By Ulf Meyer
In traditional Japanese architecture the walls are made of paper. This motive of the shoji was re-introduced into contemporary architecture by Shigeru Ban - with great success. The use of recycled paper and cardboard as a construction material has made him one of the world's most popular architects.
Born in Tokyo in 1957, Ban studied architecture in New York and Los Angeles before setting up his own practice in Tokyo. Ban is best known for his designs for emergency shelters made of cardboard tubes for victims of civil wars or earthquakes.
Few people know that the majority of Ban's work is unrelated to his label as a 'humanistic and ecologically minded' architect. They are glistening white steel structures that serve as mini villas, photo studios or dentist offices. Ban became famous in Europe with the Japanese Pavillon for the EXPO 2000 in Hannover, Germany, but recently he got a lot of attention for the new Centre Pompidou in Metz, France and the Tamedia building in downtown Zürich, Switzerland. Here, wood was used as a load-bearing material for an urban multi-story building for the first time.
Unlike other 'starchitects', Ban does not repeat a signature style over and over -instead, he prefers experimenting with new materials. The Zürich building is the latest rather sensational result of this curiosity. Fitting neatly into its urban context, the building - made of 2,000 m3 of spruce - is not an experiment for the sake of an experiment: Rather it creates beautifully understated, naturally ventilated and attractive workspaces for journalist that seem communicative and generous, warm, light and friendly. No nails, no screws and no glue were used in the entire structure. The pre-fab elements were laser-milled with such precision that they just fit together - like in the traditional Japanese carpentry. Ban picked a sustainable material that not only looks good but smells and feels good, as well.
The façade is made up of different shutters - another motive that can be found in Ban's lesser known works such as the 'Shutter House for a Photographer' or his apartments in Manhattan, New York. While the shutters are definitely contemporary building elements, they also are a reference to Japan's past: The shoji walls not only are translucent, they also slide open like shutters.
The Hyatt Hotel Foundation from Chicago gives its award to a Japanese architect for the second time in a row: The 'Nobel Price of architecture', as it is often referred to, was received by Toyo Ito last year. This is a proof of the world-wide popularity of the ephemeral Japanese architecture of our time.