Internationally renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban visited Yale on April 24 to deliver a lecture on “Balancing Architectural Works and Social Contributions” at the joint invitation of the Yale School of Architecture, the Yale MacMillan Center Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement, and Humanitarian Responses, and the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale.
Ban has designed elaborate museums, business headquarters, and residential buildings, yet he is equally well known for his humanitarian work designing emergency shelters for refugees of war and natural disasters around the world. With his unique blend of creative talent and compassion, Ban has redefined the role of the architect, creating structures that not only captivate with their aesthetic appeal but also serve as high-quality solutions for protecting the environment and people in crisis.
In his lecture and in a series of meetings with students, faculty, and staff, the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner discussed his beginnings in the field, the evolution of his innovative and sustainable approach to design, and his commitment to using architecture to serve society’s needs.
Born in Tokyo in 1957, Ban grew up in an artistic family. His mother, a fashion designer, regularly hired skilled carpenters to make improvements to their house, which fascinated him as a young boy. Ban’s architectural ambitions began when, in junior high school, he designed and built a house model that was chosen for exhibition.
Yet attending architecture school in the U.S. instead of Japan was not an obvious choice for a Japanese student at that time. Indeed, Ban explained how he discovered the Cooper Union School of Architecture by chance. While preparing for his Japanese art school entrance exams at his teacher’s house, Ban found a special issue of the Japanese architectural magazine A+U featuring “11 Contemporary American Architects (White and Gray).” Ban recalled, “They were divided into White and Gray: White was mostly architects from the East Coast; Gray mostly from the West Coast.” Ban noticed that three architects in the East Coast side—John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and Peter Eisenman, were either teaching at or had graduated from Cooper Union School of Architecture. (Hejduk was then Dean of the school.)
“I was curious that I had never heard of this school,” Ban remembered. “But there was no way to check what Cooper Union was. There was no internet. So I went to the library at the embassy, but there was no reference about Cooper Union. I wrote a letter; no reply. So I got a visa from an English school and came to California. Then I found out that Cooper Union didn’t accept foreign students, because it’s a tuition-free school.”
Undaunted, Ban looked for American schools from which he could transfer to Cooper Union; he applied and was accepted at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Ban soon found out that many famous West Coast architects were teaching there, including Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne. “I stayed longer than expected because the school was very exciting,” Ban said. But after he spent two and a half years there, he applied as a transfer student to Cooper Union and was accepted.
After he graduated from Cooper Union in 1984, Ban explained, “I wanted to go to graduate school, but my mother asked me to design a small building.” So, he went back to Japan to complete the building for his family. “Then I got more projects, and I lost my chance to come back,” he said, laughing. Of his design style at that time, he said, “Because I was very influenced by John Hejduk, I was designing buildings like his style. I was manipulating geometrical forms.”
Ban credits a trip he took to Finland during this period as pivotal to his development as an architect. He took a job working for the famous Japanese architecture photographer Yokio Futagawa, who published the Global Architecture (GA) books and magazine series. With Futagawa, Ban traveled the world, photographing cutting-edge architecture.
“When I went to Finland the first time to see Alvar Aalto’s architecture,” Ban recalled, “It changed my attitude totally. At Cooper Union, nobody taught us Alvar Aalto. When I went to Finland, I was really amazed by his architecture, his way of using the material, his very contextual way of designing. That was a very important moment for me in finding my own style.”
Ban pursued his interest in structure and discovered American architect Buckminster Fuller and German architect Frei Otto. “Little by little, I cut out on the side influenced by John Hejduk by designing buildings with structural ideas,” Ban explained. “Also, I started developing paper tube architecture.”
Ban had been invited to create an interior design for the 1986 Alvar Aalto Exhibition in Tokyo. He was looking for material to replace wood, because Alvar Aalto used a lot of wood, but Ban couldn’t afford wood due to his limited budget. “In my studio, when we finished the tracing paper or fax paper roll, always the paper tube remained. I hate to throw things away, so I kept them,” Ban explained. “And I thought, this is really good material. And it’s very cheap. And we can make any length, any diameter, very freely.”
Once he used the cardboard paper tube rolls for interior structure, Ban found that the tubes were very strong. To explore this further, he began testing with the support of some engineers. “And then I knew: this is strong enough to be structure,” he said.
Like his idols Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller, Ban wanted to invent his own structural system, and he was intrigued by the possibilities of paper, which was also inexpensive, eco-friendly, and easily quality-controlled. “People were trying to develop something stronger and stronger. But logically, I knew even using weak material like paper, we could make buildings durable and strong enough to meet building code regulations,” Ban explained. “Even a concrete building can be destroyed by earthquake very easily, but a timber building cannot be destroyed by earthquake because it’s lightweight. The durability and strength of the building has nothing to do with strength of the material.”
Ban thought of an outdoor application for his paper tube structure in 1994, while reading a magazine article about the more than 2 million refugees of Rwandan civil war and genocide who were enduring harsh conditions in makeshift shelters provided by the United Nations. The existing shelters, constructed with local timber and covered with a UN tarpaulin, were cold and damp, and the use of wood in so many shelters had led to severe deforestation in the country. To stop the deforestation, the UN had begun providing aluminum pipes to replace wood, but these were so valuable that refugees sold them for money rather than keeping them for housing.
Ban believed that he had a better solution: temporary shelters made from recycled paper tubes. He took it upon himself to visit the United Nations office in Geneva without an appointment. Fortuitously, he met the German architect responsible for shelter construction who was willing to listen and implement Ban’s idea. Soon, Ban’s paper tube frame structures, which were low-cost and eco-friendly, provided much-needed relief to refugees struggling to rebuild their lives.
When a devastating earthquake struck Kobe, Japan, the following year, Ban designed snug “Paper Log Houses” for those who had lost their homes. He mobilized a team of student volunteers to construct the shelters, the foundations of which were made from sandbag-filled beer crates—donated from one of Japan’s leading beer companies. He also experimented by building a larger paper tube structure—the Paper Dome, a temporary church to replace the Takatori Catholic Church that had collapsed in the earthquake. The Paper Dome church was used for about ten years, after which it was donated to the Taomi Village in Taiwan, where it was reconstructed and remains as a popular museum. Reflecting on the Paper Dome’s unexpected staying power, Ban asked, rhetorically, “What is the definition of a temporary structure? What is the definition of a permanent structure? Even a building made of paper can be permanent.”
Another professional breakthrough for Ban came in 2000, when he had the opportunity to test the strength of his paper tube system on a grand scale as he designed the Japanese Pavilion for the 2000 World Exposition in Hanover, Germany. The main theme of the expo was “Humankind – Nature – Technology,” focusing on the environment and a sustainable future, Ban explained. “And I was the only Japanese architect at the time who used a recyclable material for building.” Consequently, he was chosen by the government and designed the massive Japan Pavilion out of paper—an elegant, undulating structure featuring a seemingly woven grid of paper tubes overlaid with a waterproofed and fire-resistant white paper membrane. “I was very lucky to collaborate with my hero Frei Otto on the project,” said Ban. “That was a great moment for me, to be truly trained by him.” After the expo, Ban’s building was disassembled and recycled, right down to its sand-and-wood foundations.
Around this time, Ban began seeing what he called a global “paradigm shift” toward environmentally conscious building, which helped raise interest in his work. “People started talking about the environment and ecology and sustainability, and then my method of using paper tubes was much easier to convince people to use,” Ban said. He went on to use his paper tube system to design and quickly build important community gathering spaces in the aftermath of major earthquakes, including the Paper Concert Hall in Aquila, Italy in 2011 and the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2013.
In addition to his paper tube structures, Ban has also designed many permanent structures using other environmentally friendly materials and techniques. One of the many notable examples of his work that Ban discussed at Yale is the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a modern and contemporary art museum in France, whose laminated timber roof features a grid structure of triangles and hexagons inspired by a traditional Chinese woven hat.
For his humanitarian work, Rwanda and Japan were only the beginning. Over the past 30 years, Ban has continued to design refugee housing and indoor partition systems, each suited to the local conditions and the longevity required, during crises in many countries around the world, including Turkey, India, China, Haiti, New Zealand, and the Philippines. The NGO he founded, the Voluntary Architects’ Network, helps coordinate finding the local labor to build his refugee shelters. “During a disaster in Japan, I send over my university students to work with local students,” he explained. “But for foreign projects, I have to find the team locally. Now that my activity is known, when I email architecture professors at a local school, they’re always happy to accept a collaboration. So, it has become much easier to build a team locally.”
One of Ban’s latest projects has been to develop temporary housing for Ukrainians in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For this, Ban drew inspiration from boat-building technology, crafting the cube-like structures out of fiberglass-coated Styrofoam. “After the war, the cities in Ukraine will be rebuilt. Contractors will become very busy, and building materials will become very expensive,” Ban said. “This is a system where you don’t need to depend your contractor or on normal building materials. Anybody can build them.” A team of volunteer students in Poland constructed the prototypes, and now the houses are being built on the ground in Ukraine.
The recipient of numerous awards, Ban received architecture’s highest, The Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 2014. The jury explained its decision: “Shigeru Ban is a tireless architect whose work exudes optimism. Where others may see insurmountable challenges, Ban sees a call to action. Where others might take a tested path, he sees the opportunity to innovate. He is a committed teacher who is not only a role model for younger generations, but also an inspiration.”
While Ban inspires today’s young architecture students, they are also the source of his hope for the future. Ban said he’s seen a change of mindset in architecture students over the years, especially in comparison to his own experience as a young student. “When we were students, we were looking for star architects,” he said. “Now many students are really interested in social problems, so they come to me, and they help us. I think these young people are more socially oriented than we were.” Ban enjoys bringing his students to volunteer building real shelters in disaster areas. After all, he said, “That’s the best available training.”