Shigeru Ban’s Furniture House, completed in 1996, is composed of thirty-three prefabricated pieces of furniture, thus earning the name “Furniture House”. The 116 square meter house stands due to the multi-use of wardrobes and bookshelves, as these objects have been given a structural role on top of their original storage role. The house is situated near Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi, Japan. Space has now become a key issue in architecture, and this house confronts the issue of organising space in a thoughtful manner. Such a design was also adopted as a consequences of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe: Ban had witnessed the destruction caused by falling furniture. It would be fair to presume that he decided to alter and enhance the role of furniture for this reason; the wardrobes and bookshelves act as walls in the house. Therefore, he sought to secure the walls to prevent them from falling in the event of an earthquake. Not only do they succeed in creating spaces and defining rooms but they also hold up the roof and ensure that the house stays upright. After having explored the architects that influenced Ban and the structures that influenced his Furniture House, it will be possible to study the different aspects of the Furniture House referring to materials, light, space in comparison to both general modern houses and Japanese architecture. Finally, it will be interesting to compare this first furniture house to Ban’s later furniture houses and other structures.
Shigeru Ban was highly influenced by his mentor John Hejduk and his focus on basic geometric forms and basic material. If we were to take Hejduk’s Gate House into consideration, we would have to take into account the simple nature of the house. The Gate House was a refurbishment project, and it was finished in 1991; it is situated in Berlin. From the exterior, it appears like a large, grey block with windows: a simple geometric shape. If we were to describe it simply and briefly, it would be characterised as a seven story block whose central section is set back to reveal a gate-like shape. This central tower structure rests on eight columns arranged on a rectangular plane. Ideally, it is a huge block with a part cut out of the front facade. This is the type of simple geometric form that Hejduk uses and this same way of using simple forms is seen in Ban’s architecture, in the Furniture House for example.
The Furniture House possesses a rather square foundation, the north/south and east/west facades differ in length only by a matter of twenty centimetres; the north and south facades spanning 11.4 meters whereas the east and west span 11.6 meters. The 116 squared meter house is also roughly 4 meters in height including both the roof and floor. The furniture itself, that acts as the wall, is 2.4 meters high. Whilst observing the house from the outside, the viewer may take notice of the simple use of material, as only glass and wood are visible to the eye. Otherwise its design includes a flat roof, a common characteristic for modern architecture, and long spanning windows uninterrupted by vertical supports.
The furniture itself has been made to an extent in which it becomes earthquake resistant; the wardrobes include 12 mm thick plywood. When included in a row of wardrobes, the plywood is rigid and forms a single structure through a combination of furniture. By remembering that twelve interlocked wardrobes are attached to both the floor and ceiling, it is possible to understand the strength of such a structure, and imagine why it is resistant to earthquakes. Nevertheless, one must refer back to the main topic of discussion of the house: the furniture. It is especially intriguing as the furniture itself keeps its initial form and utility purposes, but it also acquires a new role: the furniture is the structure. Moreover, the fact that the furniture acts as the house’s walls allows a greater amount of space than in a normal house where the furniture is stacked next to the walls. In a way, the furniture’s new role helps develop and empower its old role. This core aspect of the house can be seen as modernist for not only is Ban exploiting furniture in a revolutionary way, he is adjusting the purpose of his architecture towards the problems posed by the local environment and towards the subsequent needs of society.
It is possible to consider the simplicity of the material in a different angle. It may not relate to one of Ban’s paper structures such as the Paper Dome in the sense that the Paper Dome is made solely of paper tubes and plywood panels. But the Furniture House is mostly made of only glass and wood. What is therefore important is not the simplicity of the actual material that is used, but the simplicity to which extent the materials are used. We have already addressed the topic of wood and furniture within the house, but another material remains: the glass. Within this house, the glass is not negligible as it is present on at least a section of each outer wall. From within, it allows the occupant of the house to be in relation with the space outside. However, the glass combined with the open plan allows a great amount of light to all parts of the house: even the outer walls of the bathroom are made of glass. Light is therefore encouraged inside the house: the open plan and the almost exaggerated use of glass is proof of this. What is more is that Ban reinforces the presence and utility of light with the omnipresence of the colour white. The wardrobes, and therefore the walls, are white much like the cooking unit in the middle of the kitchen, the floor and even the roof. White dominates the house, and reflects light in opposition to darker colours which absorb light. Finally, this intensified play of light is a modernist aspect: the presence of white materials and use of glass is visible in many pieces of modern architecture, such as the Villa Savoie by Le Corbusier, or Muller House by Adolf Loos.
On a further note, the Furniture House itself is quoted to have been inspired by the Farnsworth House, so Mies van der Rohe serves as another inspiration to Shigeru Ban, especially in the case of this house. Many similarities are visible between the Furniture House and the Farnsworth House, particularly the use colour, glass and ways of defining space. These houses are not identical: the Farnsworth House relies upon a steel frame to stay upright but they are certainly comparable, with their uninterrupted floors and roofs for instance. The Farnsworth House was designed in a way where the space was optimised in the best way; everything is placed where it is for a good reason. For instance, the drain and sewage pipes, as well as the vent shafts, are placed within the central slabs that constitute the house, in order to render them invisible to the inhabitant of the house. In the Furniture House, the same ultimate planning can be seen with the left-hand wardrobe wall of the tea room, for instance. It is strategically placed as it does not only act as a limit to the tea room but it also shows where the entrance to the house is. In this sense, every piece of furniture is placed to perfection in order to arrange the spaces efficiently. Also we can relate to Ban’s philosophy, which is explained later on, when he states that he doesn’t appreciate the use of waste in modern architecture in order to make a funny shape. Mies Van der Rohe, and subsequently Shigeru Ban, can be seen as architects who do not design buildings belonging to a certain style or period like Baroque or Renaissance architecture, but as architects who define space.
Having stated that the Farnsworth House possesses an interior that is planned to near perfection, it is necessary to study the Furniture House’s interior. Ban has organised the house into five supposed rooms: an entrance, a guest room, a bedroom, a kitchen/living room and a bathroom. What is interesting is that all of these rooms are defined by the furniture which act as boundaries between different spaces. The living room/kitchen is linked to the outdoors as a result of the modernly furnished interior space: the sliding doors allow access to an interior courtyard. This succeeds in creating a feeling of natural space as Ban has combined the house with the outdoors. Also, the use of an open plan within the house connects the areas of the interior of the house: there is no separation between the living area and kitchen for instance.
Furthermore, another notable lasting influence on Shigeru Ban was Scandinavian architect Alvar Aalto. It is interesting to refer to Aalto and compare his works to Ban’s, and to therefore further understand the Furniture House by taking a look at Aalto’s work with vernacular architecture. Ban has designed and constructed the Furniture House according to the domestic problems facing Japanese society: the threats of impending earthquakes, falling furniture and fragility of the structures. Ban confirmed that Aalto was “one of the most innovative architects” he knew and that without him, he would not have been able to “discover his own style”. Furthermore, it is well known that Ban is one of the post-war generation architects who has strived to carry on Aalto’s legacy by taking a unique approach to design and to use materials. Aalto’s work with natural materials has had a great impact on Ban, noticeable from his paper and bamboo structures for example.
Otherwise, a peculiar element to the house is the presence of the washitsu: it constitutes an important part in the house as it is an element of tradition, in comparison to the otherwise modern appearance of the house. The washitsu is in fact the guest tea room, and we may infer that Japanese culture had an impact on the design of the house due to the presence of this room. It is distinguishable by its tatami floor and sliding doors, which not only help daylight to spread throughout the house but also allocate the space used to receive guests. In this sense, the washitsu within the Furniture House is an important part of the building as it presents a mix of cultures: Ban has used his life experiences acquired from his education in America, under John Hejduk and the New York Five, but decided to keep intact a part of his heritage and culture in his Furniture House. If we return to the fact that the house was indeed inspired by natural disasters in Japan, we witness a real opposition in a rather complete, inseparable house. One does not distinguish the washitsu as a room that is alien to the rest of the house; it may slightly differ in style but it still feels as a part of the house. The walls that separate this room from the others are wardrobes, just like in any other part of the house. When considering Japanese architecture generally, it is not uncommon to find this juxtaposition of modernity and tradition: Hiroshi Hara succeeded in giving his Orimoto House both modern and traditional characteristics.
As William J.R. Curtis puts it, the “modern movement, in its formative years, was scarcely a worldwide phenomenon.” Modernism was mainly reserved towards Western Europe and the United States but Ban, amongst other Japanese architects such as Tadao Ando, succeeded in implementing modernism within Japan. Furthermore, Curtis adds that towards the end of the twentieth century, “transformations, deviations and devaluations of modern architecture had found their way to many other areas of the world.” In Japan however, modernisation was not as easy a process as in other countries such as Mexico or Australia. It was a complicated matter since it implicated the deep, well-kept oriental traditions and the new modern world may have seemed somewhat unnatural. It is worth noting that within the Furniture House, we still see traces of oriental tradition with the use of the washitsu.
Whilst even Ban considers that he only discovered his architectural style after truly understanding Alvar Aalto’s architecture, his own style remains comparable yet different to his Scandinavian mentor’s way of designing. In fact, their ideologies even conflict in some ways, for instance on form. We may to refer to Ban’s philosophy on architecture, which can be summarised by him saying that he doesn't “like the building that uses so much waste just to make a funny shape.”
This house helps to represent such a value as it is fully prefabricated, and Ban therefore limits the amount of waste produced on the construction site during the creation of the house. Ban was able to greatly reduce the quantity of leftover material on site, as well as the overall construction duration. To be concise, he significantly lowered the construction costs and shortened the construction process through such a design. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that Ban’s work is classified into separate categories: there are his paper structures, his bamboo structures, and his work with wood. The Furniture House, however, is included in the prefabrication category.
The Furniture House 1 is the first of a series of five furniture houses. It lays the principles and develops the main idea of what is going to become the furniture house: a house where the furniture occupies a double role, and plays a key part in the structural upholding of the building. However, many changes are visible: the houses progressively increase in size and appear to accumulate additional features. For instance, Furniture House 2 only slightly differs in terms of design and placement of the furniture, although it does include a second floor. Furniture House 3 keeps the idea of a second floor, and involves the use of a new material: foam urethane. When Furniture House 5 is taken into account however, it is clear that the initial design is there but there has been a great deal of change. 144 pieces of furniture are now in use, compared to the initial 33, and the house even “uses” the garden in the design. Whereas in Furniture House 1 the living room was interacting with the outdoor space, in Furniture House 5 the outdoor space that is the garden is almost a part of the living room. The contrast is therefore intriguing as the Furniture House 1 can be seen as the beginning of an important evolution.
Furthermore, Shigeru Ban is known for his work on preserving the environment: one of his early works included the Paper Arbor, built in 1989 in Japan. It was his first structure made from paper tubes: a strong yet recycled material. The use of this material developed into a type of legacy as Shigeru Ban has made a number of emergency shelters, churches and cathedrals in response to natural disasters in Haiti, Japan, Africa and New Zealand. All these shelters are made of the same paper tubes, and Ban has succeeded in making rapid, efficient structures that are also environmentally friendly. The Furniture House was made in 1995, and Ban’s paper structures projects started in the late 1980s, long before ecology became a well known political issue. This helps in developing the argument that the Furniture House may be an example of Ban’s legacy: he has saved a great deal of material by replacing the walls with furniture.
In conclusion, Shigeru Ban’s Furniture House is the juxtaposition of the simple form of Heyduk, the thoughtful organisation and definition of space of Van der Rohe, and the innovative use of material of Aalto in order to confront the problems that modern society faces today. Ban combines the influences of these architects and their styles whilst implementing his own philosophy to create a structure showing an advanced form of modernism, different yet similar to the modernism seen at the beginning of the twentieth century.