Japanese architect transforms building using furniture or paper

by Darren
Japanese architect

“Architects are typically employed by wealthy people who can afford to pay for their design services and considerable talent,” says Shigeru Ban, one of the world’s most renowned architects with revolutionary ideas that have had – and are still having – a significant impact on the architectural world.


He says that by 1984, when he qualified as an architect first from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and later from the Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, having studied under John Hejduk, he decided to open his own practice.

“I thought everybody should have access to the design skills offered by architects. So I set out to make it that way,” he says.

One of his earliest – and extremely innovative – designs was for an affordable house built using factory-made, full-height units as a construction system to provide the structural support and define the different spaces.

“Since these units are pre-fabricated, construction time on site is greatly reduced, making the house very cost-effective. The furniture has a dual purpose as a structural material and to define the rooms,” he says.

He says the furniture units were all 2,4m high, 900mm wide, with a depth of 45mm for the bookcases and 690mm for the other units. “An individual unit weighs just 79,2kg, so it can be easily handled by a single person. Its self-supporting function makes the arrangement of the house really simple,” he says. 

“Picture windows are used to provide a direct link with the outside world,” he says.

He says the spaces between supporting units (such as bookcases and cupboards) are the “walls” of the structure. The bathroom is formed using cupboards for the walls that simultaneously house the necessary plumbing, while the fittings are freestanding.

Ban is well-known for using paper – particularly recycled cardboard – to create walls and provide structural stability, and many of his designs have required special planning permission – from authorities in Japan and later those in other cities around the world as well – because his methods seldom meet the necessary building codes. 

 “I like building with paper because it is cheap, can be recycled, requires minimal technology and is completely replaceable,” he says.

Another of his most famous houses is at Lake Yamanaka in the city of Yamanshi in Japan. He built this house in 1995 using paper tubes laid out in an S-shaped structure.

Ban says he used 110 paper tubes, each 2,7m high and 275mm in diameter with a wall thickness of 148mm. The tubes abut against each other to define the interior and exterior areas of the paper house.

“This was the first project in which paper tubes were allowed to be used as a structural basis in a permanent building after the Japanese authorities granted me special permission to build this house,” he says.

He points out that ten paper tubes support the vertical loads, while 80 interior tubes bear the lateral forces. “The cruciform wooden joints in the base of the columns in the Lake Yamanaka house are anchored to the foundations by lug screws and cantilevered from the floor,” he says.

“Then the large circle created by the interior tubes forms a large, open area. A freestanding column, 1,2m in diameter and also made from paper tubes, is used as a toilet,” he says.

“The exterior paper tubes surround the courtyard and stand slightly away from the structure to serve as a screen. The living area is also in the shape of a large circle, but there is no detail other than an isolated kitchen counter, sliding doors and movable closets,” he says.

Ban points out that when the perimeter sashes are opened, the roof – supported by the colonnade of paper tubes – is visually emphasised and spatial continuity is created between the surrounding gallery and the outdoor terrace.

Ban is a Japanese architect and he has refined many of the traditional themes and methods found in Japanese architectural styles. One of his favourite concepts is shoji, based on the concept of a house that has a “universal floor” to allow continuity between all the rooms.

The internal walls – because they are lightweight and made from recycled cardboard – are easy to move around or rearrange, so the entire design of the house can change, depending on the seasons. During a special presentation at CERSAIE 2013, the international exhibition on ceramics, tiles and bathroom furniture, held in Bologna, Italy, Ban recounted how he had built his iconic “curtain wall” house.

He says the house was intended to be a reflection of the owner’s lifestyle, which is focused on the outdoors. He used contemporary materials to provide a new interpretation of the traditional Japanese styles.

“The house has wide deck spaces that are attached to the east and south sides of the second-floor living room. It has tent-like curtains that are hung on the outer façade between the second and third floor. The interior conditions are controlled by opening and closing the curtain walls, which can either blow freely in the breeze or can be attached to supports to stop them from blowing around,” Ban says.

In winter, when the temperatures in Japan drop below freezing, a set of specially glazed doors – that work in combination with the curtains – completely encloses the house to insulate it. These doors also provide privacy when required.

He says the thin membranes used for the glazed doors take the place of shoji while sudare screens and fusuma doors are used, as well as making the entire property true to its traditional Japanese predecessors.

Ban is certainly one of the most influential architects working in the built environment today and his contribution to building, architecture, innovation and design throughout the world will have a lasting impact. 

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to www.shigerubanarchitects.com for the information given to write this article.



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