Material Master: Shigeru Ban

“I am not inventing something new. I am just using existing material differently.”

When someone like Shigeru Ban says this, one wants to dig in more, to know what he is saying. Shigeru Ban, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect, can be described as socially aware of the effect of his buildings on the environment and vice versa. A teacher, a role model and an inspiration for young architects, he inspires us to move out of our comfort zone of the material palette and experiment. Shigeru Ban a name stands out in the list of modern architects and continues to inspire an entire generation.

While learning design, Ban was influenced by his mentor Ar. John Hejduk who was known for being experimental minded. Ban explored with basic building materials at this stage which led to unique structural solutions. Ban is most famous now for his innovative work with paper and cardboard tubing as a material for building construction. He uses materials to express his concept for the building.

Materials used by Shigeru Ban

1. Paper

Ban found that paper’s structural integrity was better than most materials. Paper tubing, being one of the cheapest materials, especially during reconstructing houses for disaster relief,  was used by Shigeru Ban for such rehabilitation projects. In these projects, he has used paper not for being unorthodox but for the economy.

Kobe, Japan
In 1994, a major earthquake hit Kobo, Japan. Shigeru Ban built a massive temporary shelter for the victims with a module size of 172 sq.ft each.
Rwanda’s Byumba refugee camp
He has also built temporary shelters for the ‘Rwanda’s Byumba refugee camp’ in 1994, where he procured paper tubes for free. This camp was featured on PBS Newshour story.
Cardboard Cathedral, New Zealand

The Cardboard Cathedral was initially built as a temporary structure as a replacement for the Anglican cathedral which was destroyed in the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011.

A simple A-frame structure from 98 equally sized cardboard tubes and 8 steel shipping containers, is said to be one of the safest, earthquake-proof buildings in the town.

2. Wood

Apart from being famous as the ‘Paper Architect’, Shigeru Ban is one of the famous architects in the world working in wood. Not only does he build for the rehabilitation victims but also for wealthy patrons of art. Where paper tubes fail to work, he moves on to wood. Wood may be more expensive than steel and concrete, but building with timber actually speeds up the construction process, which ends up cutting costs by the time the project is completed. “Steel, concrete—we are just consuming from a limited amount. Timber is the only renewable material.” he quotes.

Aspen Art Museum
Design by Shigeru Ban which uses wood as a construction material

The new AAM is Shigeru Ban’s first permanent U.S. museum to be constructed. The idea behind this building design was transparency between the exteriors and interiors of the building, allowing the passersby to feel welcome to visit the interiors and the occupants to feel a connection with the surroundings.

3. Shipping containers

A structure built using shipping containers has an ideal compact, affordable, low maintenance, durable shell.

Container Temporary Housing – Onagawa, Miyagi

This was a three-story temporary housing made from shipping containers built post a 3.11 earthquake in Onagawa. Bright open living spaces were created in between the containers as a result of this checkerboard stacking.

Design philosophy

Generally speaking, an architect’s style is defined by particular forms or shapes. There are Frank Lloyd Wright’s prominent horizontal lines, for instance; Le Corbusier’s simple white boxes; or, more recently, the deliberately abstract masses of Frank Gehry — of Guggenheim Bilbao fame. But in the view of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, such formal elements are ultimately little more than reflections of current trends — in the first two cases above, Modernism, and in the third, “blobism,” or the recent taste for irregular shapes made possible by computer-aided design.

According to Ban, the only way for architects to keep their work free from the influence of such transient fashions is to come up with new ways to actually build things — new materials, for example, or new approaches to structural engineering.


Product design

Paper Taliesin

The Paper Taliesin in a home, following a wooden theme

Shigeru Ban created this “Paper Taliesin” by challenging Frank Lloyd Wright’s design face-on. While the use of Ban’s trademark paper tube in the construction expresses individuality, the lamp design plays pure homage to Frank Lloyd Wright. Recreating TALIESIN 2 using paper tube while respecting its original scale, the lamp’s design presents two contrasts: the change in shape of the lamp itself, achieved by using circles instead of the squares of the original TALIESIN 2; and the expression of light and shadow born from this change in shape.

Public spaces

Claude Bernard Footbridge, Paris

This is a footbridge project crossing the ring road motorway surrounding the city of Paris. Redevelopment is currently conducted in the Northern Part of Paris and this pedestrian bridge is planned as a new transportation route between the redevelopment district and the city of Aubervilliers located in the North. This would be the world‘s first wooden footbridge over a highway. In order to make the journey comfortable while facing the harsh environmental conditions of the motorway, Accoya wood is being used which is excellent for sustainability. The acetylation of Accoya greatly increases its sustainability makes it the world‘s most advanced solid wood.

Interior design

Cast Iron House

The original 361 Broadway building, completed in 1882, has been named a New York City landmark for its exquisite cast iron facade. The existing façade has been preserved, while the building’s interior has been reimagined to include 11 double height units and a two-storeyed penthouse addition. The insertion of the new, modern living space inside the historic façade is likened to a ship in the bottle.

The new penthouse addition flawlessly integrates itself with the existing building and also differentiates itself in a subtle yet unmistakable way. It employs a cantilevered Vierendeel truss with rectangular bays, referencing the proportion of the existing cast iron window bays below. The truss presents itself as a single story structure when seen from the street, and appears to float above the cast iron structure. The cantilevered 9th floor enables full height sliding doors at the eighth floor to open the North façade entirely to the terrace.

Amenity spaces have been provided in the basement, which include an exercise gym, dance studio, game rooms, an exterior courtyard, and a spa with sauna and steam room. 

Tamedia Office Building

The project for the headquarters of the Swiss media company Tamedia is situated in the heart of the city of Zurich in a 1,000 square-meter site within a larger urban block where the main buildings of the group are currently located.

Ban opted for a wood structure because of the advanced timber technology in Switzerland and because of the presence of engineers like Hermann Blumer, who had previously worked with the architect on the complex wood framing of the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France.

The structural elements are entirely visible which gives a very special character and high-quality spatiality to the working atmosphere.


Shigeru Ban was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2014. He has more than 10 international awards to his name, including being named as the Time Magazine Innovator of the year.

One write-up is never going to be fair to describe the works of Shigeru Ban. What we learn from his design philosophy, his teachings is priceless and difficult to be contained in words. So, from where does this inspiring architect draw his inspiration from?

” Travel! Only then you can understand different cultures of the world and you won’t depend on the computer.” is what he told Design Boom in an interview he gave to them in Italy, and we couldn’t agree more!

About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

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