The Social Role of Architects

The Seoul Design International Forum 2023 has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Session 1. The City of Today: Urban Design Strategies for Seoul as an Inclusive City

The Social Role of Architects

- Shigeru Ban, CEO of Shigeru Ban Architectural Design Office

I started building residence and residential spaces related to disasters, because I started thinking that, maybe in the past, I was designing for the privileged class. Because there are cases where people with wealth and authority will construct buildings and structures to visualize and show off their wealth and authority that is not tangible to the human eyes. That made me think that I should be constructing structures for the public and that is why I started building architectures in disaster sites. Of course, it is not bad to build architectures for the former. But we do need to think further about this. There are cases where developers and construction companies are pleased about new projects that may emerge when there is a disaster. However, the victims would of the disaster would be suffering a lot. That is why I thought that social role of an architect would like in supporting refugees of disasters. 

Birth of a paper building

I started working in Tokyo, right after I finished my studies in New York. It was difficult for me to start work related to architecture right away because I did not have experience. At the time, I designed exhibition spaces, but I did not have enough budget. Therefore, I used recycled paper instead of wood. Normally, I do not like to throw something out, and at the time, I had recycled paper. Through this, I realize that paper was surprisingly very durable. The temporary paper tube structure was built in that manner in 1990s. In 1980s~1990s, people were not too interested in the environment. I, myself, had the intention of not wasting materials rather than having an objective to make eco-friendly buildings. Then, it was difficult to get an approval, because paper was not a normal material that was used in buildings. Therefore, key structures used the existing method, and the exterior was all made out of paper. I decorated the exterior using paper tubes that are empty inside. There would be restrooms inside. When you run out of toilet paper in restrooms, you can peel the walls. I built a vacation home as a prototype to get the approval from the government. My vacation home can be considered to be the first permanent building made out of paper tubes. 

Exhibition Hall for World Expo in Germany 

Starting in 2000s, people started talking about environment. The theme of the World Expo that was held in Hannover, Germany was environment. I think I could be in charge of this project because there weren’t many architects that used recycled materials at the time. I built the exhibition hall using paper that I procured locally. I also asked to collect and recycle all the papers after the Expo ended. I created boxes out of wood and used them as foundation. I mainly used PVC for membranes, and these were also made out of paper. It didn’t have any problems because these were waterproof and pest proof materials. 

Expansion of paper structure 

This is a mobile art museum located in New York. It is a container building, and the focus was not on the ease of movement, but the most important part was that containers could be procured locally, anywhere, because there is an international standard for the dimensions. So, containers could be procured right away, even in New York. The containers were rented for about three months and returned again to the port. In addition, checkerboard-like shape was designed using existing connections. I had the pillars supporting the roof. The Santa Monica Project was also involving buildings made out of leased containers. Amongst structures made in disaster areas, there is a house in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami, the fishing village of Sri Lanka disappeared completely. The house was built here. I was inspired by the works of a Sri Lankan architect called, ‘Geoffrey Bawa’. Natural ventilation was enabled and picture windows were installed so that the residents could naturally enjoy the outside landscape, as if to be looking at a painting. 

Building for natural ventilation

Swatch store in Ginza that was carried out as a competition also allowed natural ventilation. 7 boutiques had to be created in a single building for this project, and a shape of a narrow but deep land was used considering that Ginza is an area with the most expensive real estate price. Four floors were made for the façade of the building, and it was made to let everyone pass by. Customers can move to the desired boutique from the street right away. If there are no elevators like this, only one boutique can be seen when entering the store from the street, but 7 boutiques can be accessed freely through this system. It is half close to an outdoor space. Just as a side note, the owner of Swatch thought it was a pity not to have the giraffe in the section drawing to not be present in the actual building, so I used my own money to install the giraffe structure. 

2003 Centre Pompidou-Metz in Paris is also a building for natural ventilation (Collaboration project between Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines). I wanted to connect the museum with the city center. So, I made three gallery tubes and a picture window at the end of the gallery. I made it so that the major attractions of Paris and train stations and so forth could be seen. The model of the wooden roof was inspired by the bamboo hat. The shape of the bamboo weaving is one where a hexagon meets a triangle. There would only be two elements in the connecting part if the geometry were to be applied, and hence, I chose this method. Most bamboo hats and baskets use such a pattern. This pattern was used repeatedly. I wove the roof using a single bolt without complex steel structure connections by repeatedly using this method because I did not want to use steel. Two picture windows can be opened and closed. The museum would be connected to the café and the city when the shutter goes up. Just as an anecdote, office lease fee is quite high in Paris. So, I said that I will use the terrace or outdoor space as the office. It was for cost savings, but people had to buy entrance tickets to meet me. I thought of our office as a part of the exhibition. That was the only shortcoming of this venue. 


The project in Yeoju that was carried out upon request by CJ Group used a geometry that was similar to Centre Pompidou-Metz. Centre Pompidou-Metz is called a tensile structure and the Yeoju complex is a compression structure. It was carried out with the existing wooden joints. I also worked on the employee training center together with CJ. I placed the training space underground because I did not want to make a boring lecture hall shaped in the form of a square, and I created an open lobby. The pond is supported by wooden pillars and trees were planted in a stainless-steel pod. It is as if the wooden materials are supporting the tree. A museum in Oita Station in Japan is also more open. It could be opened to the streets using a bi-folding door. This place is very famous for bamboo craftworks. Therefore, the ceiling was also designed to resemble a bamboo basket. This theater located next to the Seine River was made with enhanced energy efficiency so that it could receive both the sunlight and the wind. Mosaic tiles that used the traditional method of Venice show different colors depending on where the sunlight shines. Indoor seats were all made of paper. 

Mt. Fuji World Heritage Center

This is the winner of the competition for a museum in Mt. Fuji that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I made an upside-down version of Mt. Fuji and used water to cool the building. The water made using this cooling water was turned into a pond. Then, a reflection of the building in the shape of Mt. Fuji would be seen on the pond. We can feel as if we are climbing Mt. Fuji. The actual Mt. Fuji can also be observed through the picture frame placed at the top. 

Swatch Headquarter

This is the headquarter of Swatch located in Switzerland. There is the Omega Museum as well. The land was in the shape of an L so I used the shape of the land as is. Omega and Swatch buildings have different characteristics. Swatch building was made very organically and wooden materials were used. ETF membrane was used. As for the ceiling, you can see that visual expansion connects out to the street. Only the underground is made of concrete and other parts use wooden materials. 

Gallery project in Taiwan

Let us now travel to Taiwan. It is a gallery project. I designed it so that people can come out to enjoy the garden and also so that the museum can be entered from anywhere. This is called the fractal roof. It uses the fractal geometry. Fractal geometry refers to the repeatedly creating triangles with same ratios. I figured out that if 3D fractal roofs were used, it would have the effect of natural ventilation of air as if air is being naturally ventilated in trees. In truth, this building gets a lot of sunlight. The shape of the ceiling also allows natural ventilation, and thus, the use of air conditioner could be reduced by 10%. Simulation shows that energy savings could be as much as 50%. 


Semi-transparent public restrooms

This is a public restroom that I recently constructed in the city center of Tokyo. Public restrooms give the impression of being dirty. There are also issues of public safety for women because someone might be hiding. Therefore, I made this transparent restroom. It allows the user to know whether there is a person inside or not. It turns into this opaque building when someone goes in. This is a museum in Hiroshima. There is a hotel and a restaurant. The cube is floating on water. The structure changes when the gallery that floats on water moves. The design enables various configurations depending on the exhibition. This is a project where I received an inspiration from the works of my professor, John Hejduk. 

Design case that heals disasters

Rwanda genocide in 1994 caused 2 million people to flee. There was a refugee camp made by UNHCR. However, since it was a rainy season, the weather was so cold that I saw how people were covering themselves with blankets. Then, I proposed a new idea. I would be using wood and plastic sheets. However, this can lead to another issue of forest destruction. Therefore, UN provided aluminum pipes instead, but then, it also led to the problem of refugees buying and selling aluminum pipes. Thus, I got an idea to use recycled materials. I thought that we shouldn’t create a temporary shelter that was too comfortable because otherwise, people would not leave the refugee shelter. 

While working on this project, I collaborated with a Korean company and used plastic sheets as the main material. Next, I will talk about the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan. 9,000 people lost their lives. Emergency shelters were quite inadequate in rainy days. The government tried to lead the victims out of the city, but people did not want to leave the city. The refugee camp gradually turned into a slum. So, we used paper tubes that were 40mm in thickness and 10m in diameter to create temporary shelters. Natural ventilation could be achieved through the membrane. People lived in this place for 4 years. Paper tubes were used to construct even a church. These are movie theaters and performance halls. I made a second facility. This facility was donated to Taiwan that suffered from an earthquake and it is still being used as a permanent fixture. 


Permanent structures and temporary structures 

We need to think of something here. What would be the meaning of permanent structures or temporary structures? Temporary structures made by students who worked with me can also become permanent structures if people had affection. As Thomas Heatherwick also mentioned, whether it be in Tokyo, New York or Seoul, permanent structures that are 20 or 30 years old become demolished and reconstructed for profit. Then, these buildings would also become temporary. Therefore, we need to think again about the meaning of permanent and temporary buildings. 

Many schools collapsed during the Chengdu earthquake in China where more than 80,000 people passed away. I built a temporary school then. A temporary school was made using paper and wooden joints procured locally together with Chinese students. There was also an earthquake near Rome. At the time, mayor of Rome asked me to build a temporary concert hall. This city was originally very famous for music. This building also did not use concrete. Sand was used. There were paper tubes inside the building. This is made of paper tubes that considered the sound. All materials were procured locally once again. Next, there was the Fukushima earthquake. Generally, when there is such a disaster, victims would live in a place like a gymnasium. However, I think of privacy to be the most basic human right. So, I made these partitions but the Japanese Government rejected my idea. However, in the city, the mayor and relevant personnel of the city already passed away from the Tsunami and the person who was in charge of organization and operation was a high school physics teacher. This teacher gave the approval for the partition I proposed. The partition played its full role and was recognized for its efficiency, and later on, the Japanese Government provided an approval for my paper partition in a similar situation. The partitions were effectively used during the Covid-19 outbreak in 2019. The medical team made a request saying that such partitions are required to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The partitions were provided gradually for 15 years, and it finally received an official approval from the Japanese government. 

I also built a 3-story temporary container housing at the time. The temporary housing can be leased for 4 years. However, there was a problem that the housing was so good to live in that people continued to live for 8 years without leaving. 

There was also a huge earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. A major catholic church of the region had been destroyed. So, I built a temporary church out of paper tubes. We provided everything for free. Containers were used for ground floors. It was built as a temporary building. It became a tourist attraction and it still exists. 

I was in the middle of the typhoon and earthquake that hit Cebu in the Philippines. I collaborated with the Japanese and Filipino students. There is a famous beer company in the Philippines called San Miguel. I thought the beer boxes would be a great material so I asked for them, but the offer was rejected, so I had to use Coca Cola boxes instead. Woven bamboo sheets or bottles were also procured locally. During the Nepal earthquake of 2015, I made a building with a wooden frame that was completely filled with bricks. I conducted tests pursuant to the standards of Japan. I could build houses with this structure. With this, I collaborated with the School of Ankara in Turkey (large earthquake in February) to make a prototype for a temporary housing in just a day. This structure is also solid enough that it can be used as a temporary house and also a regular house. 

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine. I saw on TV that a large number of refugees fled to Poland and they were living in a place like a gymnasium. So, I received many materials from Poland together with my Polish colleagues and many NGOs and I could make a structure using fabric donated by many individuals and companies. Partitions were also made in these cities. There was also a situation where power was cut off because Russia attacked the power plant of Ukraine and I found a lightweight steel stove. We can cook using these and I also donated about 100 steel stoves. 

In a city called Lviv in Ukraine, I met with the mayor and proposed to construct an affordable housing with students. I created a prototype in September. This is Styrofoam, light insulation material. Durability was enhanced by adding glass fiber and plastic. 

This method is actually using traditional technology that was used to make ships. It could be made and provided in just a week. It could be made at low cost because it did not use the general construction materials, and I think it was a good option considering that there was a war going on. I think that might have been why a mayor from a different city asked me to build a hospital. This city was in the western part of Ukraine.  

Many injured people from the eastern part of Ukraine are flowing into this city. This led to a shortage of hospital beds. I was asked to build a hospital using wooden materials. There is a material called CLT. Actually, Ukraine had the largest CLT production facility in Europe. Originally, the materials were exported to US and Canada, but since the materials could not be exported because of the war, a request was made to build a hospital using CLT. As you know, there are many discussions about whether or not Ukraine should join the EU, and in truth, according to the regulations of Ukraine, hospitals cannot be built with wooden materials. However, such hospitals can be built pursuant to the EU regulations. Against this backdrop, mayor of Ukraine allowed this building to be constructed with wooden materials as an exception. Such design that exposes wooden materials are originally not allowed in Ukraine, but it was allowed this time. Recently, there was an earthquake in Morocco, near Marrakesh. I will be going there a week later to construct temporary housing. I will be travelling with my students. I will continue to build temporary housing in disaster areas and I hope that these structures will not only be used temporarily but used as permanent housing. 

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