Editorial Feature

Shigeru Ban's Incredible Paper Tube Structures

Shigeru Ban’s paper tube structures address many pressing questions for architects today. With his international firm, the Japanese architect has been building sustainably with paper, cardboard and other carefully selected materials since the 1980s. Some of Ban’s most famous structures were deployed to support humanitarian causes, helping communities rebuild after natural disasters.

Shigeru Ban: Emergency shelters made from paper

Video Credit: TED/Youtube.com

Building with Paper

Today, Ban is known for his innovative use of paper and cardboard tubes as a cheap, sustainable building material. This technique was developed in the 1980s, and has been in use by Ban since 1990. Although paper is associated with Japanese vernacular architecture – in shoji, the sliding screens are sometimes paneled in thin paper – Ban’s 1993 Paper House in Yamanashi, Japan had to get special approval to pass the country’s building code.

Paper is relatively strong, with more structural integrity than might be expected. It is also widely available nearly anywhere in the world. In fact, many industries such as textiles manufacturing have a business need to dispose of large amounts of paper and cardboard tubing regularly. These tubes are strong, rigid, and lightweight. Ban’s tube structures exploit these features in simple, elegant systems of tubes and joints.

Ban’s interest in materials and structural systems has led to him using and reusing many everyday objects in his projects. Shipping containers, fabric and textiles, timber, cardboard, and paper all feature prominently in his oeuvre. Frequently, Ban’s buildings combine two or more of these materials. Farmer’s Restaurant, recently built on Awaji Island, Japan and designed by Ban’s studio, combines a thatched roof with structural cardboard tubes. The main columns and beams in the building are made from pieces of Japanese cypress wood encased in cardboard tubes. Farmer’s Restaurant is one of the largest, most durable paper tube structures developed by Ban and his team.

In smaller structures and emergency indoor structures, the tubes work as extremely quick-to-assemble, cheap structural components. But cardboard tubes can also be used outside in the elements; Ban has them coated in waterproof paint and assembles them in such a way that outer tubes are easily replaced.

The Japanese pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, designed by Ban, is a good example of how these paper tube buildings work, and some of their deeper aims. Another architect, Frei Otto, and Buro Happold, a structural engineering firm, collaborated with Ban on this project.

The pavilion was set under a 72 m shell made out of paper tubes set in a grid system. The tubes were 20 m long, but only 12 cm in diameter. Instead of mechanical joinery, fabric tape was used to link the tubes together. This enabled a complicated yet elegant structural design that was naturally post-tensioned. The fabric tape and a buckle system meant that the entire 74 m by 25 m by 16 m structure could be assembled and dismantled by hand.

Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand. Image Credit: Lukas Kastner/Shutterstock.com

A polyurethane coating had to be used to waterproof the inside and outside of the shell due to extreme weather and fire protection testing requirements. Germany’s building code also required the shell to be reinforced with a substructure, made out of timber.

The entire construction was designed to be recyclable. As well as the paper tubes and timber substructure, Ban used recyclable wooden boxes filled with sand instead of a traditional foundation made out of (unrecyclable) concrete.

This building demonstrated Ban’s architectural vision (and mission) over the last three decades: using sustainable materials in elegant systems that carefully consider all aspects of a structure’s impact.

Humanitarian Applications for Paper Tube Structures

Humanitarianism and environmentalism are critical motivators behind Ban’s use of paper and other sustainable materials in his architecture. Building these structures produces very little waste, often making use of a local industrial waste stream. They are also often fully recyclable, like the Expo 2000 pavilion.

The cheap, easy-to-supply and assemble, paper tube structures have also been deployed around the world in response to humanitarian crises. DIY shelters designed by Ban have housed refugees from the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995 and war in Rwanda in 1994, to name just two examples.

During disaster relief operations, construction materials are often in very short supply. Damage to local transport infrastructure, remote and hard-to-reach areas and increased market prices make it difficult to get concrete and steel, but paper is much more often readily available. In a disaster relief project in Ahmedabad, India, paper tubes were supplied by local textile manufacturers. A project in Turkey in 1999 received free paper tubing from local industrial partners.

Recently, Ban’s team has deployed a paper partition system to create private spaces inside temporary refugee accommodations in sports halls, for example. Thin cardboard tubes form a structure that supports textile partitions. Each unit can be built in five minutes with three people working on it.

The system was first put in place for people fleeing the effects of the 2011 Japan earthquake. Recently, it was used to quickly construct COVID-19 vaccination booths and private spaces for Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the Russian invasion.

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References and Further Reading

Block, I. (2018). Shigeru Ban builds temporary shelters from paper for Japan flooding victims. [Online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2018/07/31/shigeru-ban-temporary-shelters-paper-japan-flooding-architecture/ (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Crook, C. (2022). Shigeru Ban builds modular partitions to offer privacy to Ukrainians in emergency shelters. [Online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2022/04/08/shigeru-ban-paper-partition-system-ukraine-refugee-shelter/ (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

---. (2022). Shigeru Ban marries thatch and cardboard tubes at Farmer's Restaurant in Japan. [Online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2022/11/25/farmers-restaurant-thatch-cardboard-shigeru-ban/ (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Doroteo, J. (2018). Spotlight: Shigeru Ban. [Online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/792108/spotlight-shigeru-ban (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Fleischer, V. (2014). Pritzker Prize winner used paper to build cathedral, concert hall and homes for refugees. [Online] PBS. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/pritzker-prize-winner-shigeru-ban-designs-houses-out-of-paper (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Quirk, V. (2014). Shigeru Ban Named Pritzker Laureate for 2014. [Online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/489209/shigeru-ban-named-pritzker-laureate-2014 (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Shigeru Ban. [Online] Architectuul. Available at: https://architectuul.com/architect/shigeru-ban (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Shigeru Ban Architects. [Online] Shigeru Ban Architects. Available at: http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/ (Accessed on 8 December 2022).

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.


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