Social-spirited by design

Honour

Social-spirited by design
Architecture generally involves creating monuments to permanence from substantial materials like steel and concrete. Yet this year, the discipline’s top award is going to a man who is best known for making temporary housing out of transient materials like paper tubes and plastic beer crates.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was named the winner of this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize, largely because of his work designing shelters after natural disasters in places like Rwanda, Turkey, India, China, Haiti and Japan. 

“His buildings provide shelter, community centres and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction,” the jury said in its citation. “When tragedy strikes, he is often there from the beginning.”

Ban, 56, said he was honoured to have won, not because the Pritzker would raise his profile but because it affirms the humanitarian emphasis of his work. “I’m trying to understand the meaning of this encouragement,” he said of the prize. “It’s not the award for achievement. I have not made a great achievement.” The prize, established in 1979 and viewed as the Nobel of architecture awards, suggests otherwise.

One for humanity
Ban is credited with challenging traditional notions of domestic space and what it means to have a roof over your head. He stepped in after the 19th-century Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand was ravaged by a 2011 earthquake, designing a transitional sanctuary fashioned mainly from cardboard tubes.

Asked to create something related to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct on the Gardon river in the south of France, he came up with a footbridge, using his signature cardboard tubes and recycled paper as a counterpoint to the ancient structure’s heavy stone. “His works are airy, curvaceous, balletic,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times in 2007. “An heir to Buckminster Fuller and Oscar Niemeyer, to Japanese traditional architecture and to Alvar Aalto, he is an old-school modernist with a poet’s touch and an engineer’s inventiveness.”

Yet, in a way, Ban also represents a kind of anti-architecture, a rejection of the aura of celebrity status pursued by many in the profession. In public remarks this month, for example, Ban took architects to task for not putting their expertise to work for a greater social good. “I’m not saying I’m against building monuments, but I’m thinking we can work more for the public,” he said in London at Ecobuild, an annual conference on sustainable design.

“Architects are not building temporary housing because we are too busy building for the privileged people.”
Each year the Pritzker goes to a living architect whose work has contributed to humanity and the built environment. Ban will receive a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion to be awarded on June 13 in a ceremony at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Drawn to disasters
Ban was originally drawn to disaster relief by the squalid condition of Rwanda’s refugee camps in 1994. “I thought we could improve them,” he said. He travelled to Geneva to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on designing prototype tents with paper poles.

He then turned his attention to the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, designing emergency housing with beer-crate foundations and paper-tube walls.

He has since become a familiar presence on the scene of major international disasters, arriving with architecture students to teach them about developing solutions at such sites. Many of Ban’s temporary structures have become semipermanent. In Kobe, for example, shelters meant to be used for three years were used for 10.

“Whether they keep it is up to them,” he said.
Born in Tokyo in 1957, Ban studied at the Southern California Institute of Architecture before transferring to the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1984. A year later, Ban established a private practice in Tokyo; he now also has offices in Paris and New York.

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