Shigeru Ban to the Design Industry: Do Better

At this past week’s Salone del Mobile, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect walked a rapt crowd through four decades of his own accomplishments—and challenged the industry to do better.

Shigeru Ban. Image courtesy of Reuters

Like every design fair, the point of Milan’s Salone del Mobile is to encourage consumption. Better consumption, of course: definitely with better aesthetics, perhaps with better ethics, but unquestioned in its necessity. This year’s fair, which ran April 18–23, floated the word revolution—or, as its president Maria Porro demurred during the press breakfast, evolution—and made vows to lessen the environmental damages of events of its size. But perhaps its boldest move was curator Annalisa Rosso’s decision to give Shigeru Ban the microphone for an hour’s talk in which the 2014 Pritzker Prize winner walked a rapt crowd through almost 40 years of work, cracking pointed jokes about his industry and talking trash about companies he felt aren’t living up to their obligations.

He began at his own beginning, designing a 1984 exhibition of Alvar Aalto’s furniture and glass works at the Museum of Modern Art. “Nobody was talking about the environment yet,” he said. “Nobody talked about ecology or sustainability.” He had no real budget for the show, but he had an abundance of waste paper left over from sketching, which he transformed into the recycled paper tubes that became his signature and launched a series of architectural and environmental innovations. 

A paper partition system for Japanese refugees in 2011

While those tubes made for sturdy, provocative residences worldwide, he kicked off the fad for shipping containers as building materials in 2005. His artful Nomadic Museums in New York, Santa Monica, and Tokyo stacked containers in checkerboard patterns, sometimes with membrane roofs to enclose outdoor spaces without the need for further walls. “I chose the shipping container not because shipping containers can travel,” he says, “but because they’re an international standard, so you can find the same container anywhere.” The museums could be built by renting containers in their host city, then returning them—no shipping necessary. 

Ban built stylish abodes and boutiques over the years, but his work for communities in crisis injected urgency into his innovations. He went “without any appointment” to UN camps in Rwanda after the country’s civil war, where refugees were given plastic sheeting to hang between branches of trees they had to cut themselves; the deforestation was becoming another emergency. “International groups started providing them with aluminum pipes,” he says, “but it’s a very expensive material and the refugees sold them for money and cut the trees again.” He also worked with Vitra to make a prototype house out of paper tubes, built in 1999.

Nomadic Museum, New York

Ban regaled the Salone crowd with dozens of stories of companies sending crates of beer he transformed into paper house foundations (sadly, he noted, without the beer), and executives disappointed that the giraffes he drew on renderings to give a sense of scale weren’t actually present in the finished project. He recommended architects and designers bypass governmental and NGO bureaucracy and listen directly to the needs of people on the ground. 

And he called out his own. “I started working in disaster areas because I was disappointed in my own profession as architects, because mainly we’re working for privileged people who have money and power,” he says. “I hope to use my knowledge and experiences not only for privilege, but for the general public. I recognize that an earthquake never kills people, but the collapse of buildings kills people. That’s our responsibility as architects. When cities are rebuilt after disasters, you’re going to get all the new projects architects are looking for. I shouldn’t say that,” he laughed. But he did, and hopefully Salone was listening. 

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