Interview with Shigeru Ban
Floornature met him at the “Archi-Depot Tokyo” exhibition at Triennale di Milano, an exhibition of 40 models of contemporary Japanese buildings from the foundation of the same name, established in 2015. Where did this project start, and why?
When Archi-Depot director Riken Yamamoto and I met, we realized we both had the same problem. We had always made a lot of models in our offices, and over the years we ran out of places to keep them; we had to rent storage space outside Tokyo. But this sort of storage container could not guarantee proper conditions for conservation of the models, which were deteriorating day by day. And of course that was not a suitable place to exhibit them. And so we wondered why we were throwing our money away like that when we could have brought them into the centre of Tokyo and displayed them where people could see them. Lots of visitors come to Tokyo, people from all over the world who might be interested in them, fans of Japanese architecture or just curious people. We met with the Chairman of Terrada, a storage and conservation company, who was very interested in the idea. The original idea was to build a storage facility for the models, and only later did we decide to make it into an exhibition in the centre of Tokyo, to be opened to the public and constantly renewed.
In view of the importance of digital representation nowadays, what do you see as the value of the handmade physical model in development of an architectural project?
I have never believed that digital representation, rendering and 3D graphics have improved architecture. Years ago, before they were introduced to our offices, we architects spent a lot of time drawing, building things, coming up with solutions and developing them. Then the computer came along, and it saved us time, but we didn’t invest this time in design. I really believe that the quality of architecture is getting steadily worse, and I believe that models are a very important stage in understanding the work and how good a project is.
On the subject of your most recent project, the Oita Prefectural Art Museum, what relationship between the museum and the city did you attempt to establish with the mobile glass screens on the walls?
The concept of museums as “closed boxes” in which people can’t see from outside what is going on inside is obsolete. Museums are not popular with people, other than in big cities, and people are against spending large sums of public money on construction of buildings they don't use and which they don’t see the point of. And so we need to find a way to make these places of culture attractive, even just to people passing by. I wanted to build a more open museum which people can go right into, or even just look into as they walked by. The mobile surfaces used in Oita Prefectural Art Museum encourage people to come in, as they are no longer faced with impenetrable walls with who knows what behind them. The museum stands to gain from this because it becomes more attractive to people, and its walls, which open up the interior onto the exterior, permit organization of events extending out onto the street, and in this case into the theatre across the way.
Following the recent earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, you were asked to come up with construction solutions to replace the ones that had been destroyed and offer greater safety. Can you tell us about the intuitions you had when you saw traditional Nepalese architecture around Katmandu?
I believe there are two things to keep in mind about the earthquake in Nepal: on one hand, the rapidity with which buildings had to be reconstructed, and on the other the need to respect local architectural traditions. It was essential to work with local architects for these reasons. It was very important to use materials that could be found right there, as transportation was very difficult and problematic.
My proposal for reconstruction was based on traditional Nepalese building techniques and materials, still clearly visible in the constructions that remain standing. The problem was that designing brick houses again, which had always been done there, scared a lot of people, who didn’t want anything to do with this type of building because of their fear of new quakes.
When I visited local buildings that had withstood the quake, I noted some important details that helped me find the right way to rebuild, such as the shape of the wooden window frames in the historic brick walls. The idea was to use wooden frames with brick walls so that wood could act as a shock absorber, contrasting the lateral thrust of an earthquake. Wood allowed us to build modular structures quickly and easily, which we then filled in with bricks to rebuild the walls of the homes.
Interview by Mara Corradi