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21 First Drafts: Shigeru Ban's Villa TCG

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Every day in August, we'll profile one architect's first finished building—often surprising, always insightful—as a solo practitioner. Within the vast field of great building design, we aim to uncover the significance of first acts.

Shigeru Ban
Villa TCG in Nagano, Japan
Date completed: 1986

Getting the Gig:
Architecture's first responder, Pritzker laureate Shigeru Ban has built a career out of reimagining the means and mechanics of common materials, not necessarily immersing himself in academia. It's ironic, then, that his first project was informed by the shape of his college's auditorium. In fact, a great deal of his early career was shaped by his education. When the aspiring architect and rugby player, who once compared the physical sport to martial arts, was choosing between Waseda University and the Tokyo University of the Arts, a tough defeat on the field led him to ditch athletics and enroll at Tokyo. In preparation for the arts-focused curriculum, Ban studied at night with alum Tomoharu Makabe, who helped him refine his sketching skills. While working with him one evening, Ban stumbled upon a copy of A+U magazine with a story about the work of paper architect John Hejduk, a Dean at the design-focused Cooper Union in New York. Photos of his theoretical, unbuilt work "cast a powerful spell" on Ban, who slowly embarked on a multi-year campaign to enroll at Cooper Union, first studying at SCI-Art and then eventually transferring to school in Manhattan. While there—inspired by teachers including Hejduk, Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman—Ban regularly spent time in the school's historic Foundation Building. "Re-presented" by Hejduk in 1974, the 19th century auditorium, which had welcomed speakers from Abraham Lincoln to Susan B. Anthony and was built in part with wood beams used for railroad construction, was radically altered. A complex construction project reimagined the interior, inserting an elevator shaft inside the old structure. Ban admired the renovated structure's organization, later writing that it "shaped the landscape of my imagination." When he returned to Japan in 1985 to open his own practice at age 29, Hejduk's vision stuck with him.

Description and Reception:
Ban's first commission, Villa TCG, showcases Hejduk's influence. A private home in Tateshina, a rural village near Nagano, the building finds its bearings due to a central brick cylinder that contains a kitchen, bathroom and fireplace, which Ban uses as an organizational tool. The home's layout also points to another of Ban's core influences, Alvar Aalto. Before graduation, the architect took a pilgrimage to Finland to see the icon's work, and was bowed over by his use of materials and emphasis on local context. TCG similarly mirrors the landscape, with a stone wall that not only provides views of a nearby abandoned kiln, but hugs the contours of the stream that splits the site in two. That wasn't Ban's only experience with the Finnish legend that year, as he created an exhibition of his work at the Axis Gallery in Tokyo. The creative display was part tribute and part improvisation; Ban didn't have the budget for wooden structures, but had a stack of cardboard tubes leftover from a previous exhibition, which had been used to hold long strands of fabric. The cylinders, which he'd taken to calling "evolved wood," would later form the basis for his experiments with cardboard architecture.

Impact on His Career:
Villa TCG kicked off a decade of experimental homes, case studies such as Villa K and the Three Walls house that riffed off Japanese design and the ideas of Western architects. The Wall-Less house in Karuizawa played off an unbuilt project by John Hejduk, and the Curtain Wall House adapted Mies's curtain wall concept with a literal wall of curtains. Along with the Aalto exhibition, which would later make its way to MoMA, these early works established Ban's "striking talent for innovative form, structure and spatial organization," according to a 1999 New York Times article.

Famous Future Works:
Curtain Wall House (Tokyo: 1995), Paper Church (Kobe: 1995), Paper Log House (1995: Various), Centre Pompidou-Metz (Metz: 2010), Cardboard Cathedral (Christchurch: 2013), Tamedia New Office Building (Zurich: 2013)

Current Status:
Like many of Ban's early residential projects, which he used as experiments to develop his style, it's still in private hands.

12 Facts About Shigeru Ban From His New Yorker Profile [Curbed]
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Shigeru Ban's Newly Opened Oita Art Museum is a Knockout [Curbed]
How Cardboard King Shigeru Ban Designs an Art Museum [Curbed]