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From the Archives
Over the past 35 years, Azure has interviewed many of the voices that have shaped – and continue to shape – the ever-expanding field of design. Here are some of our favourite conversations.
Ettore Sottsass and Designing for Destiny
Andrée Putman and the Power of Confidence
Klaus Nienkamper portrait
Klaus Nienkämper: Confessions of a Chair Man
Jacques Herzog’s Archival Impulse Looks to the Future
Shigeru Ban’s Temporary Architecture is Made to Last
From the Archives

The Italian legend and figurehead of Memphis, Ettore Sottsass is featured prominently among the giants of design in Vitra’s current exhibition “Home Stories: 100 Years, 20 Visionary Interiors” and the subject of his own touring showcase last year. His immense impact is not easily encapsulated. Ever the rebel and with a career spanning more than five decades, Sottsass designed everything from typewriters for Olivetti and a seemingly irrational bookshelf to mysterious cabinets and even a bus shelter – each with a critical eye towards consumption, production and the role objects play in everyday life.

Now, as designers look to find new ways of practicing in an increasingly volatile economic, political and social climate, it’s his insistence on the limits of rationalism that continues to feel strikingly emergent. As he told Azure almost three decades ago, logic can only take you so far, before the only option left is to embrace the instability of chaos.

This story, from Azure’s archives, has never before been published online. It’s one of many exclusive interviews we are making available on the occasion of our 35th anniversary.

A prolific designer, Ettore Sottsass (1917 – 2007) not only founded the Memphis movement in early 1980s but worked for a number of renowned companies, including Olivetti.
Ettore Sottsass

My design colleagues in the media have been asking me what I mean when I said I am unable to understand logic anymore – or even the world situation, politically, socially, financially etc. Maybe I can’t because I’m old or maybe it’s because the world is heading towards a system of logic that is evidently very new and of which I don’t understand the process. Not only, but I have arrived at the same point as some scientists who think that the universe itself lives in a state of chaos in which there are more moments of unbalance than organized moments. It’s clear that in this chaos there are organized moments but every so often, but the quantity of unorganized moments its greater.

It’s clear that in this chaos there are organized moments every so often, but the quantity of unorganized moments its greater.
Ettore Sottsass
During the early 1980s, fashion designer Karl Lagerield turned his apartment in Monte Carlo into a showroom featuring such iconic Sottsass furnishings as the 1981 Carlton room divider.

Are you referring to the social level?


This is at the level of everyday life. In my life I know that the mysterious moments are more numerous than clear ones. If I fall in love with a girl, there are more moments in which I don’t understand what is happening than ones in which I do. There are more moments in which I can’t make any plans for the future, or even understand the present, than moments in which I can. I’m saying this with respect to love but I could say this for everything: my profession, for my body. The moments in which I don’t understand the logic are more numerous than the ones in which I do. So what happens – if I have to divide time into separate moments that have no connection with each other, each of these moments, as soon as it’s over, seems like a ruin to me. It represents a temporary balance, an instantaneous balance. As soon as I’ve understood it, another has already arrived and I already don’t understand the first one anymore…What is a ruin? A ruin is a house that no longer has its logic, of which you no longer understand the logic. This is not just a personal idea, scientists are also discussing the idea of chaos and not just in an approximate way as I am doing.

In the early 1970s, Sottsass produced a number of conceptual installations made of string, sticks and more during his travels through the deserts of Spain. This larger series called “Design Metaphors” were photographed and recorded by the designer, reflecting his explorations of such fundamental ideas embedded in objects, interiors and architecture.PHOTO: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

What about the laws of mathematics and music?


Mathematics, is, to begin with, a provisional balance. If you are in love with someone you aren’t going to get far with mathematics. If you have cancer – maybe they’ll treat you via mathematics, but these processes are very ambiguous; it’s not so clear.

Ettore Sottsass’ prolific career was the subject of the 2019 exhibition “Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory,” which looked at the radical designer’s postwar works including his ceramic totems from late 1960s (left) to his monolithic “superboxes” (right) that challenge both the function and consumption of everyday objects. PHOTO: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

Then it’s wrong to think that you were referring to consumerism or product design that threatens to submerge the world?


Indirectly this counts as well because product design believes itself to have certainty. My relationship with industry has sometimes been very chaotic and irrational, vis-à-vis their processes. You see companies that seen solid, that appear to have done their forecasting, that have computers and mathematics, companies like General Motors, which suddenly lay off thousands of workers – what kind of science is this? In the whole world you cant’ understand anything anymore. Russia – after forty years of philosophical, economic and political certainty, in three days a total disaster occurs. War in all directions. The more we go ahead the less we understand, the more it appears that the rational process is valid only for certain narrow sectors – its not an absolute.

I design without rhyme or reason; I don’t even know why I design. I do it because it’s my destiny.
Ettore Sottsass
Using laminate, veneer and metal, Sottsass’ 1992 Piccoli Libri cabinet (right) oscillates between rationality and artistic expression.

How do you apply this stuff when you are thinking of designing an object?


When I’m in an airplane thing come to mind and I design. I design without rhyme or reason; I don’t even know why I design. I design because I have this disease of the pencil. Because it comes to me. I do it because it’s my destiny. And this isn’t something that refers just to me – but to the whole world…It isn’t that rationalism should be neglected, but it must take a more modest attitude…you can no longer believe that rationalism is the answer to everything.

This interview originally appeared as “Last Words” in the May / June 1993 issue of Azure.

In July 2017, New York’s Morgans Hotel shuttered its doors after operating for nearly 35 years. Tucked along the city’s trendy Madison Avenue with its small footprint and high-end accommodation, the renovated 1927 structure was a landmark of the hospitality industry when it opened in 1984: the first boutique hotel. Though spearheaded by Ian Shrager of Studio 54 fame, it was the Parisian designer Andrée Putman who crafted much of Morgan’s tailored image — crisp palette, refined furnishings, residential inspiration and the iconic checkerboard pattern. But, that’s only part of her story.

Designer Andrée Putman (1925 – 2013) trained as a concert pianist before shifting to design, establishing her eponymous studio in 1997. PHOTO: Xavier Béjot

Before revolutionizing the hospitality industry, Putman trained as a concert pianist, later working for a number of fashion and art magazines before establishing Ecart, a furniture company that re-issued the work of celebrated modernist designers like Eileen Gray, Antoni Gaudí and more. Much of the company’s success lead to the Morgans commission, and the avalanche of projects — ranging from hotels like the Sheraton to retail spaces for the likes of Balenciaga — that soon followed. In 1997, she established her eponymous studio centred on interiors, products and set design. Until her death in 2013, she remained a leading voice in shaping industry taste with her unique perspective. Speaking with Azure in 1998, Putman asserted that much of the taste and style she had become renowned for rests on a single attribute: confidence. It’s a fitting reminder for the generations to follow from the largely self-taught creative and grande dame of interior design.

This interview, from Azure’s archives, has never before been published online. It’s one of many exclusive stories we are making available on the occasion of our 35th anniversary.

You were never formally trained in design. How has being self-taught affected your approach?

Andrée Putman

People are so full of the notion that if you’re not the best in the class it means you’re stupid. I explain to them that if you are going to avoid school, you have to be intensely curious and passionate about your work. It’s always interesting to see the relief that brings. People are so nervous about having bad taste. Everyone has taste. It’s called personality. That is exactly my message. I want people to be more confident.

With 114 tailored rooms and a distinct residential direction, Morgans Hotel in New York (done in collaboration with Ian Shrager of then Studio 54 and now Edition hotels fame), inaugurated the boutique hotel concept.

You have said: “I think visual comfort is far more important than physical comfort.” That is an intriguing, provocative statement. How do you defend it?

I think serene comfort comes from visual simplicity. Not long ago I was in a house with charm, with life, with everything I like, children, flowers, animals – but there were so many things everywhere, on everything. You are quickly invaded by things don’t you think?

Everyone has taste. It’s called personality. That is exactly my message. I want people to be more confident.
Andrée Putman
The Au jeune Bûcheron table for Studio Putman Collection and the Fauteuil Sinuosa armchair for Poltrona Frau are among the Putman-designed furnishings populating the 2011 Fédération Nationale des Travaux Publics in Paris.

The old adage that your possessions end up possessing you.

I love that expression. It’s so true.

Putman’s work was the subject of an expansive monograph “Andrée Putman: Complete Works,” published by Rizzoli in 2009.

What do you think about Philippe Starck’s ideas of design and dematerialism?

I would never agree with that. Maybe exactly the opposite is going to happen. I think life becomes so abstract that there will be a reaction. I admire him and know him well. We have a nice relationship. He may be a brilliant designer, but he is in a kind of sick dream about the future.

In addition to her work with Shrager, Putman developed a number of interiors for leading hotel chains like the Ritz Carlton Wolfsburg, which opened in 2011.

I like what you said about using design to get closer to real life. Could you elaborate on that?

Yes. It has to do with people. For example, when I design a hotel room I think about what it is like to enter a room when you are tired. What is the best surprise I can offer?

I love to design the simplest objects. If you have passion about the work you do it will be experienced by other people.
Andrée Putman
Putman crafted a number of unique furnishings for Ralph Pucci International, a New York-based luxury furniture and lighting company. Many designs, such as the limited edition Pagoda Sofa, are still available today.

You have just this year launched an Andrée Putman collection. Could you tell me about it?

I have created many things already: a simple but fun collection of furniture in Japan that sells very well; several licensed rug collections, both wall-to-wall and area rugs. I am doing china, flatware, all kinds of objects for the home.

I love to design the simplest objects. But it has to be something that I would use. I have noticed that the times I did something I would never use myself (maybe twice in my life), it collapsed. If you have passion about the work you do it will be experienced by other people.

This interview originally appeared as “Haute Dame” in the January / February 1998 issue of Azure

Klaus Nienkamper portrait

Editor’s Note: Since establishing his eponymous furniture manufacturing business in Toronto in the 1960s, Klaus Nienkämper has been a revered champion of contemporary design. Working with a roster of talents from Canada and around the world, the brand continues to produce exciting office collections, including the recently released Heartbeat sofa by Karim Rashid. Published in 2008, this story about some of Klaus Nienkämper’s favourite chairs over his long career has never before been available online. It’s one of many exclusive interviews we are sharing on the occasion of Azure’s 35th anniversary.

Although tables, case goods and shelving account for a large share of his company’s business, it’s fair to say that Klaus Nienkämper is a chair man at heart. He doesn’t just run a company that makes chairs: he haunts auctions and vintage dealerships in search of designer seating he feels compelled to own. He and his wife, Beatrix, have a house in Toronto and a farm outside the city – and both are, in his words, “terribly overchaired.”

In the summer of 1960, the cargo ship Francisca Sartori departed on a transatlantic voyage from Hamburg with 12 passengers on board. Among them was 20-year-old Klaus Nienkämper, a native of Duisburg, an industrial city near Dusseldorf. From an early age, he had helped out in his family’s antiques shop. After graduating from high school, he completed a furniture retailing apprenticeship and honed his appreciation of modern design by working for Knoll International. Nienkämper shared a cabin with the ship’s crew on the voyage, his passage a Canadian government loan he would later repay, at $10 a month.

From left: The Hamburg Chicago Line's Francisca Sartori; Klaus Nienkämper and two other passengers aboard the ship; Klaus Nienkämper, 1968; Beatrix Nienkämper, 1969
From left: The Hamburg Chicago Line’s Francisca Sartori; Klaus Nienkämper and two other passengers aboard the ship; Klaus Nienkämper, 1968; Beatrix Nienkämper, 1969

By 1962, he had joined with designer David Bain in setting up a company in Toronto called Swiss Design of Canada, which manufactured modern Swiss furniture under license. Bain gradually phased out his involvement, and in 1968 Nienkämper took over the business and gave it his own name.

Under his leadership, the company has evolved into one of North America’s most respected manufacturers of furniture for the contemporary work place and other contract and residential environments. Working with such designers as Arthur Erickson, Karim Rashid and Daniel Libeskind, Nienkämper has produced furniture for projects ranging from Pierre Trudeau’s Parliament Hill office to the recent Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. When Nienkämper’s downtown showroom opened in 1968, it offered Toronto’s aficionados of modern design a glimpse of new pieces by Europe’s most influential designers. Today this perennially stylish space is a high-end furniture store, catering primarily to the residential market and run by Klaus and Beatrix’s son, Klaus Jr.

On the eve of Nienkämper’s 40th anniversary, to be celebrated officially in April 2008, Azure contributing editor Pamela Young met with the company’s founder to talk about one of his favourite subjects. In that glorious baritone voice of his – the aural equivalent of fine brandy and a blazing fireplace on a foul night in November – Klaus Nienkämper reminisced about seating that has meant something to him over the decades, and discussed how the sustainable design movement is influencing the shape and construction of chairs to come.


“We had a government contract for the furniture for the first lounge at Toronto International Airport before we had a factory. We had Leif Jacobsen doing the upholstery in one place and someone else doing the metalwork in another, and so on. I had a station wagon, and I carted the parts around. I visited with everyone and cracked the whip to make sure the furniture would be ready on time. Excessive use of materials is not fashionable now, but I still think this was a fabulous space.”


“This was a very frivolous thing to do – something that we could hardly afford. In the early ’70s, Dino Gavina [the Italian manufacturer who had revived such Bauhaus pieces as Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair] started a company called Simon Collezione. We brought their Ultramobile collection – including two chairs by [Chilean-born surrealist artist] Sebastian Matta, produced in a limited edition of six, and some production pieces – over to Canada for an exhibition at the ROM. I bought one of the Matta chairs, Sacco Alato, which means ‘winged sack,’ for $4,000. We had it in our living room for years, and I thought we’d never part with it. But recently one of the other five sold at Sotheby’s for $60,000. Shortly after that, I got a call from someone willing to buy mine for that amount. People sometimes ask me what a chair like Sacco Alato has in common with most of the furniture we manufacture. What I say is, this is the fun stuff; the other stuff is work. It’s important to do both.”

Late ’70s

“In the mid-’70s, we became a licenced manufacturer for de Sede [a Swiss company best known for fine leather furniture], and for a time in the ’80s we were manufacturing de Sede designs for all of North America. This was an absolutely enormous piece of furniture for a hospital in Fort McMurray, Alberta – I think it was 200 feet long. I asked the interior designer, Carolyn Tavender, why they were spending so much money on Fort McMurray, and she said it was to attract doctors. The oil sands development was just starting, and it was dismal place then.”


“[The late Canadian designer] Thomas Lamb started to design for us after he basically attacked me for doing all these foreign pieces. He said, ‘When are you going to do something for Canadian designers?’ I said, ‘Well, do something for us’ – and he did. At the time, we were going from lounge seating into the executive office, without actually knowing how to make wood furniture. We were also manufacturing under licence for Knoll in the ’70s and ’80s, and we were afraid they would get their nose out of joint if our own production looked too contemporary. We decided to take our own pieces in a more transitional direction, and Tom did an incredible job with that.”


“[Former Knoll design director] Richard Schultz originally designed this as an outdoor chair for Knoll, which decided not to proceed with it. He asked if we could reinterpret it as an indoor chair in leather. We’ve had marginal success with it. Richard was a sort of a minimalist, and this was different from what most designers were doing at that time – it was light, and everything else was heavy. Today, when everyone is trying to use materials responsibly, a chair like this would probably play a greater role.”


“Francisco Kripacz was Arthur Erickson’s design director, and they worked together a lot. It’s hard to say where Arthur’s involvement in furniture designed for his buildings ended and Francisco took over. For us, dealing with the government officials and dealing with Arthur was like walking through a minefield. We just had sketches to work with, and there was huge pressure in terms of deadlines, so the luxury of experimenting wasn’t there. I think the embassy is still a very impressive installation. The last time I saw an interview with the Canadian ambassador in his office, everything was still there. I was very pleased.”


“This was a failure, but an interesting failure. Basically, it’s an invention by [American designer] David Rowland; the core of the seat and back is a sort of spring that provides wonderful support. It was beautiful to sit on, and we used it everywhere in the Toronto Blue Jays offices at SkyDome [now the Rogers Centre]. But we could never get the price down to where it should be for something like this. I once asked [Vitra CEO] Rolf Fehlbaum why this one didn’t work, and I’ll never forget what he said: ‘This chair has a beautiful inner life, but nobody is going to pay you for it.’”


“Hilary Weston commissioned eight of these chairs for her husband Galen’s polo team, and she also commissioned one for Prince Charles and one for Margaret Thatcher. The design is based on British campaign chairs that would have been used, I guess, for sitting in front of your tent in Africa, drinking gin. But those chairs didn’t fold, and this one had to: Prince Charles would arrive at a polo match and pull a folding chair out of the boot of his car.”


“George [Yabu] and Glenn [Pushelberg] came to us with an enormous chair, and I was able to persuade them that something a lot smaller would sell much better. The designers had it on four legs when they brought it to us. I said it looked like it should have a swivel base, I think because it reminded me of ’50s pieces. We did a version with four legs, and we did a swivel version, and we do sell more with the swivel base.”


“This version of the HAB isn’t the easiest chair to make – we’ve had problems with moulding the wood – and unfortunately this one doesn’t live outside. [The traditional outdoor Muskoka chair was a source of inspiration for the architects who designed it.] But I like the wood version better than the aluminum one. I think it’s a wonderful chair. I have a friend who has a very exquisite house in Vancouver, and he used it in the guest bedrooms that look out over the rainforest. It’s very appropriate for that. We recently received an order for two from the Aga Khan’s Geneva office.”


“For those spaces where you need something a bit more fun, that’s where Karim fits in. But I don’t know that we’d want to be doing something that looks like the Kloud chair five years from now. You can’t have excessively moulded foam pieces anymore – that’s huge blobs of oil right there – although actually there’s less foam in Kloud than you’d think. We build a laminated wood construction inside it to minimize the use of foam. And we’re now working with the first foam that’s part soy.”


“Ryann Aoukar, who used to work in Montreal and now works with Gensler in New York, came to me with what I thought was a very interesting piece. It was totally over-scaled and over-materialed. He was adamant that he didn’t want any changes to it, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere looking like that.’ Gensler also wanted it scaled down and lightened up, and we were able to do that. This one was just introduced, and it’s already taking off. I’m very happy with it.”

Klaus Nienkamper portrait

“The design process was interesting. I still have the first concepts, which were just not possible – all glass and leather. But Daniel is very easy to work with. I asked him if he’d consider making a model, and he made a whole bunch. We took some licence and made it into a chair you could actually sit in. We built a mock-up in the factory. He came to see it, and he was ecstatic. I think this chair’s going to be around 100 years from now – it has that kind of quality.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2008 Issue.

It was 2003. On the heels of the Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron‘s celebrated transformation of an old power station on the bank of the Thames into what is now the Tate Modern (turning 20 this year) and two years after they claimed the Pritzker Prize, Jacques Herzog (one half of the award-winning firm) sat down with Azure at the opening of the exhibition “Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture to discuss, among other things, the innate appeal of transforming architecture.

Long before their collaborations with Ai Wei Wei for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the studio’s work with fashion giant Prada, the M+ Museum opening in Hong Kong later this year and the ongoing Vancouver Art Gallery taking shape on Canada’s West Coast, we revisit the words of the award-winning architect who considers his structures as indexes that “reveal the way we can live together and document, like the circles on a tree, what phases we are going through.” And, what the lightness that characterizes much of their oeuvre means in a time of political uncertainty.

This story, from Azure’s archives, has never before been published online. It’s one of many exclusive interviews we are making available on the occasion of our 35th anniversary.

Jacques Herzog (left) and Pierre de Meuron (right) founded their collaborative studio in 1978 and were awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 2001.

There’s a tendency for architects working at a high level to be reduced to a singular marketable quality, but your work seems to resist this. How do you fit into the world of the star architect?

Jacques Herzog

I think star system is a consequence of the globalization of everything, including architecture. It takes away commissions from the “normal” architects, who exist in every city, and gives the most interesting jobs to stars. A mass of projects is also taken away from the normal architects and given to huge corporate firms. The result is that we have very mediocre generic architecture on the one hand and more spectacular on the other side, built by so-called star architects, which is a group of 10, 20 or maybe 50 people all over the world

Now, if you belong to this group of people who get the most sophisticated projects all over the world, what do you do with this? We decided from the beginning to do things that are very specific for the site, for the client, for the culture, changing very often – that’s why buildings don’t look the same. This is the way we work and have always worked, without really choosing it consciously. Increasingly, it became a conscious choice, because it’s more difficult to enter the market and be recognized. But once you are, like we are now, it gives us a lot of freedom.

The 2002 – 2003 show “Herzog & de Meuron: Archaeology of the Mind,” curated by Philip Ursprung at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, explore the pair’s architecture as a fundamentally artistic practice. PHOTO: CCA
We decided from the beginning to do things that are very specific for the site, for the client, for the culture. This is the way we work and have always worked.
Jacques Herzog

Your architecture has been very influential to other architects, who find inspiration in the virtuosity, clarity and control of your work. What is both seductive and slightly disconcerting about seeing your work exhibited is the absence of any sign of the inevitable struggles.

I don’t think that is our role, to express the struggle. Does a tree reveal any signs of a struggle, or does a stone? Should a house reveal any signs of struggle? I don’t think so.

To create something is a huge effort, but to express this effort would be kitsch. We could describe in more detail how we come to solutions, but that would be another strategy for a show. This show does not pretend it’s the only possible way to show work.

From a distance, the 2015 New Bordeaux Stadium appears like a forest of slender white trunks surrounding a floating bowl. Although it looks impossibly light, the stadium supports seating for 42,000 fans. PHOTO: Iwan Baan

When you take architecture out of the realm of pragmatics and showcase it as an “artistic” art, is there not a danger of misrepresenting the degree of aestheticism involved in the process?

We don’t remove the pragmatic side. Would you call a shell that you find in nature not a pragmatic form or a pragmatic thing? Our work is highly pragmatic, actually. It’s not all based on aesthetic issues. The exhibition shows the evolution of form. It never shows just one singe form – here it is, in all its beauty. Not one single piece is like that. They’re all in series, showing that there is a struggle, and doubts, hesitation.

Vitra Design Museum Schaudepot Herzog de Meuron
Joining Herzog & de Meuron’s iconic Vitrahaus, the Schaudepot added another 1,600 square metres of exhibition space to Vitra’s Weil am Rhein campus – a site just north of Basel, devoted to the preservation of modern furniture.

Do materials have symbolic meaning for you?

I think symbols are like cemeteries, like something that tries to squeeze or fix you in some way to look at things. You may find some symbolic things in our work, but very little, actually – whereas other architects give more weight to such issues, which is okay but not for us.

I’m a little frightened by symbols, by old things, by photography. I’m very much intrigued by photography, but I also have a problem with it. If I look at photographs of my own life and friends, you can see the decay, the decline of life. Photography is about death, actually. Which is interesting but also frightening for everybody. Also reassuring and comforting because you know that everything ends, everything is subject to this kind of life span. So is our architecture, and so are these natural objects. That is important for me. But fixing it in photography, fixing it in a show by saying this is how you should look at it, this is worse for me because this is like saying I am dead already – because that’s how I was or that’s what I wanted to say. I try to escape that. I try to keep it open as long as possible, because there’s always a new way you can understand form. Also a building, and you can transform it in the future – just as we transformed a power station into a museum for the Tate.

There is a lot of architecture produced that is really to throw away, but it does have this potential – to remain important for generations and be the subject of transformation, reinterpretation.
Jacques Herzog
Though their celebrated conversion of the Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern opened in 2000, the Swiss duo were invited back to expand the museum with the brick-clad switch house, which welcomed its first visitors in 2016 and boosted the size of the institution by 60 per cent. PHOTO: Iwan Baan

Is architecture the most forgiving medium to remaining open, resisting entropy?

Very few buildings have the potential to be transformed, to want to be transformed, because there are not so many good buildings. But ideally architecture has this potential. I think its great to have a city with a collection of buildings from all possible periods. They need this kind of transformation. There is a lot of architecture produced that is really to throw away, but it does have this potential – to remain important for generations and be the subject of transformation, reinterpretation.

In 2012, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York inaugurated, defined by a dramatic intersecting canopy that borrows its form from the rooflines of local barns. PHOTO: Matthu Placek

It’s interesting that a lot of the work throughout your career is preoccupied with a notion of archiving. There’s a beautiful parallel between the way the exhibition has been curated and the sense of compressing layers of history into physical space. How did that come about in your work?

I like to arrange things and to store them away so they are out of my view. That’s a reason, perhaps. I keep my drawings, even if I rarely look at them again. It’s maybe interesting to document a process later. The interesting thing was the mental process, the intellectual process when we designed, but we keep the drawings so we can make a show. It would make me freer, perhaps, to throw it all away, all signs of evolution and of history. That’s also why I call it waste, in one of my texts. I could say it’s shit in fact; it’s not far away. I don’t say this in an indecent way – it like shit because it’s a product of digestion. To digest on the way to go somewhere is a very human and organic kind of expression. All these objects are testifying these vital processes of the past. That’s why, in fact, they are not so important to me anymore, because I’m much more interested in what I do next.

Following the landmark Prada Aoyama store, Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with the fashion giant for sister brand Miu Miu’s flagship in the Japanese neighbourhood in 2015. PHOTO: Nacasa & Partners

And what will you do next?

Many things. We’re working on 40 projects at the moment, all over the world – the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the expansion of the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis, a new flagship Prada Store in Tokyo and a Soccer Stadium in Munich.

After nearly a decade of construction, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie opened in 2017, transforming a former harbourfront warehouse in a state-of-the-art venue. PHOTO: Iwan Baan
Lightness is not necessarily what I would take as the most specific quality of what we’ve done so far. It’s one moment. I like gravity also.
Jacques Herzog

Is it harder to work now, as an architect who believes in the lightness of things, in the politics of our time, with its sense of defensiveness and need to fortify?

What you’re saying here is a tough question. It’s scary how the world changes, and architecture is relatively unimportant compared to those questions. Cities and urbanism always reveal the way we can live together and document, like the circles on a tree, what phases we are going through. It’s true that if we had to express in architecture what is happening now, we would draw up and build bunkers – also metal bunkers. Architecture cannot make a contribution to that. We shouldn’t be naïve.

But it’s very important to reflect it, to think about it, to think in ways that we can make life more attractive, more pleasant, easier, with all the givens, whether we are cavemen or whether we live now or whether we live in a war period. We cannot dictate those situations, but we have to find ways to deal with it, somehow. And the  lightness is not necessarily what I would take as the most specific quality of what we’ve done so far. It’s one moment. I like gravity also.

This interview originally appeared as “Points of Reference” in the January / February 2003 issue of Azure

From Toronto’s ambitious Sidewalk Labs to the French government’s announcement that, by 2022, all public buildings must be constructed of at least 50-per-cent wood (or adjacent natural material), mass timber is slated to fundamentally transform the next decade of design. Since the early 1990s, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban has tested the limits of the material’s structural capacity in projects ranging from his celebrated Centre Pompidou Metz and the recently completed headquarters for Swatch to his 19-story Terrace House in Vancouver slated to open later this year (which will be the tallest hybrid timber structure in North America upon completion).

In addition, Ban is also renowned for crafting buildings with another unusual material: paper. The Japan-born, US-educated architect’s rapidly deployable structures made of paper tubes — and conceived for victims of tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters — have since become a model for a practice that balances both high-profile commissions with a deeply engaged social agenda. During a time of mass migration and a rapidly changing climate, we return to our interview with the architect from the July/August 2008 issue of Azure to revisit the architect’s meditation on his seemingly temporary relief work to retrace the often arbitrary divides between transience and permanence.

This story, from Azure’s archives, has never before been published online. It’s one of many exclusive interviews we are making available on the occasion of our 35th anniversary.

In 2014, Shigeru Ban was awarded the Pritzker Prize for architecture, due in part to his continued exploration of the structural opportunities provided by wood, paper and more.

What sparked your interest in temporary structures and refugee shelters?

Shigeru Ban

After the Rwanda crisis in 1994, many people became refugees. I saw some refugee camps and thought it was necessary to improve the shelters. For various reasons, it became impossible to do that, so I decided to address one of the environmental issues. The refugees were cutting down trees for poles, because the UN only provided them with plastic sheets. This created a serious deforestation problem. My mission was to create a system that used paper tubing to replace the wood.

Then, in 1995, there was a big earthquake in Kobe, Japan, and over 6,500 people were killed. There was a great need for temporary housing, so I decided to help by improving the existing shelters – again using paper tubes.

Originally built in Kobe City, Japan, following the devastating Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, the Paper Log House is a 52-square-metre lodge with walls made of 106 mm diameter, 4mm thick paper tubes.

How do those experiences compare to your work on the post-tsunami housing you built in Southeast Asia?

I’ve developed a reputation for this kind of relief work. Now, whenever there is a major natural disaster, I always get e-mails. After the tsunami four years ago, I received e-mails from India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. I couldn’t do all three projects, so I selected the most appropriate one. Governments or international NGOs usually take care of the majority of people; I decided to work with fishermen in Sri Lanka whose village was totally destroyed and who didn’t fit into these larger operations. I used local materials and timber to make 45 permanent houses for them. My method is always the same: I go there to listen to what people need; I work with a local architect, study the local climate, figure out what materials are available, and so on.

My method is always the same: I go there to listen to what people need; I work with a local architect, study the local climate, figure out what materials are available
Shigeru Ban
In 2018, Ban’s rapidly deployable shelter was remounted on Canada’s West Coast at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s offsite location as part of the exhibition “Offsite: Shigeru Ban.”

What were some of the particular climate conditions you had to overcome in Sri Lanka?

Because it’s hot, people spend most of their time in the shade. They don’t want to stay inside, because it’s too hot. I thought it was important to provide them with shaded areas, so I made a sort of indoor-outdoor space between the kitchen and the living room that can be used as an extension of the living room, or as a dining area or workspace. It’s been very well used.

However, this has created new problems. Some of the village people envied what the fishermen had; they wanted to destroy their houses and have me build them new ones.

What was your response?

We told them we first had to spend money on people who needed houses. But that was an unexpected problem.

In addition to their use in his disaster relief projects, Ban has incorporated structural paper tubes in a number of public works, including the 2013 Carboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. PHOTO: Stephen Goodenough

How is this work different from your more commercial projects, which are really quite glamorous?

I get tired of working for privileged people. Most of the time, architects work for clients who use architecture to express their power. Architects love to make monuments for rich clients, but these clients are demanding. However, I’ve also found that natural disaster victims demand a lot, too. I try to maintain a balance between working for clients who are well off and those who aren’t.

The Aspen Art Museum opened in 2014 and is wrapped in a woven wood screen made of Prodema (a composite material of paper and resin encased within a dual-sided wood veneer). PHOTO: Michael Moran

Describe some of the different demands.

In Sri Lanka, I organized a community meeting to find out what people wanted. Of course, we had budget limitations, so we could not realize everything they asked for, but I have seen many bad examples where NGOs just build houses without talking with the people who were going to live in them. They are all about quantity, not quality, and they end up with many problems, because they never talk with those people directly.

With high-end clients, I only work with those who know and like my previous work. They understand what they are getting. With these clients, I have to listen very closely to what they want, but they often understand my solutions much better. Victims of natural disasters usually talk with me without knowing what else I have done.

For me, there is no difference between permanent and temporary structures.
Shigeru Ban
For the Tamedia Office Building in Zurich, Switzerland, Ban used timbre as the main structural system of the seven-storey complex. PHOTO: Didier Boy de la Tour

Are there moments when you see one side of your practice informing the other?

For me, there is no difference between permanent and temporary structures. Some of the paper houses I made for victims of the earthquake in India became permanent because many of those people didn’t have houses to begin with. After they went back to the village, they dismantled my houses and rebuilt them, so they became permanent.

When I work for developers, they sometimes destroy the building, so it becomes temporary. Whether a building is temporary or permanent depends on whether people love that building or not.

For 2015’s Oita Prefectural Art Museum, Ban wrapped by the ceiling and facade in a hexagonal wood lattice. PHOTO: Hiroyuki Hirai

Looking at the components of some of your commercial projects, I notice you like to use movable rooms. Where does this come from?

I am very interested in flexibility, because in Japan we don’t live in big spaces. So instead of just having the same space year round, I think it is more useful to make the space flexible by having movable elements. With the Nicolas G. Hayek Center in Tokyo’s Ginza district, I designed the building with movable boutiques. The original design brief called for two boutiques on each floor. I didn’t think that would work, because not all the boutiques would have exposure to the street, and Ginza is one of the most expensive real estate areas in the world. I thought of a way of giving each boutique street access by continuing the “street” inside the building. [Each shop has a showroom booth on the main level, or “street.” Customers step into the booth and are hydraulically lifted to the corresponding boutique above or below street level.]

Completed in 2010, the Centre Pompidou Metz is anchored by an undulating timber roof structure that hovers above the interior volumes. PHOTO: Getty Images

What would you say is the biggest challenge you face?

I like to be picky. I don’t want to make my office too big. Many international architects do too many projects, and the quality is getting worse and worse. Choosing the good projects is really the challenge.

Right now, you’re designing the new Pompidou Center in Metz, France. What was it about that project that sparked your interest?

It’s the reason I moved to Paris. In Japan, architects are spoiled. When they become famous, they win competitions and can do anything they want. Everywhere else, you meet different people who have different ideas, and you have to convince them of your ideas one by one. For that reason, it’s important for me to be close to my clients and to the project.

It’s important for me to be close to my clients and to the project.
Shigeru Ban
Ban’s most recent project, the headquarters for Swiss brand Swatch, launched in late 2019 with its serpentine footprint covered in a double-curve timber shell. PHOTO: Didier Boy de la Tour

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with the Metz project?

Recently, the mayor and the administration changed. We have to start from zero again, to develop a new relationship with the administration. That’s the most difficult thing about architecture – not the technical problems, but the challenge of working with new people all the time.

This article originally appeared as “Q&A: Shigeru Ban” in the July/August 2008 issue of Azure