people are affected physically and emotionally, which is why temporary shelters must guarantee minimum habitability conditions that provide protection, comfort, and privacy. The shelters proposed by Shigeru Ban consider two main materials: cardboard tubes for the structure and tarps or textiles for partitions or coverings, as seen in the shelters in Rwanda and Japan. The technique is practical, resourceful, and economical. He has even perfected it according to the availability of resources, as in the case of the Paper Log House in Kobe, Japan. In this shelter, donated beer crates were used for the foundation of the housing modules, cardboard tubes for the enclosures, and textiles for the covers.

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Paper Emergency Shelters for UNHCR (Rwanda), Paper Partition System shelters (Japan), Paper Log House (Japan)_ © Shigeru Ban Architects

Cardboard tubes are a construction element implemented by Shigeru Ban in projects of various scales, with different formats, but with the same purpose: to create structures that are easy to assemble and adaptable to multiple spatial configurations. Two examples are the temporary church in Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake, and the Paper Temporary School in Chengdu Chenghua, Sichuan, after the earthquake in 2008. The paper church was constructed with cardboard tube pillars arranged in an elliptical floor plan to create a central nave that brought the community together, covered with a tensile membrane. The church received much acceptance and volunteer participation in its construction, but 10 years later, it was relocated to Taiwan to serve the same community purpose. On the other hand, the temporary school was designed and built during the summer so that students would not miss classes due to lack of facilities affected by the earthquake. The construction system considered paper tubes for the framework of the classrooms and used cardboard sheets with circular perforations and polycarbonate covers for natural lighting entryways.

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Paper Church (left) and Paper Temporary School (right)_ © Shigeru Ban Architects

Architecture in service of all

The principles of Shigeru Ban architecture are epitomized in the Cardboard Cathedral, built in Christchurch, New Zealand. Its story has a devastating background: Christchurch suffered a magnitude 6.3 earthquake according to the Richter scale in 2011. According to reports, the death toll was approximately 180, and among the material damages, the collapse of the neogothic-style Christchurch Cathedral built between 1864 and 1904, was recorded. Shigeru Ban’s task was to construct a temporary cathedral for the city. His purpose was to restore faith in the community after the catastrophe.

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Cardboard Cathedral Facade_© Shigeru Ban Architects

The most controversial aspect of this new cathedral is the materiality of the structure: cardboard tubes. Known worldwide as the Cardboard Cathedral, the Japanese architect used over 90 separate cardboard tubes arranged in a gable roof configuration to create a nave that could accommodate 700 people. While cardboard tubes are Ban’s signature material, he also incorporated other resources such as shipping containers to use as a base for the structure and polycarbonate to protect the tubes from water while allowing natural light to penetrate the interior. The stained-glass windows of the new cathedral are pieces salvaged from the old cathedral and were used in the main facade. A building originally constructed in 2013 as a temporary structure has become a symbol of hope for a city that still stands strong to this day.

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Interior of Cardboard Cathedral_© Shigeru Ban Architects

Final reflections

The architecture of Shigeru Ban is altruistic. His work reaches people and communities in conditions of vulnerability and precarity, which implies a significant social and human impact. Thanks to his ingenuity, Ban efficiently merges the management of material, human, technological, and economic resources to create new spatial configurations that are low-cost, easy to assemble, and durable in critical scenarios. His architecture is initially temporary, but the quality of the spaces, materials, and the value of collective appropriation make them remain indefinitely. Undoubtedly, his principles are based on serving the community and those most in need, sustainability, and the role of the architect in society.

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Interior of the wooden structure of the Yufu City Tourist Information Center Yufinfo_© Shigeru Ban Architects

References:

Shigeru Ban (2013). Emergency shelters made from paper. TEDxTokyo. [online]. Available at:  https://www.ted.com/talks/shigeru_ban_emergency_shelters_made_from_paper?subtitle=es  [Accessed 08 May 2024].

Shigeru Ban Architects (2013). Shigeru Ban Architects Official Website. TEDxTokyo. [online]. Available at:  https://shigerubanarchitects.com/   [Accessed 08 May 2024].

CNN (2024). ¿Cuáles han sido los peores terremotos de la historia? Esta es la lista completa. [online]. Available at:  https://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2024/01/01/terremotos-datos-historia-fast-facts-peores-mas-intensos/  [Accessed 08 May 2024].

BBC Mundo (2024). Al menos 75 muertos por terremoto en Nueva Zelanda. online]. Available at:  https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2011/02/110222_sismo_nueva_zelanda_ao  [Accessed 08 May 2024].

Author

Andrea is an architect and researcher passionate about sustainability in architecture, social transformations, and heat transfer in architectural envelopes for warm climates. Additionally, she loves traveling to explore architectural landmarks around the world and, in this way, travel through time.