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Architect with humanitarian focus wins top architecture prize

March 27, 2014 at 6:48 PM EST
This year’s recipient of architecture’s top award — the Pritzker Prize — has designed innovative structures for people suffering from hardship and disaster for more than 20 years. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban helps his profession focus more on serving those in need. Jeffrey Brown offers a closer look at Ban’s work.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This year’s recipient of architecture’s top award, the Pritzker Prize, has made his name not with monumental buildings, but with a humanitarian focus.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Modest shelters for Rwandan refugees supported by paper tubes, an elementary school, its columns and beams also made of paper, built to replace one of the many lost to the massive earthquake in Southwest China in 2008, a cardboard cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, constructed after the congregation’s own 19th century home was devastated by a 2011 earthquake.

For 20 years, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has designed innovative structures for people suffering from hardship and disaster. And for that, he’s earned architecture’s top honor, this year’s Pritzker Prize.

From Paris, where he keeps an office, Ban told us today of why he began working on buildings in disaster areas.

SHIGERU BAN, Architect, Pritzker Prize Winner: After I became an architect, I was very disappointed about my profession as architect, because we are mostly working for privileged people.

But I can use my experience and knowledge more for general public or even for somebody who lost their houses by natural disasters.

JEFFREY BROWN: In selecting the 56-year-old Ban, the Pritzker jury wrote: “He has expanded the architectural field regarding not only the problems and challenges he tackles, but also regarding the tools and techniques to deal with them.”

Indeed, Ban has focused on structures that are easy to assemble, made from cheap, lightweight materials like paper tubes and plastic beer crates that don’t require heavy machinery. He says, when he began as an architect, he couldn’t afford to purchase wood for his designs, so he began experimenting with paper tubes.

SHIGERU BAN: I knew that the paper tube was very strong, so I started testing it. Actually, that — when I started experimenting, developing with this structure, that is way before people start talking about environment and ecological problems. So, I just have an interest in using the humble material around us as a structure of the building.

JEFFREY BROWN: And over the years, he’s shown that these humble materials, originally conceived as temporary, can sometimes become something more, as with a paper church in Kobe, Japan, and these shelters he built following the 2011 tsunami that have proven so popular that their inhabitants didn’t want to leave.

You have talked about the idea of the temporary vs. the permanent. How do you define those in your work?

SHIGERU BAN: Whether the building is permanent or temporary is not depending on what kind of material it’s made of. It’s depending on whether people can love the building or not. That’s my definition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ban has also undertaken traditional commissions for private clients, often continuing his experimental approach. The undulating roof of his Pompidou Center satellite museum in Metz, France, was inspired by a woven bamboo hat.

Elsewhere, in works like the Curtain Wall House in Tokyo, he links the interior and exterior worlds. And even in this work, he at times incorporates recyclable materials, such as with this pavilion in Hanover, Germany, made with a cardboard latticework and a paper membrane, and the so-called Nomadic Museum in New York made of shipping containers.

Shigeru stresses that his profession needs to find a better balance between what he sees as a focus on serving privileged society and ones serving those in need.

SHIGERU BAN: I’m not criticizing, but I would just like to make the role of an architect just a little bit wider socially, not only working for rich, but also working for general public or even the people who lost their houses by natural disaster.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, do you see the field changing? And do you feel that your prize is perhaps signaling such a change?

SHIGERU BAN: Yes. Yes, I feel that way.

When I give the lecture all over the world, now I have a strong reaction from young architects or young students. They are very interested in what I’m doing. Also, many of the young students always ask me to join my team working disaster area.

It’s never happened, maybe 20 years ago, but now more and more, I always feel that the younger generations, they are also more social conscious than before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ban will accept his award with a $100,000 grant in June. His next major building, the Aspen Art Museum, is set to open in August.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can see photos of Shigeru Ban’s work on our Art Beat page.