Ban talks of his paper architecture and chairs a competition on taming
the toxic by-products of our obsession with the automobile. (originally
published in the Chicago Reader, June 27, 2003)
The next time
you're tossing out those old cardboard mailing tubes or the cores of wrapping
paper rolls, think of this: you could have made them into a house for
an earthquake victim. Well, probably not you, but Japanese architect Shigeru
Ban could have. He's built a career creating incredible structures out
of recycled paper.
Ban was recently in Chicago to chair the jury for the Stop Go, Chicago
Portal Project competition, sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Club,
Friends of Downtown, and the American Institute of Architects Chicago
Design Committee. The international event called for designs for one of
the most neglected and problematic urban structures--the large parking
On June 17, after the winners were announced in the Art Institute's Rubloff
Auditorium, Ban gave a keynote lecture on his work and its origins. In
1995, he said, when more than 6,500 Japanese lost their lives in the earthquake
that shattered the city of Kobe, what resonated most strongly to him as
an architect was that "people were not killed by the earthquake itself.
Most people were killed by the collapse of buildings."
Six months later, when he learned that many of the victims were still
living in tents, Ban responded by assembling what would become his first
Paper Log House. He used plastic beer crates weighted with sand for the
foundation, recycled paper tubes for the infrastructure and walls, and
Teflon-fortified tenting for the roof. The houses proved to be cheap,
quick to assemble, and durable.
He'd tested the construction technique in 1994 Rwanda, where genocidal
civil wars had left much of the population homeless. "The United
Nations gave them only a plastic sheet, four by six meters," said
Ban. To create the frames, "the refugees had to cut up trees by themselves.
Over two million people became refugees in Rwanda. They cut down all the
trees. So the United Nations provided aluminum pipe to stop the cutting
of trees. But in Africa, aluminum is a valuable material. So refugees
sold all the aluminum for money, then they cut the trees again."
Ban showed the refugees how to assemble the simple paper-tube-based shelters,
a process he repeated after earthquakes in Turkey in 1999 and India in
2001. His Paper Church, created for Kobe Catholics as a temporary shelter
after the earthquake, with a classical peristyle made of recycled paper
tubes, is still in use today.
"This church became the monument of the city," said Ban. "It's
all for the people."
It's the kind of monument Ban wants to keep building, and he's able to
do so because he's become a master at bridging the two worlds of architecture--high
and low--and making the one pay for the other. He's translated his paper-construction
technology into such upscale projects as a showroom for fashion designer
Issey Miyake and an enormous pavilion for Japan at Expo 2000 in Hannover,
Germany. He was among the architects on the THINK team, whose latticework
towers almost beat out Daniel Libeskind's design for the World Trade Center
site. His Picture Window House, which draws on the legacy of Mies van
der Rohe's Farnsworth House in creating unobstructed, free-flowing space,
was named by Architectural Record as one of its best houses in 2003.
Here in Chicago for Stop Go, Ban again found himself consorting with the
architectural elite, but the concern of the jury he chaired--the often
corrosive effect of the automobile on city living--touches all Chicagoans
regardless of status. Few things off-load more collateral damage to a
city than expressways and parking garages. They sprinkle ugliness like
toxic pixie dust over the urban landscape.
The competition drew on a component of the new Central Area Plan--the
first plan for downtown development produced by the city since 1958--which
among other things calls for a park to be built over the Kennedy Expressway
between Madison and Monroe. The Stop Go organizers asked entrants to design
a 1,000-car garage for that site, including support spaces and "additional
Ban left it to Chicago architectural icon Stanley Tigerman to announce
the winners among the 12 finalists, and from his remarks it appeared that
the jury was less interested in the problem of garage design itself than
in the site's other possibilities. "We felt, generally, that if submissions
didn't...use [the site] as a bridge, it would be a missed opportunity.
So those that didn't do that were quickly eliminated,"
Tigerman told the crowd. "Land is valuable in Chicago, and to use
valuable land for parking, we all quickly agreed, was not the world's
greatest idea." The jury favored proposals that provided parkland
on the surface crossing the expressway.
In a sense, all the entries stood in the shadow of the striking vision
Chicago architects Ralph Johnson and Todd Snapp presented earlier this
year as part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's "Invisible
City" exhibition, which was also a response to the Central Area Plan.
Their Kennedy Expressway Green Corridor proposed a civic "environmental
gateway" to be made up of a series of inhabited bridges spanning
and covering large portions of the expressway from Hubbard's Cave all
the way south to the I-290 "spaghetti bowl" interchange.
On each block, a large structure of deep trusses--housing such public
amenities as museums, restaurants, and shops--leaps across the expressway,
bending upward to clear the existing ramps. A mat of parkland similar
to the type Tigerman said his jury favored covers the surface, with "filtered
tree masses" to clean the air and sculptural "wind scoops"--lightweight
structures rising like cupped palms around large air holes punched into
the mat's surface--designed to vent carbon dioxide emissions from the
highway below. Part of the kick of Johnson and Snapp's plan was the spectacular
way in which it was rendered: a futurist ecofantasy of hilly parks down
the length of the expressway--the air holes giving it the feel of a surrealist
golf course--and on either side a series of opulent glassy-green towers
with concave facades topped with wind shields resembling the flipped-up
brim of a baseball cap, meant to channel fresh air down to the surface.
Although the Stop Go competition was intended to focus on the block between
Madison and Monroe, honorable mention awardees Brian Vitale and Robert
Benson mirrored Johnson and Snapp's idea with a proposal to span the expressway
from Van Buren to Lake with a series of airy structures covered in orange
solar-collection sheeting, together capable of producing up to six gigawatts
of clean power each year. Their park over the expressway was a civic plaza
with "no specific program but endless possibilities." They offered
a high-rise automated parking garage with a translucent ramp and a "Chicago
Room" with 40-foot ceilings cantilevered over the expressway, a "jewel
box" for hosting city ceremonies and events.
Reduction, one of the two first-prize winners, came from Dan Rappel, along
with Isabela Gould, Kevin Schellenbach, and Jon Clark, and it's as much
an exercise in social engineering as architecture. To address the Central
Area Plan mandate to reduce traffic congestion they cut the number of
parking spaces in half, to 500, all of them to be reserved for carpoolers
and offered at below-market rates. The garage itself would be buried below
grade to the east of the expressway. Over the expressway, they created
a full-block public park whose surface is a sequence of "ribbons"--looking
a bit like bent strips of vinyl insulation tape--placed side by side diagonal
to the street grid and planted with three different mixes of grasses and
wildflowers native to the Chicago area. In the architects' words, "as
the ribbons engage the highway they vary in height," and the side
elevations of the structures carry "revenue-generating advertising."
The ribbons were designed to act as a wind machine to ventilate the garage
and flush pollutants from the expressway.
The other first-place winner, Filter Park, from New York's Leven Betts
Studio, was the only prizewinner that addressed the problem of the parking
garage from a design perspective. It placed the garage over and perpendicular
to the expressway: two thin linear structures of automated parking, 130
feet tall, with a "filtering urban garden" between them that
would include a crossing for pedestrians and bicycles. Tigerman said what
drew the jury to the design was that "they did a kind of Chicago
building...very transparent. You saw the car in side elevation"--meaning
that coming down the expressway it would be apparent from quite a distance
that this was a parking lot, and as you drew closer you'd actually be
able to see how many open spaces were left.
Tigerman bemoaned how, in contrast to the Levin Betts design, "so
many garages try to hide the car." Well, for the unpopulated gullies
of an expressway transparency may be a great idea, but in areas like River
North, where sheer-walled parking garages are turning streets into deadening
canyons, the parking garage presents an entirely different set of problems.
The life of the street should extend beyond the first floor, but that's
the level to which many high-rise garages tend to compress it. Leaving
parking floors stark and open also diminishes the surrounding streetscape.
Take for example the structure on Superior at State that houses Whole
Foods, or the humongous garage behind 900 N. Michigan that turns Rush
Street into a back alley.
The strength of the Stop Go submissions--and of the Johnson-Snapp proposal--is
the way they work to "deghettoize" the expressway belt, returning
a variety of amenities to those strips of the city that have become black
holes, annihilating everything but the by-products of their own existence--litter,
car parts, foul air.
If there was a common weakness among the entries, it was that many of
them blew past the issue of designing a good parking garage to get to
the sexier task of coming up with the parks and amenities, spending more
time on making the automobile disappear than on dealing with its inescapable
presence. At least Ryan Moody had the wit to marry hostility toward cars
with our growing addiction to gaming in his proposal for a "Garage
100," where it costs only 100 pennies to park but where ten unlucky
vehicles are randomly selected each year to be irretrievably encased in
glass as exhibits for a growing car museum.
There are good garages in Chicago, but they're in the distinct minority.
Ralph Johnson's striking new mixed-use high-rise development Skybridge,
at Madison and the Kennedy, offers one of the few new garages that don't
resemble an open sore, with a sleek concrete facade along the expressway
and a handsome window wall on Halsted mixing three different shades of
Some garages succeed by breaking the rules. Marina City offers 18 floors
of parking in twin pancake stacks, with nothing but chicken wire bounding
the open floors, but the result is a dramatic kaleidoscope of the butt
ends of cars in every shape and color. The dark-glassed floors of parking
at the John Hancock are redeemed by the great corkscrew ramp behind the
building. Perhaps the most audacious--and witty--of all of Chicago's garages
remains Stanley Tigerman's own Lake Street self-park, where the facade
takes on the appearance of the front end of a touring car blown up to
Bunyan-esque proportions, complete with tire segments for awnings, a top
hood ornament, and enameled panels in a turquoise straight from a '57
Good solutions are out there, but today the imagination needed to bring
them off appears to be an extravagance to most developers. Even the old
solution of placing town houses around the perimeter to conceal a large
parking structure within has given way to the idea of maximizing return
on every inch of the lot. At the recently completed high-end high-rise
the Fordham, at 25 E. Superior, the town houses are pitched atop the ten-story
garage, spilling over the lip of the roof like so many doughy dollhouses.
When a developer lowers his costs by filling street-level perspectives
with barren ugliness, it's a tax arbitrarily imposed on all the city's
residents, an uncompensated taking diminishing the value of the urban
While the Central Area Plan has very little to say about good design,
the realization of its goals, especially the one to "improve the
quality of the pedestrian environment," is impossible without it.
For that, proposals like those in "Invisible City" and the Stop
Go competition must become more than an endlessly recurring Groundhog
Day-style nightmare: make a brief splash, forget about it the next morning,
then start all over again. A continuity of effort is needed, where each
new proposal bursts through its isolating bubble and plays off and expands
on those that came before.
We've proven that the creative firepower is there. Now it's up to the
city to take the lead in forging the kind of public-private partnerships
that go beyond the traditional approach--"let's save money now and
leave ourselves no choice but to live with the results later"--to
one that implements the visions of the Central Area Plan in a way that
both heals and enriches the fabric of the city.