Awarding-winning architect Shigeru Ban is widely known for his use of unconventional, inexpensive materials and his imaginative designs. After studying architecture at SCI-Arc and Cooper Union, Ban returned to Japan to start a career that has taken him around the world designing houses, civic and commercial structures and humanitarian projects. FLATT contributing editor Paul Laster recently sat down with Ban at the Aspen Art Museum to discuss his history, the design features of his latest museum and the work that he contributes to help people in need.
PAUL LASTER: When did you first become interested in architecture as a life- long pursuit?
SHIGERU BAN: As a child I wanted to become a carpenter. My parents’ house was often being renovated and expanded by a traditional carpenter and I liked to watch him work. His way of working was so beautiful, and I liked the smell of the wood.
PAUL LASTER: When did you then decide to study architecture?
SHIGERU BAN: As a teenager I took art classes, where we were taught simple draftsmanship for designing a house. For a summer project we were given the assignment of designing a model for a house. I loved working on the model and it was later put on display in my school. That was when I decided that I wanted to become an architect.
PAUL LASTER: When you studied architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and Cooper Union School of Architecture, did anyone make a lasting impression on you?
SHIGERU BAN: Yes, the first one was Raymond Kappe, one of the founders of SCI-Arc—but it was by coincidence. I came to the United States to study at Cooper Union under John Hejduk. I had found his architectural work in a Japanese magazine from 1975. I was really shocked and it made me want to come to the United States to study. I wrote a letter to Cooper Union, but they didn’t reply. I had to come to America to find out that they didn’t directly accept foreign students. I discovered that they would only accept foreign students if they transferred from another American school. So I had to first find another good architecture school in the U.S..
I was studying English in California and I visited the schools of architecture there, one by one. That’s how I discovered SCI- Arc, which I found to be very exciting. The school was still quite young and Raymond Kappe personally interviewed me. I was very lucky because my English was quite poor, but I had my own portfolio to show him. He accepted me without any English skill and put me in the second year.
PAUL LASTER: Did these schools help nurture your experimental nature?
SHIGERU BAN: Yes and no. I decided to go to SCI-Arc for only one year, so that I could get into Cooper Union. The school was very interesting with many good teachers, but beyond the school was the Case Study Houses in the Los Angeles area. That was a big influence. I didn’t study architecture in Japan so my Japanese influence came through the Case Study Houses—seeing the way the architects used materials, the way they connected inside and outside, and the transparency of the space and experimentation of the construction methods. I liked the way Charles and Ray Eames used industrial materials from catalogues unconventionally and I learned the way of mixing the inside with the outside from Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler.
PAUL LASTER: What was your first design that was actually built?
SHIGERU BAN: It’s a villa in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture in Japan that was conceived in 1986. It’s built on sloping land that’s divided by a stream and retained an old kiln, which is incorporated into the site.
PAUL LASTER: What materials did you use for it?
SHIGERU BAN: Timber and stone. The stone came from the site. I reorganized it for the façade of the building.
PAUL LASTER: When did you start using paper in your construction?
SHIGERU BAN: In 1986, when I designed the Alvar Aalto exhibition in Tokyo. I love Aalto’s work and wanted to use timber like he did, but I couldn’t afford it. I also didn’t want to waste such precious material as wood for a temporary exhibition. I found recycled paper tubes that were very strong and inexpensive. Later, I started testing paper tubing to use as a building material.
PAUL LASTER: How does site influence your design?
SHIGERU BAN: It’s most important. I always try to understand the context before I begin the design. For me the building has to be very contextualized. It has to be a particular solution for a particular place. Here in Aspen, when I came to the downtown site for the Aspen Art Museum I couldn’t see any mountains, but when I went to the rooftop of the building next door, I could enjoy the view. I wanted to connect the art experience with the nature.
Also, the site was too small. The program is much bigger than the site. There’s no space for the foyer on the ground floor so I decided to make the foyer on the rooftop. There’s a grand stair so that the public can come to the rooftop from the street without going through the museum or you can take the glass elevator to come up to the roof and enjoy the view and then come down, floor by floor, to see the art. It’s like taking a lift up the mountain, enjoying the view and skiing down. This is a parallel experience that’s particular to Aspen.
And, all of the facades of the buildings in downtown Aspen are brick or wood, which motivated me to use similar materials to respect the public on the street.
PAUL LASTER: What are the key architectural features of the Aspen Art Museum?
SHIGERU BAN: The key features are the Grand Stair, the Moving Glass Room Elevator, the Woven Wood Screen, the Wood Roof Structure and the Walkable Skylights. But before talking about theses details, it’s important to stress that a museum has to be very practical, while at the same time providing an enjoyable architectural experience. Looking at art can sometimes be intense, which can tire the viewer. I want people to refresh before moving on to the next gallery. Every time you walk to another floor you have to go out to see light and the view before coming back to look at art. This repetition of view and gallery, view and art, is a unique experience to this museum.
PAUL LASTER: The Grand Stair takes you up to the view and then brings you down to experience the galleries. What about the Moving Glass Room Elevator?
SHIGERU BAN: This is also part of the idea of the lift. You take a lift to enjoy the view and come up to the top of the building.
PAUL LASTER: How was the Woven Wood Screen that covers the surface of the building constructed? Was it woven offsite or assembled in Aspen?
SHIGERU BAN: It was woven in Aspen. I wanted to keep the human touch—a handmade feeling to the building. I chose this material because it resembles brick or wood. The surface is veneer wood and paper, reinforced by resin. It’s very durable, and fireproof. It’s a translucent web that provides connection between the inside and the outside. There’s geometry in the grid, as the open squares become rectangles. It’s most open at the corners, where we wanted to bring in the most light.
PAUL LASTER: What about the Wood Roof Structure? Is it there to provide shade?
SHIGERU BAN: Colorado has a lot of timber structures, so I wanted to make use of wood. Also, the galleries are white boxes, without character. I wanted to give a warm feeling and also provide a contextual material. Designing a roof in timber is not uncommon, but it usually has steel joints to connect the wood. In that case, it might as well just be steel pipe rather than wood. I wanted to have timber by itself without imitating a steel structure. Additionally, steel joints are much more expensive. Instead of using steel joints I made diagonal cuts in the wood, which appear interwoven, and have them connected by steel posts.
PAUL LASTER: What part do the Walkable Skylights play?
SHIGERU BAN: Artists normally create work in natural light. I always think the best condition to enjoy art is under natural light. Because they provide light from the rooftop garden, it was important that they be durable enough to bear the weight of visitors.
PAUL LASTER: Did you also design furniture for the museum’s interiors?
SHIGERU BAN: I designed the fixed furniture. I made some benches, several tables for the education center, division screens for the shop and the reception counters.
PAUL LASTER: How did you treat the outdoor sidewalk area?
SHIGERU BAN: There’s a cement fence topped with wood that starts out straight and then curves around the trees. I designed a table around the trees so that people can sit and work or eat. And there are large, recessed planters that deter people from trying to climb the woven surface of the building.
PAUL LASTER: How many museums have you designed?
SHIGERU BAN: I’ve designed two museums in Japan—one that’s under construction now—the Pompidou Centre in Metz, another one in Dijon in France, and the Nomadic Museum, which was a temporary structure made from shipping containers.
PAUL LASTER: How does the Aspen Art Museum differ or relate to the other museums that you’ve designed?
SHIGERU BAN: It relates in my way of using context, which is a common factor in my buildings, but the solution is quite different. I always seek the problem to solve the design.
PAUL LASTER: The museum opened with six inaugural exhibitions, including Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture. How many humanitarian projects have you done now?
SHIGERU BAN: I don’t know; I’ve lost count. I started in 1994 in Rwanda after the civil war there. Over two million people became refugees and I made a proposal to design a shelter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The following year I designed partitions for privacy in the evacuation spaces in Kobe, Japan after an earthquake. In 1999 Turkey, 2001 in India, 2004 in Sri Lanka—almost every year.
PAUL LASTER: And with each of these conflicts and disasters do you go to the United Nations and government relief agencies or do they come to you?
SHIGERU BAN: Both. For the conflict in Rwanda I was hired as a consultant, otherwise I do all of these humanitarian projects pro bono. Sometimes I’m asked to come, like the projects in India or Turkey, and sometimes I just go to see the problem and organize a project by myself.
PAUL LASTER: Each situation probably defines what you design, right?
SHIGERU BAN: Yes, I have to go there to find out what is most appropriate. It all depends on the lifestyle of the people and the economic level. It’s very important for me to understand the local context.
PAUL LASTER: Why do you use recyclable materials for these projects?
SHIGERU BAN: These materials are cheap and locally available. Paper chip is available in most every country, very inexpensively. I have to work with student volunteers, because they are free labor, so the materials have to be lightweight and easy to construct.
PAUL LASTER: What was your most recent humanitarian project?
SHIGERU BAN: The Philippines, where they had an earthquake last October followed by a super-typhoon in December. We built temporary shelters and now I’m preparing affordable housing for them. I also designed a church, because the earthquake destroyed the previously existing one.
PAUL LASTER: Congratulations on winning the prestigious Pritzker Prize this year. Has that changed things for you?
SHIGERU BAN: I’m trying to be very careful not to change anything. I don’t want to make my office bigger. I want to keep things the same, but this award is unexpectedly influential. It’s important to keep the same style, but sometimes it can open a door.