Shigeru Ban at Gallery Ma

by Monty DiPietro

Shigeru Ban makes it look easy. Winner, less than two years ago, of the Japan Institute of Architectureís "Best Young Architect of the Year" award, Ban has a knack for putting together structures whose design elements, while certainly not simple, are easy to grasp, even for the layman. One reason for this may lie in Banís tendency to "pursue architecture with an invisible structure," a result the architect achieves, paradoxically, by concealing almost nothing in his buildings. But more than form, it is the stuff his new structures are made of that cause Banís work to speak so clearly to our understanding Ė for the 41 year-old architect is building buildings out of paper.

An initial reaction that included at least a hint of incredulity would be normal. Looking at photographs of some of Banís cardboard-tube houses, one may suspect that the photos have been doctored. Paper and cardboard for the models, steel and cement for the actual structures, right?

Wrong. And stepping out onto the rear terrace of Gallery Ma to regard the cardboard-tube canopy erected overhead is all the empirical evidence one needs to know, pure and simple, that Banís paper buildings are refreshingly real.

One of Tokyoís premiere architectural showcases, Gallery Ma in Minato Ward is now presenting "Projects in Process," a show of drawings, models, and documentation covering Banís work over the last several years and focusing on an ongoing collaboration with Frei Otto for the Japanese pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany.

A highlight of the show is coverage of the shelters Ban designed while he was a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Composed of plastic tarpaulins stretched over a cardboard-tube frame, the quick-construction structures first appeared in Rwanda several years ago when UNHCR realized that their original policy of sending a plastic sheet, instruction book and hatchet was leading refugees to cut down too many trees. When alternative materials were considered for the sheltersí frame, the prospect of aluminum, for example, being sold-off by unscrupulous elements in the distribution chain could not be discounted. Enter Banís cheap and lightweight cardboard tubes. Ma has a full-scale refugee shelter installed in their second level exhibition space which visitors can enter to watch a video documenting the project.

But the star of the show has to be Banís recyclable Hannover 2000 pavilion, of which there are several large models and a fascinating collection of sketches, plans, and architect-engineer correspondence. The structureís truss roof is composed of cardboard tubes covered by a membrane of treated paper, and rather resembles a low-rise biological version of one of Buckmaster Fullerís geodesic domes. This is attributable to input from German architect Frei Otto, whose lifeís work studying membranes found in nature led to such innovative structures as the West German pavilion at Montrealís Expo í67 and the Munich Olympic Stadium of 1972. While Ottoís input has seen Banís work become much more involved, there is still the very Japanese transparency that Ban strives for in his structures.

"I donít think Iím a revolutionary architect," explains Ban, "I am just using existing technology and materials in a different way."

Be that as it may, as a veritable whoís who of Tokyo art and architecture insiders circulate under the artistís 10 meter high cardboard frame and paper-skin canopy, there is a certain buzz in the air that compliments the childlike excitement in Banís eyes. There is a sense here that Ban has arrived, and this is because "Projects in Process" is one of the most impressive exhibitions in Tokyo right now. The bonus of fully-bilingual and easy-to-understand attendant texts and an excellent catalogue make the show a wonderful introduction Ė even for those who have never visited an architectural exhibition in their lives Ė to the work of one of the most fascinating architects in Japan today.

Notes: Until Apr 24, 1999 (03-3402-1010).
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