Humanitarian-Minded Cardboard Tube Guru Shigeru Ban Wins 2014 Pritzker Prize

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Photo: Shigeru Ban.

Shigeru Ban, the Tokyo-based sustainable architect who would rather not be called a sustainable architect — he just really doesn’t like waste — has been named the 2014 recipient of architecture's most prestigious award, the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Pritzker, which has been awarded annually since 1979, honors “a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”

As a humanitarian and the world’s preeminent “emergency architect,” Ban fits the bill and then some. And like with many big-deal awards, the Prizker has long been subject to plenty of grumbling whenever the recipient is announced each year. It comes with the territory. But with Ban, it would seem that usual noise is unanimously positive. However, the Wizard of New Zealand, a vocal critic of one of Ban’s more recent works, the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, is sure to be none-too-pleased with this news.

Says Tom Pritzker, philanthropist and chairman of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, in the official announcement:

Shigeru Ban’s commitment to humanitarian causes through his disaster relief work is an example for all. Innovation is not limited by building type and compassion is not limited by budget. Shigeru has made our world a better place.

The aforementioned Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch can be viewed as a typical — if a bit grandiose and non-urgent — example of Ban’s work. For the past 20 years, starting with the 1994 conflict in Rwanda, Ban has swooped into areas across the globe impacted by natural and manmade disasters (in the case of Christchurch, that devastating earthquake 2011 earthquake that damaged the city’s iconic Anglican cathedral) to provide inexpensive but resilient housing along with community centers, group shelters, churches, and other transitional structures that provide a place of safe haven during the aftermath of catastrophic events.

In 1995, the same year he designed low-cost disaster housing for Vietnamese refugees living in earthquake-rattled Japenese city of Kobe, Ban founded the Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN), a non-governmental organization that has descended on disaster- and war-impacted areas across the globe including Italy, India, China, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and, most recently, the Philippines. Ban was also one of the 21 architects involved with the Make It Right Foundation's green rebuilding efforts in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.

Although he’s worked with a variety of conventional and nonconventional (shipping containers, beer crates, and bamboo just to name a few) building materials over his career, Ban’s preferred medium with his disaster relief work are cardboard tubes — used as columns, walls, beams, etc. — that can be locally sourced, easily transported and dismantled, and recycled once they are no longer of use.

A big-hearted minimalist with an eye toward innovation, Ban has long viewed waste as his worst enemy — an attitude that he credits to his Japanese upbringing — although, as mentioned, he actively eschews being dubbed as a practitioner of “eco-friendly” architecture. He explains: “When I started working this way, almost thirty years ago, nobody was talking about the environment. But this way of working came naturally to me. I was always interested in low cost, local, reusable materials.”

In addition to his various disaster relief projects, the Southern California Institute of Architecture- and Cooper Union-educated Ban has executed the designs for numerous stunning — and non-paper — homes for private clients along with museums, retail stores, luxury condos, office buildings, bridges, and much more.

Says Lord Palumbo, chairman of the 2014 Pritzker Prize jury (Ban himself served on the jury in both 2006 and 2009):

Shigeru Ban is a force of nature, which is entirely appropriate in the light of his voluntary work for the homeless and dispossessed in areas that have been devastated by natural disasters. But he also ticks the several boxes for qualification to the Architectural Pantheon — a profound knowledge of his subject with a particular emphasis on cutting-edge materials and technology; total curiosity and commitment; endless innovation; an infallible eye; an acute sensibility — to name but a few.

As this year’s Pritzker Laureate, Ban will receive a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion to be awarded at a ceremony held this June at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Ban, 57, is amongst one of the younger architects to receive the prize and is the seventh Japanese architect to do so. The 2013 Pritzker Laureate, Toyo Ito, also hails from Japan.

Ban's next big North American commission, the Aspen Art Museum, is due to open this summer.

All photos courtesy Shigeru Ban Architects. Paper Concert Hall, L’Aquila, Italy :Didier Boy de la Tour; Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch, New Zealand: Stephen Goodenough; Paper Log House, Kobe, Japan: Takanobu Sakuma; Paper Partition System 4, Japan: Voluntary Architects' Network