Architect in action, Shigeru Ban: The power of space and architecture

Architect in action, Shigeru Ban: The power of space and architecture 

Can designers help humanity? 

I've had this thought before. If the Earth enters a post-apocalyptic era (like the destruction of the Earth or the end of humanity, which appears quite often in movies), only a small group of people who are essential for the survival of humanity can take shelter, cab architects or space designers should join that group? This is also a light question about whether architects or space designers are doing the work necessary for our society and humanity. Of course, my personal opinion is that they should join the group. First of all, it would be difficult to create a shelter without an architect or space expert. Otherwise, wouldn't the place become a crucible of chaos? The subtitle of the book <Paper Architecture in Action> (2019, Minumsa publishing) written by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban is ‘What can architects do for society?’ From the public's point of view, rather than from the fields of architecture, space, or design, architecture is a tangible entity that creates the landscape of a city. Most people recognize architecture as a landmark, a base, or something that symbolizes something. The lifespan of architecture is also quite long, or more accurately, it should be long, so the experience of architecture is difficult to be fragmented or specific.

Architecture for Everyone 

However, what is clear is that judgment about any architecture or space is very intuitive and the experience is also quite accurate. This is especially true if the architecture (space) has a clear purpose. Here, the object or subject of purpose is the majority of people who use the building and space. Architecture for a few people, not for something complicated with symbols or architectural elements, but for real use by users. As with the refuge that Shigeru Ban showed through ‘paper architecture’ while visiting disaster sites, for him architecture is about efficiency and use rather than aesthetic impression or symbolism.



Designers and architects are people who solve problems. 

Shigeru Ban, who is also the winner of the 1994 Pritzker Prize, known as the ‘Nobel Prize of Architecture,’ is an architect who has created numerous works that have become landmarks around the world, including luxury residences, cultural spaces, art galleries, resorts, and commercial spaces. However, what Shigeru Ban paid more attention to was not the few clients but the majority of citizens. As he began his career as an architect, he turned to architecture using paper and fabric. Research into materials that are eco-friendly and easy to install and remove is also related to the issue of ‘garbage emissions’ that is a concern in space and architecture. Also, contrary to the general perception of ‘paper,’ buildings made of paper can be used permanently and are also highly durable. Using the above materials, he began building temporary shelters and paper churches for people in disaster-stricken areas. Rwanda civil war (1994), Japan's Kobe earthquake (1995), and Turkiye earthquake (1999). Where disasters occurred, such as the Gujarat Earthquake in India (2001) and the Haiti Earthquake (2010), we went directly to those places and built temporary buildings such as shelters, churches, cathedrals, and shelters. The architecture created by Shigeru Ban at the site of the disaster, which would have been truly chaotic, has become a space for healing and rest where people can rest their bodies and minds. Through this, he has strongly imprinted the definition of the ‘role of an architect’ and is currently creating architecture for the victims of the war in Ukraine and floods in Pakistan. I have visited Korea several times for forums and seminars, and in an invited lecture at the '2022 Korea Architectural Competition' held in Jeju last year, I said, 'What is more important than creating a beautiful building is how to solve a problem through design. 'It's important,' he said. He added that the first factor to be considered in his architectural projects is the living environment of the people living there. In other words, it is a ‘public environment’. This also applies to the public spaces and built environments we use around us, even if it is not an extreme situation such as a disaster.

Shigeru Ban's public toilet project 

During the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the ‘Tokyo Toilet Project’ held in Tokyo once again reminded us of what architects can do for the local community. A total of 17 public restrooms were created in this project, in which leading Japanese architects, including Shigeru Ban, Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma, and Fumihiko Maki, collaborated with Shibuya City in Tokyo and the Japan Foundation. At the time, architects presented interesting toilets with their own uses and aesthetics, rather than public toilets, which were widely perceived as ‘dangerous and dirty’. Shigeru Ban introduced ‘see-through toilets’ in two parks that become opaque when a person enters and locks the door, and the inside is clearly visible when no one is present. This building, which directly or indirectly shows how cleanly it was used by those who used it, was not demolished and became a famous landmark that people actually used.

There are many similar cases in Korea as well as overseas. Over the past few years, we have seen cases of toilets being continuously renewed at rest areas on each road. The brighter, cleaner, and more spacious restrooms played a part in creating the image of a safe and secure rest area rather than a rest area that you just want to pass by. In fact, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security and the Citizens' Coalition for Toilet Culture have been holding the 'Beautiful Toilet Awards' since 1999, and the award-winning works here focus on 'problem-solving' that takes into account not only external design but also user characteristics and behavioral patterns can be seen. Jinyeong Complex Rest Area, which received the grand prize for beautiful bathrooms last year, not only created a courtyard to create a sense of openness while maintaining the unique closedness of the restrooms but also set the male-to-female restroom ratio at 1:15 to avoid waiting in long lines (especially the women's restroom) and designed 50% of toilet seats in the men's restroom to be used for women’s restroom in urgent matters. 



One public facility determines the image of a city 

The reason these public facilities are important is because they can determine the image of the region or country. It is for a similar reason that visitors to Seoul choose ‘a clean, well-equipped subway’ and ‘bus stops’ as one of the city’s strengths and images. These encompass elements such as functionality, universality, and aesthetics that facilities used by everyone should have. The fact that each piece of hardware influences the subjective ‘impression’ and ‘image’ also shows that design is an area of problem-solving. The lack of guidance felt while changing subways can be solved with just one signage, and the same goes for installing sun or cold shields at traffic signal waiting areas. Aside from the aesthetic aspect of the result, it gives the impression that the city is safe and clean and that it protects and cares for its citizens.

The meeting between Seoul City and Shigeru Ban 

Not long ago, the city of Seoul talked about continued collaboration in the safety and design sectors with Shigeru Ban. His commitment to architecture for the public (in fact, Shigeru Ban is also very interested in public restroom architecture) is expected to create good synergy in conjunction with Seoul City's need for ‘better’ public design. First, Seoul City is preparing to develop universal design application guidelines for public restrooms. Although many public restrooms are improving in terms of convenience, safety, and cleanliness, different design languages and inconveniences and difficulties in use still exist. Accordingly, this is a strategy to prevent safety accidents and further increase user convenience in public restrooms. We plan to establish application guidelines through research into details such as public restroom space planning, walking width, materials, and information signage, and apply and spread them to not only public but also private restrooms. In addition, the developed application guidelines will make it easier to proceed with architectural design, deliberation, and management, and experts in the fields of space, architecture, universal design, and crime prevention will provide advice throughout this entire process.

The power of space and architecture

Looking at the experimental and interesting results of the Tokyo Toilet Project mentioned above and the winning works of the ‘Beautiful Toilet Grand Prize’, there are many works that are outstanding in terms of aesthetics as well as meticulous design based on user convenience. In terms of environmental psychology, human beings are influenced by the environment, such as the feeling that ‘when I go to a certain space, I feel better’ or ‘the way I behave changes in certain places.’ The height of the trees visible outside and the height of the ceiling of the space where you stay are closely related to efficiency and psychological ventilation. Therefore, (fortunately) if you are not able to study or work efficiently, you need to first think about whether the environment is conducive to improving your efficiency before blaming your will. However, we cannot blame it entirely on the environment.

Design and architecture have a purpose. Design that loses its purpose (especially architecture) can harm the cityscape and become the result of despair and insensitivity. On the other hand, design and architecture can prevent disasters and prevent crimes, improve efficiency, create emotional stability, and create positive ventilation. If the purpose is for the many rather than a specific few, the responsibility of designers and architects is even greater. In particular, what I felt while meeting, covering, and interviewing many space designers and architects recently was that they consider social responsibility through design and environmental issues in the entire design process, including design and construction, more important than before. Public design to date has indeed had somewhat disappointing results in terms of aesthetic impression and quality of the results themselves, regardless of creativity or user convenience. Although there is a will and desire for public design, there are cases where it is not done due to various institutional and administrative reasons. But I believe (fortunately) that it is still too early to be sad. Now that the power of design, collaboration, and respect are growing in importance and the need for them is felt more than ever, wouldn't public design in the future be able to improve our lives? This applies to all of us who walk on the land and roads of this city, use its spaces, encounter even the buildings we pass by, and live with those impressions and experiences.

Sanghee Oh

Content planner/design editor

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