By Lucy Birmingham
"Shigeru Ban: Architect"
When photographer and filmmaker Gregory Colbert first contacted Shigeru Ban in 1999 to design a traveling exhibition space for his work, Colbert already knew collaborating with Ban would be the perfect fit. He wanted to create a unique space with an architect whose sensibilities matched his own. Not an easy task. Yet despite their different mediums, Colbert and Ban are remarkably similar. Both create consciously with the environment as their palette: Colbert working with wild creatures and Ban with recycled materials. Both produce innovative images and structures: Colbert's sepia-toned "21st-century bestiary" and Ban's buildings and temporary shelters supported by tough paper tubes. Both are risk takers who defy all the rules. And now both are recognized worldwide in their fields, amid praise and controversy.
Their one-of-a-kind collaboration, the Nomadic Museum, is devoted to showcasing Colbert's "Ashes and Snow" traveling exhibition. The portable 5,300-square meter art space, far removed from the "white box" typical of galleries and museums, opened in 2005 on New York City's Pier 54. Since then, Ban's architectural interpretation of Colbert's vision has received high praise.
When you enter the Nomadic Museum, you step into a cathedral-like sanctuary. An atmosphere of subdued lighting, warm tones, and a high ceiling envelop and calm you. Strolling the long walkways of wooden planks bordered by black river stones, you pass a large, delicate paper curtain made from a million pressed Sri Lankan tea bags, which helps divide the space. Colbert's oversized photographs of animals and humans "in conversation" are suspended between 9-meter-tall paper columns. The "walls" of the structure comprise 152 stacked and well-traveled steel shipping containers. This entire museum was dismantled and reassembled for an exhibition in 2006 near Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, and now greets visitors on Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront until June 24.
"It was a big surprise to see Gregory's work for the first time because I had never seen anything like it before," says Ban. "Such a big photo print on Japanese washi paper and such an amazing relationship between animal and human. Gregory probably first thought I would design the whole Nomadic Museum with paper, but the dismantling, storing and overseas shipping would have been very expensive. So I thought: what is the best, economical, transportable building system?
Since Ban has previously used containers to ship a small exhibition, he says, "I knew that the size and weight of shipping containers are standard throughout the world. So I knew we could get containers cheaply anywhere we went. We wouldn't have to transport the main building material. The containers could serve two functions, as both storage and structural elements." Ban also liked the idea that the containers had traveled all over the world. He points out, "Each container has its own history, and I like material with that aged look."
Ban has channeled his innovative architecture into humanitarian projects, too. For refugees in Rwanda in 1994 he created shelters wade with plastic sheeting and paper tubes. He built temporary housing made with paper for earthquake victims in Kobe in 1995, Turkey in 1999, and India in 2001. For victims of the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004 he made houses of earth blocks. After rallying interest and support, he helped establish the Voluntary Architects' Network, a nongovernmental organization that creates buildings for victims of natural disasters throughout the world.
Although Ban has been called an ecological architect, "I hate the term," he states. "It's a very important concept of the 21st century, but now people are just using it as fashion without really thinking about the meaning and definition of the phrase. When I started developing cardboard-tube structures using recycled paper in 1986, nobody spoke about 'recycling,' 'ecology' and 'sustainable development.'" Ban prefers to be called a problem-solving architect. "Paper tubing is just part of my vocabulary. I always try to find the most appropriate concept and material and structural system for a particular location. In one word, I would describe my work as problem-solving."
Among his many commissions, Ban's work has included a stage-set design and studio gallery for Issey Miyake, the Japan Pavilion at the 2000 World Expo in Hanover, Germany, and many private residences including the "Naked House" (2000) in Saitama, Japan — named "Best House in the World" by the World Architecture Awards 2002. He is now working on the prestigious new Centre Georges Pompidou satellite museum in Metz, France.
Ban is known for bucking the system, which is clearly revealed in his design chosen by the Swatch Group Ltd. for its new flagship store in Ginza that opened in May. The watchmaker had specific ideas about the look it wanted. Ban says, "I didn't respect the given program. It was a huge risk. I totally changed what they wanted." Ban wonders why he has never been hired to design a building for a Japanese company. "My big clients have all been from overseas. I would really like to work with a Japanese company."
From shelters for refugees to France's new national museum, Ban gains satisfaction from all his varied projects. "Historically, the role of architects has been visualizing the invisible power and money of their privileged clients," he says. "But we architects have a social duty to use our knowledge and experience for the public as a whole. Natural disasters are not all natural. During earthquakes, it is collapsing buildings that kill many people. Architects have a responsibility to build for everyone."