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Shigeru Ban

By Rebecca Cantu

Shigeru Ban

Gund Hall, Graduate School of Design

Next time you change your toilet paper, take a closer look at the empty roll. The world is filled with products that rely on the indispensable yet banal cardboard tube—tape, saran wrap, cloth and, of course, toilet paper. Yet for most people, cardboard tubes are simply collateral damage destined for the garbage can. Not so for architect Shigeru Ban, who sees them as the newest building material.

Ban is a Tokyo-born architect who studied at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York. His minimalist and ecologically-friendly style is changing the design world. Ban’s style is not only innovative and modern in its design but also in its use of materials, clean, simple lines and geometric shapes, all of which allows for an intricate interplay between space and light. Now his design influence has come to Harvard in the form of “Paper, Wood & Bamboo: Structural Innovation in the Work of Shigeru Ban,” an exhibit on display at the Harvard Design School’s Gund Hall, G gallery through March 16.

The exhibit is the result of a collaborative effort between Ban and graduate students who participated in a student workshop held with the support of the Rouse Fellowship Program. As visiting assistant professor of architecture Joseph R. MacDonald explains in the exhibit summary, a number of “prototypical compounds” frequently seen in Ban’s work were “critically examined, tested, and modeled” by the students who participated in his workshop. Although the workshop also included an innovative component in which students developed structures of their own following Ban’s style, it is the replicas of Ban’s engineering advances that are on display in Gund Hall.

The structures are made from materials ranging from to plywood and wooden joints to wire, bolts, aluminum sheets and large, sturdy paper tubes which resemble the kind that hold toilet paper. The paper tubes, which Ban has dubbed “evolved wood,” may quite possibly be the perfect building material: they are cheap, recyclable, capable of bearing large loads, can be quickly assembled and can be made waterproof and fire-resistant. Structurally speaking, the paper tubes and the plywood, both lightweight and relatively flexible, form the bulk of the structure while metal or wood reinforce joints and add strength.

Paper tubes first made a debut in Ban’s work in 1986 when he designed an exhibition in Finland. Unable to use wood, Ban accidentally came across a paper tube in his studio, a leftover from a previous project. Immediately attracted to the paper tubes because of their similarity to wood in color, he was converted when he realized their sturdiness, inexpensiveness and availability in various lengths, thicknesses and diameters.

Although Ban is famous the world-over his pioneering structures like “Library of a Poet” (1991), which is made of cardboard columns, and the “Paper Arbor” (1989), which he designed for Japan’s Odawara Festival, he is also known for his humanitarian work. Ban’s lightweight, inexpensive and simple paper tube structures, dubbed “log cabins,” were used to create temporary housing in 1994 for Tutsi refugees from genocide in Rwanda and in 1995 for victims of the Kobe earthquake.

Design school curator Kim Shkapich explains that the sixteen projects in the exhibit “were selected for their structural innovations, and as examples of the incremental and methodological approach of the architect to refine/define new models for construction and design practice.”

Among the projects displayed are “Paper House” (1995), “East Gate of Odawara Pavilion” (1990), “Library of a Poet” (1991), “Innai Hospital Day Care Center” (2000), “Paper Arch” (2000) and “Wicker Work House” (2002), with each accompanied by replicas explaining important features of each structure’s design.

It seems that paper tubes may quite possibly be the building material of the future, and a herald for the overall use of recyclable (and recycled) building materials. —Rebecca Cantu

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