To celebrate the first anniversary of our US Materials Catalog, this week ArchDaily is presenting a three-part series on "Material Masters," showing how certain materials have helped to inspire some of the world's greatest architects.
Shigeru Ban’s portfolio is a strange dichotomy, split between shelters for natural disaster refugees and museums commissioned by wealthy patrons of the arts. Even stranger is the fact that, in both cases, Ban’s material palette frequently incorporates recycled cardboard, paper, and old beer crates. The Pritzker prize laureate is unique in this regard, and so great is his predilection for recycled paper tubes (originally formwork for concrete columns), that he has become known as the “Paper Architect.” His work receives media attention worldwide for the unorthodoxy of its construction materials. Yet Shigeru Ban is not concerned with unorthodoxy, but with economy. It is for this reason that, when paper tubes are deemed unsuitable, Shigeru Ban constructs his buildings in wood. Inspired by the architectural tradition of his native Japan, Ban is not only the "Paper Architect," but also one of the most famous architects working in wood today.
The Aspen Art Museum, for example has a ceiling entirely composed of a wooden truss system. "Wood is the most ecological thing," he told The New Yorker in a recent profile of his work which included the museum. "Steel, concrete—we are just consuming from a limited amount. Timber is the only renewable material." Indeed, timber is among the few materials on the market today that is easily sustainable. When taken from a forest that is sustainably managed, the supply can be considered indefinite. The process by which timber is harvested and manufactured is also relatively ecological. The Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM) has found that in life cycle analyses—the measurement of how much energy a material requires, from harvesting it to disposing of it after it is no longer needed—wood outperforms steel by 17% and concrete by 16%.
For Shigeru Ban, however, economy trumps ecology. The relative ease with which timber buildings can be constructed and repaired is one of the material’s biggest assets. In his opinion, "A concrete building stays only a hundred years, and it’s very difficult to replace or repair, where timber is very easy to repair." For the Aspen Art Museum ceiling, the wood pieces merely needed to be cut into the appropriate shape, laminated, and fastened together. To attempt the same structure with any other material would invite more labor and more room for error. His Tamedia office building is a more extreme example. A seven story pin joint structure made almost entirely of prefabricated wood pieces, the design requires a high degree of precision both in material production and construction. Yet these unfastened wooden pieces can be replaced independently, and with relative ease—at least compared to a concrete frame of similar design.
There is the matter of aesthetics to consider as well. Ban’s favoritism for wood also springs from an appreciation for its color, texture, and visual malleability. The main hall of his Nine Bridges Country Club makes use of timber columns that add a “warmth and texture” to the room, counterpointing the interior concrete walls. His Centre-Pompidou Metz uses wood to simulate the wicker weave texture of a Chinese hat.
There is something intrinsically inviting about wood, something familiar in its organic composition. Shigeru Ban takes full advantage of that, using it to benefit his architecture on every level. When referencing the wooden truss system of the Aspen Art Museum, he had this to say. "Such a nice material. Can you imagine if this truss was made of steel?" Ban has ensured that we don't have to.