Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done”. 

In the 1980’s Japanese architect Shigeru Ban revolutionized the use of paper in the field of architecture. The material which architects use to convey their ideas has now become a construction material. Inspired by hollow paper tubes, Shigeru Ban decided to experiment with paper as a construction material, initially as supports and partitions for interior spaces. 

One of the first few projects Ban could implement his idea was when he designed the hall for the Alvar Alto exhibition which was successful enough to fuel his desire to understand the properties of paper as a construction material.

Paper architecture

Sustainability now had a new face as Shigeru Ban spent about four years developing paper rolls for architectural purposes. Ban explored the variety of paper tubes has to offer over this period and was finally ready to create temporary and permanent structures by the 1990s. Bans basic philosophy is, “Paper is made out of trees. Humans create architecture out of trees, so it is possible to create architecture out of paper”.

The book Paper in Architecture is a compilation of forty projects of Shigeru Ban, featuring projects based on his latest innovation, paper architecture. These projects display the versatile nature of paper and how it is suitable for any building typology and can be used for permanent structures by using other materials such as concrete and steel for their structural qualities.

Book in Focus: Paper in architecture by Shigeru Ban - Sheet1

Paper in Architecture outlines the process Shigeru Ban underwent while developing this new architectural typology which redefined sustainable architecture. Some of the structures mentioned are exhibition spaces, churches, galleries, houses, museums and features some furniture that Ban had made out of paper rolls. 

The reason Ban endorsed paper, as stated in the book, was because he saw potential in paper tubes as a true building material, and not for their aesthetic or functional characteristics. He could see paper mimic the textures and hues of wood which had urged him to conduct necessary research to refine and apply paper in construction.

Book in Focus: Paper in architecture by Shigeru Ban - Sheet2
Paper house, Japan completed in 1995 ©

Voluntary work

The book also highlights the voluntary work that Shigeru Ban actively took part in. Post the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Ban had studied the effects of earthquakes and the damage it causes to buildings and more importantly human lives. He said, “It is rare for people to die from the earth-shaking beneath them. People die because they are crushed underneath collapsing buildings”. This event has further urged him to develop lightweight construction materials that can be assembled quickly with ease. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had requested to help construct refugee shelters in Rwanda. 

Ban had proposed the use of paper tubes which the UNHCR complied with, resulting in an efficient shelter. He had combined plastic tarps provided by the relief agencies and paper tubes to create simple yet structured temporary shelters for thousands of refugees. The refugees could build their shelters without any hindrance as materials are lightweight and easy to handle.

Book in Focus: Paper in architecture by Shigeru Ban - Sheet3
Paper log house at Kobe ©

The idea of lightweight construction was influenced by vernacular Japanese architecture and Shigeru Ban combined present-day technology to create a modern and sustainable solution for upcoming problems. Several other materials like bamboo, beer crates and plastic bottles were explored during the construction of emergency shelters in various places around the world such as Vietnam, India, Turkey, Sri Lanka and many more. Shigeru Ban’s investment in disaster relief projects has been well documented in his book Paper in Architecture. 

The innovation of paper architecture led Shigeru Ban to win the Pritzker prize in 2014. Acknowledging his achievement he said, “Receiving this prize is a great honour, and with it, I must be careful. I must continue to listen to the people I work for, in my private residential commissions and my disaster relief work. I see this prize as encouragement for me to keep doing what I am doing – not to change what I am doing, but to grow.” 

The book paper in architecture carefully illustrates the works of Shigeru Ban, giving a detailed description of not only his projects but a dialogue provided by Riichi Miyake, underling the story of the birth of paper architecture. The book does not fail to inspire and leaves the reader in complete awe, how a material as unconventional as paper could make it big as a construction material and has created some marvellous structures. 

Bans humanitarian work gives a fresh take on relief work and how the most common materials can transform into shelters without compromising their structural integrity. Paper in Architecture shows us that there is more to architecture than concrete, glass and steel. It shows us that there is a lot of scope in discovering eco-friendly materials and that a sustainable building is not defined by a terrace garden, but is defined by its materials and the process of construction as well. 

The true meaning of sustainability and environmentally responsible materials are communicated in simple and clear terms in Shigeru Ban’s Paper in Architecture.


Kavya Turaga is a third year architecture student from Bangalore. She believes that every building has a story and a soul, which helps in understanding its unique character. She finds inspiration in the smallest of things and is passionate about architectural photography.

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