I DON'T KNOW what Shigeru Ban is thinking. While we talk he’s generally smiley and often laughs, which both seem to be good signs. But his grin sometimes slips into a smirk. He listens attentively to questions and then bats some of them away, appearing quietly amused. He’s sometimes monosyllabic. If you ask about a project that Ban will discuss in his later lecture, or one that he thinks requires visual images as backup, then you’ll have to wait to get a full reply.
Maybe Ban is just tired of speaking to journalists. Since he won the Pritzker Prize in March 2014, he has arguably become the world’s most sought-after architect and has jetted from job to job almost without a break, flitting between his studios in Tokyo, Paris and New York. The latest stop in his whirlwind schedule is Hong Kong, where he’s giving a lecture on the social responsibility of architects at the annual Business of Design Week festival.
He may be a reticent interviewee, but this lecture is one that Ban is well placed to give. He stands out among the other architects on the festival’s roster (and, indeed, most other architects in the world) because he’s as famous for his pro bono work designing low-cost structures that can be quickly erected to house refugees and victims of natural disasters, as for his work on globally recognised institutions such as the Centre Pompidou-Metz and the Aspen Art Museum. Even more impressively, this temporary housing is environmentally friendly and constructed from materials that include fireand water-proofed recycled paper tubes, beer crates and shipping containers.
Ban’s paper-tube structures have been used to house victims following disasters including the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995, India’s Gujurat earthquake in 2001, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and other crises in Italy, Haiti, Turkey, New Zealand and the Philippines. This extensive humanitarian work and his innovative use of paper in architecture led Time magazine to name him Innovator of the Year in 2001 and earned him a spot on Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers list in 2014.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU LOOK AT A PAPER TUBE AND THINK, "I CAN USE THIS IN ARCHITECTURE."
That happened in 1986 when I designed the Alvar Aalto Exhibition [at the Axis Gallery, Tokyo].
AND WHAT FIRST INSPIRED YOU TO USE PAPER?
I looked for some alternative materials to replace wood. Using wood was too expensive for the temporary Alvar Aalto exhibition, so I was looking for some materials that were cheaper. I’m not using special paper. This is just normal recycled paper. I’m just using existing materials differently, to try to look for some different meaning and function from existing materials.
IS THERE A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN YOUR HUMANITARIAN PROJECTS AND YOUR COMMERCIAL PROJECTS?
I’m spending the same kind of energy and time on the commissioned work [as] for the disaster relief projects. The only difference is that for the pro bono projects I’m not paid. But also the satisfaction I get after the building is finished – temporary or permanent – and people move in, to hear how happy they are, my own satisfaction is exactly the same designing a house for rich people or designing temporary housing for the victims of disasters.
LOTS OF ARCHITECTS ARE DESCRIBED AS HAVING A PARTICULAR AESTHETIC. SO ZAHA HADID IS SOMETIMES LABELLED A FUTURISTIC ARCHITECT WHILE TOD WILLIAMS AND BILLIE TSIEN ARE CALLED MINIMALIST ARCHITECTS. DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR AESTHETIC?
That’s what journalists like to do. It’s not my job to define myself. That’s your job – [it’s] a journalist’s job to put a label.
BUT DO YOU THINK THAT THERE ARE QUALITIES THAT UNITE ALL YOUR PROJECTS?
I think so.
AND WHAT WOULD YOU SAY THOSE QUALITIES ARE?
I don’t know, because I’m doing [what comes] naturally, so it’s easier for you to define by yourself.
SO DO YOU FIND IT QUITE HARD TO ANALYSE YOUR OWN WORK?
I never analyse by myself. I just do work that I’m interested in. Normally, as I said, the critics and journalists are the one to analyse, right?
CAN WE TALK ABOUT THE OITA PREFECTURAL ART MUSEUM, WHICH IS SLATED TO OPEN NEXT YEAR. WHAT CULTURE DESIGN ARE THE KEY FEATURES OF THE DESIGN?
I was chosen by competition and then one of the most important concepts I made there was making public space, because I feel that museums are not really public. There are so many people who never go to museums. Especially [because] this museum is made by public money, I think that the museum has to be more open to more different types of people.
Museums tend to be a black box. People don’t know what’s inside until you pay and go inside. But I want to open the museum more on to the street, so that even the people who are not [normally] interested in coming to the museum, who would just pass by, they’ll see something and they may want to come in. Also that I didn’t think an art museum should be only for art – I think it should be for more different purposes. Even famous museums like the Pompidou Centre or the MOMA in New York, they cannot run themselves by the entrance fees, so they try to use the space for different purposes. So [museums] I think should organise an exhibition like a convention centre, exhibiting some products or some company exhibitions, even company gatherings, weddings – whatever. So I tried to open the museum not only for the art lovers but also for the general public.
THE ASPEN ART MUSEUM THAT YOU DESIGNED ALSO OPENED RECENTLY. WERE THERE SIMILAR CONSIDERATIONS WITH THAT PROJECT?
No. As you know, Aspen is the most famous ski resort in the United States, so I used the ski experience for the museum experience. When you arrive in my museum in Aspen, normally “Museums tend to be a black box. People don’t know what’s inside” there’s a big lobby when you enter a museum but [at the Aspen Art Museum] there’s no lobby. You have to take either a grand staircase, which is semi-outdoor, or a big glass elevator to go up to the rooftop to enjoy the mountain view. Then you come down little by little to enjoy the art. That is just exactly what you do for skiing – you take a lift to go up to the mountain and enjoy the mountain view and then you come down.
YOU'VE PREVIOUSLY SAID THAT YOU'RE NOT THINKING ABOUT “GREEN,” “ECO” OR “SUSTAINABLE” BECAUSE THOSE ARE COMMERCIAL WORDS. SO WHAT'S THE FIRST THING YOU CONSIDER WHEN YOU’RE WORKING ON A NEW PROJECT?
The most important thing is visiting the site, the context. Understanding the context is most important to start designing architecture.
WHEN YOU FIRST VISIT THE SITE OF A NEW PROJECT, DO YOU FIND IDEAS COME TO YOU VERY QUICKLY?
AND WHEN YOU’VE DECIDED ON AN IDEA, DO YOU EVER CHANGE YOUR MIND?