Mohsen Mostafavi: Shigeru-san, it’s really wonderful to be able to be with you today.
Shigeru Ban: It’s my pleasure.
Mohsen Mostafavi: Japan has had so many disasters over the years—the Great Kanto Earthquake and then, of course, the Kobe earthquake and then the tsunami in Tohoku.
Shigeru Ban: And almost every year, we have big flooding.
Mohsen Mostafavi: Exactly. And your work is so involved with trying to respond to risk in many ways. And you’ve done so much for these disasters in the past. But at the moment, with what is going on in Ukraine, it’s also really inspiring to see your contribution to the refugee relief effort as people flee from Ukraine to Poland. Can you tell us how you started this work and what are you doing at the moment?
Shigeru Ban: OK. I have been making the paper partition system after many natural disasters in Japan and also in other countries like Italy after the earthquake. People have to be evacuated to a space like a gymnasium. And there is no privacy between families so they suffer, staying in a big space without privacy.
I recognized this very uncomfortable situation after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. After Kobe came the earthquake in Niigata in 2004, and I started providing the partition system to the victims, but the authorities didn’t allow me to do it because there was no precedent. And also I recognized that the system has to be very flexible to meet the needs of different sizes of families. So I tried several different types, always after the earthquakes. Finally, after the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, I made 2,000 units.
Actually, many of the municipalities in the Tohoku region rejected the partition system in the beginning because the people in authority said that maybe it’s easier to control people without partitions. All the people suffer without partitions, privacy, especially the women: it’s very difficult for them to stay in such a space. Some of the women prefer to stay in a car because they don’t want to go to the space without privacy. And some of them died because of the so-called economy class syndrome. And I kept making the partitions even with some rejection from the authorities. Finally, three months after the earthquake, 50 out of 80 facilities accepted my proposal to make the partitions. Then, almost every year after that, I kept doing it after big flooding, typhoons, and so on. Finally, after 15 years, in 2019, the Japanese government accepted this as the standard for an evacuation facility.
Chain of Actions Around Ukraine
Shigeru Ban: When I saw the news that the Ukrainian refugees in the surrounding countries evacuated and were staying in a big space like a gymnasium, I thought that was almost the same situation as what I’d seen in Japan. I have a friend, a Polish architect named Hubert Trammer, whom I met at the organization called New European Bauhaus. So I contacted him immediately after the refugee situation happened because Poland accepted over two million refugees. Hubert thought this would be a really good solution for them, and he contacted the mayor of the city called Chelm, which is only 25 kilometers from the border of Ukraine and also the first stop on the train from Ukraine. We started providing this help on March 9. This is one of the facilities in the city of Chelm. They accepted over 300 units. And also we created nearly 900 units to send over to Ukraine because they have internal displaced people in the west side of Ukraine: many refugees from the east side to the west side. So Hubert’s friend, a Ukrainian architect, received our partition system to install by themselves.
Now, also there’s the partition system installed in Slovakia. And in Paris there are some facilities—my Paris office installed the partitions. Germany and also other countries like Hungary and Romania are preparing the same system. So this is spreading all over Europe now.
Mohsen Mostafavi: This is really fantastic and it’s super inspiring. So how do you actually organize the operations? I think your colleague and friend said it was also connected to a school, the University of Wroclaw. And are these done all at a local level, or is there some system of production? How do you organize this?
Shigeru Ban: Well, first of all, I sent all the drawings and the instructions for assembly. It’s so easy to make as long as there are instructions with a photo. And paper: we provide for all the parts of this system, including the size of the paper tube, size of the fabric. We found a local paper tube manufacture in Poland, and they were so nice: they stopped their own production to produce our partition paper tubes immediately, free of charge.
Mohsen Mostafavi: That’s amazing.
Shigeru Ban: Even fabric was donated from different companies.
Mohsen Mostafavi: And these are basically 2m × 2m × 2m cubes, is that right?
Shigeru Ban: Yes, 2 meters in height, but this time, we made a beam a little bit longer, 2.3 meters because the given folding bed they’re using was bigger than what we use in Japan. But it’s easy to adjust the size, any size that is necessary. And students just have to make a hole to put the smaller tube into the larger paper tube post. That’s all.
Mohsen Mostafavi: When you have a curtain and then you have the tube, always in terms of privacy, it’s the corners where you have a problem. How do you deal with corners?
Shigeru Ban: We just bring the curtain from two corners and put some safety pins to close the space in between. And at the opening for the entrance, we use stationery clips to close easily. Everything is locally available.
Mohsen Mostafavi: That’s really fantastic. And the collaboration with local architects? How do you manage the organization of this kind of large-scale relief effort? Is there any supervision? Do you see, for example, if this is working, not working? I know you are saying it’s a very simple thing.
Shigeru Ban: The first operation was done in a city called Chelm in Poland. I went there to supervise, but I was too late. Students had already started doing it perfectly so that it was almost completed when I got there.
Mohsen Mostafavi: It’s very nice that the system itself is quite a simple thing.
Knowing by Doing
Mohsen Mostafavi: How do you yourself divide your mental time between your humanitarian efforts and your designs that are not necessarily for refugees or for this particular project?
Shigeru Ban: I'm not dividing. I just understand, I just prioritize which is more…
Mohsen Mostafavi: Urgent.
Shigeru Ban: Urgent. So if an emergency happens, I go there as the first priority to make a team. When I started this kind of activity almost 27 years ago, I tried to make a balance between the humanitarian activities and my normal projects. But now I understand that there is no difference between the commissioned work and the emergency work. Those efforts and even the satisfaction I get are the same. There is no difference between them.
Mohsen Mostafavi: So what can be learned from your experience and your knowledge in terms of how cities in Japan are being designed and planned? In Japan, cities are often rebuilt very quickly after a disaster, but what do people learn from the disaster?
Shigeru Ban: I'm not really the right person to answer this question because my work is mostly before the rebuilding stage. However, what I’m proposing to our government is using the temporary house as a permanent house. Because in Japan, the government makes temporary houses, and people have to stay in evacuation facilities for about four months, until the prefabricated houses as temporary houses are built, ready. Then the authorities allow the victims to stay in a government temporary house for four years. Within the four years, the cities are rebuilt, new permanent housing. However, I think it’s such a waste to spend so much money for temporary houses and then destroy them, sometimes throw them away. So now I’m proposing a temporary house which can be built immediately but which can be improved as a permanent house without dismantling it. That is what I learned in Italy. They make temporary housing – actually it’s a permanent house – so quickly, so they don’t have a stage of a temporary house.
Mohsen Mostafavi: Right. That makes a lot of sense. Remind both of us about your collaboration with Frei Otto. When I was in London, we [at the AA School of Architecture] also acquired Hooke Park, where he built these structures in England. I have such an incredibly fond memory of his work. Is there something that remains from your collaboration? I know you spent a lot of time thinking about joints together at that time. But what do you think remains from your collaboration with Frei Otto?
Shigeru Ban: His idea of making the structure with a minimum amount of material and minimum amount of energy. That’s really his philosophy. So that was what I learned from my collaboration with him. While I was designing the Japan Pavilion for Hannover Expo, every month I commuted to his studio to work together, and that was my dream time, actually. And he always made a physical model to find out how to make maximum space out of minimum material and minimum energy.
Also, he avoided making sophisticated joints. He was always interested in the very simple, like using fabric tape to make connections. The other high-tech architects loved to make a very sophisticated joint, but Frei Otto didn’t like sophisticated joints. He always loved to make something very simple with something available, without making technical connections.
Anyone Can Organize A Project
Mohsen Mostafavi: Let me just ask you, because I think a lot of our students and people watching this video would like to find out if there is a way in which they can contribute. I know you have been working with the Voluntary Architects’ Network, VAN. In terms of architecture students, is there any way that people can contribute?
Shigeru Ban: Yes. Actually, beside this Ukrainian project, now I have two projects: one in the US, in Kentucky. As a matter of fact, I’m a Kentucky-licensed architect.
Mohsen Mostafavi: Oh, wonderful. How did you manage that?
Shigeru Ban: Well, by chance I won a competition to design a distillery in Kentucky. And, unusually, Kentucky asked me to get the license in Kentucky. So I got the license in Kentucky. So I believe I’m responsible for the people of Kentucky. After the tornado disaster happened in Kentucky, I proposed to make a temporary community center, like a temporary church. Now we are working with the city. Since I have a project in Kentucky, I also work in the disaster area.
And there is a project in Tonga, a small island in the Pacific Ocean. They had a volcano explosion, and a big tsunami totally destroyed some of the villages. So I just sent them a kind of temporary tent system I designed. We sent it over by boat already.
There are disasters happening also in the US. In Australia also they have big flooding. Everywhere. So I think that if something locally happens, students can join us. And also they can organize some projects and invite us to work together. They have to organize some projects by themselves and I’m happy to collaborate.
Mohsen Mostafavi: Great. Hopefully we can follow up with that and create new forms of collaboration here in the States. I think the project in Kentucky sounds very interesting. Shigeru, thank you so much for your time.
Shigeru Ban: Thank you so much, Mohsen. See you soon in Basel.