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Inner calm

review Shigeru Ban By Matilda McQuaid. Phaidon, 2003. 240pp. £45

At a time when architecture as spaceplanning and form-making is increasingly detached from construction - by a variety of procurement routes and component-based building - the architect-engineer has become a rare breed. Returning to the era of the master builder is seductive for architectural control-freaks everywhere. Not surprisingly, to achieve such control as Shigeru Ban often does, and allow experimentation, his projects are domestic, or at least domestic-scale. There isn't the bureaucracy of the larger job. Even Ban's more major projects read like scaled-up domestic pavilions - as does, say, the Neue Staatsgalerie in Berlin by Mies, who is one of Ban's main acknowledged influences.

Where Ban collaborates with others, they are typically either engineering-minded architects, such as Frei Otto and Renzo Piano, or architecture-minded engineers, such as Buro Happold and Cecil Balmond.

Covering Ban's work since 1991, this monograph is a mix of serene buildings looking out into the landscape and ones in busy urban settings - buildings of inner calm, all of them displaying a theatrical Minimalism that few of us could live in day to day (or afford). The simplicity of plans, though, does not prohibit a wealth of architectural invention. Ban is an architect to watch, one who has moved on from his reputation as the cardboard-tube architect.

Even when the initial surprise may be an unexpected use of cardboard or woven timber, the buildings are composite structures underneath, with a complex brief shaped by the realities of client programmes and building codes. As Frei Otto says in a foreword, they are not to be understood as scaled-up student models.

Unfortunately, this message did not reach the author. There is reportage here of more than 30 projects but no architectural or engineering insight (except in sections on testing, prepared by others). The author's proposed structure for the book focused on single materials - paper, wood and bamboo - as if that explains something. Ban extended this structure to include prefabrication and skin, to incorporate projects that wouldn't fit this pointless straitjacket.

Material textures are very important in Ban's work, but not just of paper, wood and bamboo; for example, he has used steel and polycarbonate inventively for some time. The author's structure, based on the headlinegrabbing materials of Ban's past, confirms the 'ideas-free' problem with this book. Thus the GC Osaka Building is in the 'wood' section because its steel frame is fire-protected by 50mm of particle board. But what is evident from the photos, though not from the text, are the spatial possibilities that come from Ban making the envelope of the building a steel vierendeel frame, providing 22m-deep column-free space.

Such shortcomings are a surprise in a Phaidon book. One guesses too that the photographs might have been better selected if the author had something particular to say about Ban. Even so, photographer Hiroyuki Hirai does Ban proud. He should have been credited as an author for his images are the main strength of the book and make it worth our time. There is an interesting combination of the abstract and the sensual in Ban's work - harder-edged than Scandinavian Modernism or traditional Japanese building, more tactile than Mies, and recognisably Ban's own.

Treat this monograph as an interactive, Post-Modern document - take Hirai's images and create your own text.

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