In 1994, 2 million Rwandan refugees streamed into neighboring countries as they fled the ethnic conflict in their homeland. They set up crude camps, living in a stew of mud and plastic tarps. Like much of the rest of the world, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, was watching. Unlike much of the rest of the world, he did something. Ban got on a plane to Geneva, where he talked his way into the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He could do better, he told them. A simple, paper-tube frame he had devised would allow the refugees to turn the plastic tarps into functioning, walk-in tents. The UN agreed. Since then, Ban has devoted himself to considering the ways architecture can function in crisis—even as he has maintained a bustling practice designing private homes, office buildings, and museums.
For applying design innovation to pressing need, and for using modest materials such as cardboard and paper in ground-breaking ways, Ban has been named the winner of the 2014 Pritzker Prize. In its citation, the jury stated that “his sense of responsibility and positive action to create architecture of quality to serve society’s needs, combined with his original approach to these humanitarian challenges, make this year’s winner an exemplary profession.”
In bestowing the award on the 56-year-old architect—the seventh Japanese designer to win the prize over its 35-year history—the jury has chosen to celebrate work that is often ephemeral in nature; built for the displaced rather than in the service of the wealthy; an architecture of need rather than an architecture of ego. The announcement comes as an affirmation of architecture’s role in what can be life-or-death circumstances. It’s almost as if the Pritzker Architecture Prize— which spent last year contending with allegations of sexism and good ol’ boy clubiness—is doing its best to be a bit more socially conscious.
But, ultimately, it was Ban’s “creative approach” to difficult problems that drew the jury’s attention, “not merely good intentions.” And in this regard, Ban has built an intriguing body of work. Devastating earthquakes in Japan, Turkey, and India inspired him to design paper-tube houses that could be easily manufactured on-site. These provided victims with a sturdier emergency housing option than the usual flimsy tents, eliminated the need to cut down trees to build shelters, and could be recycled the moment they were no longer needed—models of environmental prudence and design ingenuity. (Built without metals such as the aluminum often used for erecting tents, Ban’s paper houses included no materials that could be stripped and resold by victims—or by predators.) In 1995, after the earthquake in Kobe, he designed the Paper Church for a community that had lost its place of worship. The structure was built out of soaring 16-ft. paper tubes and sheathed in corrugated, polycarbonate sheeting. It was erected in five weeks by a crew of volunteers. And it didn’t sacrifice aesthetics for speed: the church’s elliptical form was inspired by Bernini.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Ban was educated in the United States. He studied at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles for three years, then transferred to Cooper Union in New York, where he went on to study under John Hejduk. It was in conceiving an exhibition about Finnish architect Alvar Aalto for a Tokyo gallery in 1986 that he came upon the idea of using cardboard tubing as a structural element. “I couldn’t afford to use wood like Aalto would,” he told TheGuardian in 2005. “So I looked for some alternative, and paper tubes were all over the studio…I went to the factory where they made them, and I saw they could make any length and diameter.” The material hasn’t just appeared in his relief work. Ban has used it in many of his designs—to particularly wondrous effect in his Japan Pavilion for the Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, an undulating caterpillar of a building produced in collaboration with engineer Frei Otto.
While his advances with materials have been significant, the Pritzker committee also lauded some of Ban’s conceptual accomplishments. Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, as he experimented with the idea of employing cardboard to build walls, he was also toying with the very notion of the wall itself—much of it reflected in a series of residential commissions he undertook in locations around Japan. There is the Wall-less House, from 1997, in which a concrete slab tips up to meet the roof, leaving three sides open to daylight; the Curtain Wall House from 1995, which took the Japanese notion of the partition screen and transformed it into a flamboyant two-story curtain; and the Naked House, from 2000, a translucent rectangular prism, in which the “rooms” consist of roaming wooden boxes set on castors. Of Naked House, the jury wrote: “He was able to question the traditional notion of rooms and consequently domestic life.”
It is worth noting that the Pritzker’s citation avoids mention of many of Ban’s large-scale works. The jury tips its hat to the Nicolas G. Hayek Center, a 14-story structure the architect designed for Swatch in Tokyo, and the Tamedia Office Building, in Switzerland, with its warm interiors of interlocking wood. But that’s about it. His much ballyhooed museum for the Pompidou Centre in Metz, France—which wasn’t well-received by the few critics who reviewed it—gets barely a sideways mention. (Though, admittedly, an experimental architect from the Hejduk School isn’t going to hit them all out of the park.)
Overall, the selection represents an intriguing move for the Pritzker and for architecture in general. In the past, the award has honored aesthetes (Wang Shu, Peter Zumthor), monuments men (Thom Mayne, Jean Nouvel), and the occasional architect’s architect (Glenn Murcutt). In choosing to honor Ban, it is pointing at a need that goes beyond glitzy museums, commercial towers, and private homes for the well-to-do. In fact, it takes us back to the very foundations of architecture: to provide shelter.