Shigeru Ban talks to Masoud Golsorkhi

Photography by Sanchez y Montoro

Shigeru Ban is a Japanese architect who has acquired an international following and generated critical acclaim for his pioneering work for the most unusual clients. While other star architects hobnob on yachts and private jets with oligarchs, billionaires and potentates, Ban has taken it upon himself to deliver the most basic service an architect can deliver - shelter from the elements to people who not only have no money but sometimes don't even have a country. He has travelled the world's disaster spots (natural and man-made), assembled groups of volunteers (usually students of architecture) and utilised the least expected material (cardboard and paper) to give shelter and quality of life to Rwandan refugees and Turkish earthquake victims. His legendary paper cathedrals (after the Kobe and Christchurch earthquakes) have become much-loved icons, with many locals pushing for their preservation. And whereas contemporary architects struggle to be understood by the public and radical architecture is met with hostility, Ban's particular vision is celebrated for its humanism. We met him at the pavilion he has designed for the Camper team's participation in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Masoud Golsorkhi Your perspective on architecture is the polar opposite of the vast majority of your fellow architects. How did you come to view it as something that deals not with permanence, but with transience and temporary structures? And why did you first start thinking about temporary structures? Shigeru Ban: The temporary structure was necessary after the [tsunami] disaster, so this is not right for me to propose. It is unnecessary, but there is no difference between temporary and permanent structures. Like the church I designed in paper after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 - it remained for 10 years, then was disassembled and sent to Taiwan, where they also had an earthquake. So it became the permanent church in Taiwan. Even some buildings that are made in concrete are really temporary; if the building was made by the developer for money. Even after a developer buys the land, they often destroy one building to build new ones. So even concrete buildings can be very temporary. And as we see, concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes very easily, but not paper buildings. So my building can appear temporary but also permanent. As long as people love the buildings, they become permanent.

MG So it's really not about whether it's temporary or permanent, more about the ease of assembling and disassembling?
SB Yes, that's the main requirement of this pavilion, for example. That is how I approached the project. As explained, I use paper because it is easier to build and disassemble. The solution is made by the requirement and also the problems.

MG Do you see yourself as continuing a tradition similar to Jean Prouvé's Maison Tropicale idea - a structure that can be dropped anywhere?
SB I respect Jean Prouvé, I like him very much. But now I am designing a temporary pavilion, which may stay longer. After any natural disaster, the situation is always terrible. Construction has to be lightweight, easy to assemble, instead of using heavy materials.

MG So you went to light material out of necessity…
SB Yes, necessity, but also because it is cheaper and economical. Paper can be found anywhere in the world. I remember building temporary houses in Turkey and India. I can find local paper easily. Even the temporary cathedral in Christchurch was made with paper from a local mill.

MG So that's the beauty of the choice of this material?
SB Yes, also because this is not a construction material, so it's easy. Typically after a disaster, construction material prices increase. At the same time, price of material like paper and card comes down because the demand for them drops, so it works out well for us. It's so quick to make the material. The production process of the raw materials is also very fast.

MG In that sense, what is so unique about the relationship with your clients? Because normally an architect works with a client and a planning authority. In your case, clients are people who are bereaved, who are shocked, who are in a terrible state. So in what way is your relationship with them different? How do you approach them?
SB Well, as you said, after a disaster there is no client. First of all, I raise money by myself to make a temporary structure and I find the requirement or problem by myself, because they are often terrorised about what they want to do. And also because I have many experiences building this kind of structure in several areas. Each situation is always different. I have to go there to meet the developer to find what is appropriate for the structure we are providing, so always I have to find the requirement, the money and the problem by myself. And also the construction team may be local students. So I have to find them by myself, always.

MG So basically you commission yourself and go look for trouble around the world?
SB Yes, exactly!

MG And what brought you together with Camper. How did this relationship start?
SB They came to see me because they liked my pavilion and my buildings. And also Camper, as you know, does shoes for everyone; it's very casual.

MG Yes, very democratic.
SB They thought my buildings are also very casual, using natural materials and very flexible. So this was a very good collaboration.

MG Would you say that you both value humility?
SB Yes, I think so. That's why we have a strong relationship.

MG You are, whether you like it or not, now what they call a "starchitect". There is also the metal shutter houses project in New York, which suggests you're now working more with conventional developers in a way that's more like a traditional architect's practice?
SB No, I mean I have to have a balance between working with standard clients like developers, governments and the private sector while working on the disaster areas. I like to make a balance. Unless I make money, I cannot do pro bono. Also, making a monument is not a bad thing, like when I designed the Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010). I was so happy to hear that the people there were so proud of my building and to find me and say: "Thank you so much for building a beautiful building in my city" That is really the best moment as an architect. Even when the earthquake victims move into my temporary house, some of them say: "This house is much better than my previous house!" I'm very happy. This happiness is the same, whether I design a museum or a temporary house. I just want to make people happy and make them use my buildings.

MG Is the ideology that informs your practice to do with sustainability and green concerns? If so, do you feel constrained by that? Do you sometimes want to do a really extravagant building?
SB First of all, the green, sustainability and ecology movements came afterwards. I started designing the structure with paper in 1986, when nobody was talking about recycling and ecology. This fashion came afterwards. A journalist told me I'm an "accidental environmentalist", because I didn't start as a result of this movement. Also, I am not using this ecology or green movement as a strategy of design in my buildings. People just put me in this category by chance.

MG You didn't look for it.
SB I like to use natural materials. I like to have an economical way of construction so it's really by chance.

MG So you're not necessarily wedded to this ideology?
SB No, not at all. 

MG I'm very curious about the Camper store in New York. How did you approach it? It's opposite the Apple store on the corner of Prince and Green street, right? Tell me about the location.
SB It's in the middle of SoHo, and only five minutes away from where I used to live as a student. So I was so happy I got to walk in my old neighbourhood.

MG Can you tell me a little bit about it?
SB Yes, it opened in December. The floor is totally open to the exterior like a pavilion. Giant glass windows open to the outside. People come from everywhere and when you enter you only see the red wall with the Camper logo and all shoes. Then you go in and turn around and you see the store.

MG So it's all hidden in a way.
SB Yes.

MG If you were ever asked to do a completely extravagant project, what would you do?
SB That's difficult. If I were given a big site with too much budget, it would be more difficult for me to design. I like to have some constraints, requirements, and restrictions.

MG You prefer limitations.
SB Yes, that's why it would be very difficult for me to think of a fantasy project without limits. §

  • Shigeru Ban