“I wanted to create a place where people could unwind. Hence the choice of lots of greenery and the spacious courtyard garden. A green environment promotes relaxation.”
Prestigious. Ground-breaking. Monumental. We don’t shy away from superlatives when talking about his design, but Shigeru Ban himself will never speak highly of it. The affable sixty-something is what can be called the archetype of Japanese minimalism: sparse on words, but hugely expressive. A trait we got to experience first-hand, as we were able to interview him exclusively.
Mr Ban, your design for the new buildings at Nieuw Zuid is peerless. Where did you find your inspiration?
“In my work, I try not to be influenced too much by other people’s work or buildings in the immediate area. I try to do my own thing as much as possible and let my own creativity guide me. In that respect, BAN is probably best viewed as an accumulation of designs I came up with in the past. Every building you design as an architect builds on ideas and learnings from the past. It is the same with this design.”
For you, what are the key ideas in this design?
“Wood, garden and people. I wanted to create a place where people could unwind. Hence the choice of lots of greenery and the spacious courtyard garden. A green environment promotes relaxing feelings. Nature takes away stress. In Japan, we have a word for that: Shinrin-yoku. Unwind by immersing yourself in greenery. At the same time, I also chose a lot of wood accents in the design. This is not only a good choice from an ecological point of view, but it also creates a certain warmth and homeliness, which you expect in a building like this.”
Wood is prominent in your design. Why the fondness for that material?
“I use a lot of wood in all my buildings. Early in my career, I started experimenting with other materials and came to the conclusion that I loved working with wood. By the way, the CO2 emissions of a building made of wood are much lower than if you work mainly with steel or concrete, as it is a much easier material to handle in both production and construction. BAN is a hybrid construction of concrete, steel and wood, with the wooden facade elements playing a signature role. The wooden facade is really my trademark and I am happy to leave my mark on Antwerp’s streetscape in this way.”
Speaking of Antwerp, what do you think of the city and its Nieuw Zuid area?
“I must honestly admit that I have only been to Antwerp once. Before we started this project, I went on a site visit to Nieuw Zuid. I really liked what I saw of the neighbourhood and the rest of the city. Beautiful city. But to make many more statements about it, I need to come back and have some more time to explore. Before Triple Living contacted me, I did not know the city. I had been to Belgium before, but not to Antwerp.”
You are one of the most renowned architects in the world. How would you sum up your philosophy?
“Quite simply: less is more. I also believe that what you do, you should do well. That is a form of respect not only for the people you work for, but also for yourself.”
Which architectural movement do you see yourself in?
“I have actually never thought about that. More than minimalist or modernist, I think I am an experimentalist. Innovation and creativity are at the heart of my work and I have always loved working with alternative and new materials. Thus, I soon started experimenting with paper and cardboard so that I could develop my own distinctive construction methods. A bit like the architects I admire, Richard Buckminster Fuller and German Frei Otto.”
Which are the themes that come back most often in your work?
“I like to play with the continuity between indoor and outdoor spaces. In the design of BAN, I did the same. By providing as much terrace space as possible, I try to integrate the outdoor space into all the apartments and houses, and vice versa. I think spaces should flow into each other and there should be as few dividing walls as possible. That is why I have experimented with houses without walls in the past.”
In 2014, you won the prestigious Pritzker Prize. Has that meant a lot to your career?
“I did, yes. I used to look with some envy at architects of my generation when they won big projects. Thanks to the recognition given to me by the Pritzker Prize, I no longer have that feeling. It has confirmed me in the idea that I have definitely gone in the right direction with my career and that I should continue my work in disaster areas . By the way, in 2017, because of that pro bono work, I also received the Mother Theresa Memorial Award for Social Justice, and I am actually even more proud of that.”
Your charity work, is that what you love the most?
“Actually, yes. Many architects work only for the most privileged. Through my big prestige projects, I give myself the space from my knowledge and qualities to really make a difference in the areas that need it most.”
Which projects have put you on the international map as an architect?
“The project I am most proud of myself is the Centre Pompidou in Metz, which I designed with French architect Jean de Gastines. The museum is an annex of the famous Paris Centre Pompidou and opened in 2010. The actual international breakthrough came in 2000, when I got to design the Japanese pavilion for the World Expo in Hanover. A great collaboration with Frei Otto, who won the Pritzker Prize a year after me. He unfortunately did not get to receive the award himself as he passed away two months before the ceremony.”
One last question, Mr Ban. You like to reuse materials as much as possible. Is that right?
“Absolutely. From an ecological point of view, I think you should do that as much as possible. Too often, we throw away things that are still perfectly usable. All wasted, and that is such a shame. In Japanese, we have a specific term for this: mottainai. It means as much as: What a waste!”
Mottainai. We’ll remember it. Thank you for your time.