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.
On Monday, 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 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.”
In a telephone interview from Paris, Ban, 56, said he was honored 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.
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.
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. And his Curtain Wall House in Tokyo links interior and exterior with white curtains that can be opened and closed.
“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.”
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 Vinoly, Frederic Schwartz and Ken Smith. Ban’s Aspen Art Museum, a 33,000-square-foot structure in Colorado with a woven exterior wood screen, is to open in August.
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.”