Shigeru Ban: Redefining the Beauty of Timber Architecture

CEO Khai Intela
Introduction In the realm of architecture, few individuals have left as lasting an impact as Shigeru Ban. Renowned for his innovative use of timber, Ban's work has been a testament to his love for the...

Introduction

In the realm of architecture, few individuals have left as lasting an impact as Shigeru Ban. Renowned for his innovative use of timber, Ban's work has been a testament to his love for the material and his unyielding creativity. In a recent interview with Sam Lubell, Ban offers fresh insights into his journey as a wood aficionado and his perspective on the mass-timber boom. Let's delve into the mind of this architectural genius and discover the essence of his craft.

Embracing the Magic of Wood

Growing up, Ban's fascination with wood was evident. He recalls being enamored by the smell and the seemingly magical process of creating with this humble material. Watching traditional carpenters build houses and chairs without the aid of power tools was a profound experience that shaped his understanding of the beauty and limitations of wood. Unlike steel, which offers boundless possibilities, wood presents unique challenges that have piqued Ban's interest. For him, the true artistry lies in utilizing these limitations to craft something truly extraordinary: a structure that can only be built with timber.

A detail of the gridshell, inspired by the construction of a Chinese bamboo hat A detail of the gridshell, inspired by the construction of a Chinese bamboo hat, shows how laminated spruce beams are held together by beech plywood nodes and steel bolts. COURTESY © MASAKO BAN

Celebrating Nature through Contrast

Notably, Ban emphasizes the importance of contrast in his design approach. While he cherishes wood, he doesn't seek to be surrounded entirely by it. Instead, he believes in juxtaposing wood with other materials to accentuate its inherent beauty. Drawing inspiration from the Barcelona Pavilion's stone wall, which harmonizes with white seating and a simple space, Ban aims to amplify wood's allure by creating a visual dialogue between different elements. It is through this contrasting interplay that the essence of timber is truly celebrated.

The Rise of Mass Timber

The recent surge in popularity of mass timber has not escaped Ban's notice. While mass timber itself is not a new technology, its widespread adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ban identifies the architectural community's constant search for the next fashionable style as a contributing factor to the delayed acceptance of timber. In previous decades, the focus was on Postmodernism and later Deconstructivism, leaving little room for material and structural exploration. However, with the growing emphasis on sustainability and ecological consciousness, timber has emerged as the reigning favorite.

Ban reviews construction progress for the timber space frame roof at the Aspen Art Museum Ban reviews construction progress for the timber space frame roof at the Aspen Art Museum, which was completed in 2014. © SHIGERU BAN ARCHITECTS

Redefining Architectural Boundaries

For Ban, his journey has been one of defying conventions and forging his own path. He draws inspiration from architects like Frei Otto, who avoided the allure of fashionable styles by inventing their own materials and structural systems. Ban's commitment to individuality and his refusal to be influenced by the mainstream have driven him to develop his own structural systems for paper and wood. Notably, he recalls an instance where he challenged traditional vertical timber usage and proposed horizontal timber structures for the Centre Pompidou in Metz, inspired by the construction of a Chinese hat. This unique approach not only avoids complicated connections but also allows for the maximum utilization of space.

Ban inspects wooden structural components Ban inspects wooden structural components at an ongoing project. © SHIGERU BAN ARCHITECTS

The Future of Timber Architecture

When asked about the future of timber in construction, Ban rejects the notion of timber replacing concrete and steel entirely. He believes that each material has its own distinct characteristics that make it suitable for specific applications. Timber, with its inherent weaknesses and hurdles such as fire resistance, may not be the ideal choice for high-rise buildings. Instead, Ban suggests that architects should focus on inventing their own timber systems rather than relying solely on engineers. By taking a hands-on approach to design, architects can truly push the boundaries of what timber architecture can achieve.

The timber space frame roof at a museum's café The timber space frame roof, made of spruce laminated veneer lumber (LVL) and birch plywood, extends over the museum’s third-floor café. © MICHAEL MORAN

The Quest for Timber Innovators

In concluding the interview, Ban candidly admits that he has yet to come across architects or engineers who are truly pushing the boundaries of timber innovation. He suggests that the constraints lie in the limited number of experts in timber engineering and architecture. Schools often lack educators who can impart comprehensive knowledge of timber structures, leaving a gap in the development of new talent. Ban pays homage to his mentor, Frei Otto, whose pioneering work in timber structures set the stage for future exploration. It is through the collective efforts of such visionaries that timber architecture can continue to evolve.

An aerial view of a wooden lattice-covered building An aerial view of a wooden lattice-covered building showcases Ban's architectural prowess. COURTESY © HIROYUKI HIRAI

In Conclusion

Shigeru Ban's unimpressive stance on the current state of timber architecture is a testament to his unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of his craft. For Ban, timber is not just a material; it is an opportunity to challenge conventional norms and create structures that are in harmony with nature. As we look to the future, it is vital that we embrace Ban's vision and strive to be true innovators in timber architecture, focusing on sustainability, creativity, and pushing the limits of what is possible.

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