With Paper Tubes, Building Social Change

Shigeru Ban

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was named the winner of this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize. Ban is best known for making temporary housing out of transient materials like paper tubes and plastic beer crates. Having focused on projects for those who haven’t had the voice to ask for them: Ban insisting that architecture reclaim its historic role as a purveyor of not just wonder and beauty but also social change.

“His buildings provide shelter, community centers 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.”

Mr. Ban is credited with challenging traditional notions of domestic space and what it means to have a roof over your head. His Naked House in Saitama, Japan, features four rooms on casters within a house clad in clear corrugated plastic and surrounded by rice fields. 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.

Mr. Ban is also known for somewhat more conventional projects, like the Pompidou Center’s satellite museum in Metz, France (with a roof inspired by a woven bamboo hat) and his entry for the competition to redesign the World Trade Center as part of a team that included Rafael Viñoly, Frederic Schwartz and Ken Smith.

Yet, in a way, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 traveled to Geneva to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on designing prototype tents with paper poles.

In 1995, Kobe, Japan was hit by an earthquake. Mr. Ban built a paper-tube house on his own dime, to show that it worked and could be constructed by anyone, then raised money with help from a local priest to construct dozens more for local Vietnamese refugees. And he built a temporary paper church, which became a symbol of resilience and pride. 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. Nearly twenty years later, having been used for a decade, then moved to Taiwan, it remains in operation, proving the point about longevity and love.

So much “object” architecture is about branding; buildings look parachuted in. Mr. Ban’s work points toward a timely and growing respect for what’s at hand. In Sri Lanka, he used local bricks instead of paper tubes for a fishing village swept away by a tsunami in 2004, dividing the interiors of houses for religious Muslims, so that women could retreat when their husbands had male visitors, and including front rooms that opened onto the street, where residents could continue to run their businesses, as they had always done.

Last week, he described some new materials he is developing for modular housing that factories in developing countries “could use to rebuild slums but that could also be used as temporary housing after disasters,” he said. He showed a photograph of a model house, about 350 square feet; cost, $30,000.

“I always feel sorry for doctors and lawyers who work only with people in distress, while architects get to work with people who are happy to be moving into new houses,” he told me. “We have a responsibility to work with people who have problems, too, because we have an opportunity to provide them with something beautiful and comfortable.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/arts/design/pritzker-architecture-prize-goes-to-shigeru-ban.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/arts/design/shigeru-ban-an-architect-of-social-change.html




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