Paper Hero

For Pritzker prize winner Shigeru Ban, good architecture is not about beautiful houses, money
and privilege, but about designing solutions to real life problems

by Tay Suan Chiang

To be remembered for what you do, or who you do it for? That is the question for Shigeru Ban, the Pritzker Prize winner who is celebrated for his humanitarian efforts as much as for his way with paper tubes. But he isn't even interested in the answer. "People remember me as the one who designs buildings out of paper - I have no objection to that," says the mild-mannered Japanese architect, speaking to BTLuxe in his minimalist office just outside Tokyo's city centre.

What is important is that wherever in the world catastrophe strikes, disaster relief organisers know who to call: the man who can build sturdy, long lasting - and stylish - relief shelters out of a material most would associate with flimsy A4 sheets prone to flying away or getting soaked in the rain.

The thick cardboard tubes Ban uses for his structures prove that the strength and durability of a building has nothing to do with the strength of its material. "Cardboard tubes are cheap and easily available," he explains. "The cost of building materials usually goes up after a natural disaster. But not cardboard because it's not considered a building material."

In the past two decades, Ban has built refugee shelters in Rwanda and Vietnam, temporary housing for earthquake victims in Kobe, Sichuan and Haiti, and also a cathedral for Christchurch following an earthquake in 2011. They were built under the auspices of VAN: Voluntary Architects' Network - a non-governmental organisation he founded in 1995.

For each project, he travels to the disaster sites, working with local volunteers and students to design and build the shelters.

Most governments, Ban points out, just want temporary housing built fast. "They don't bother with aesthetics, but the victims are emotionally affected especially when they are put up in uncomfortable housing," he says. "As an architect, I can make it better, so that's why I try to build aesthetically pleasing and comfortable homes for the victims."

His work in disaster relief began when he found himself at odds with the premise of architecture. "Architects are mostly working for privileged people, because these clients want to show off their money and power. Historically, that is the law of architecture, but I was disappointed about not working for society, which is what made me go to Rwanda 20 years ago."

In between, he also took on private commissions. "There is no difference between designing a temporary structure or an expensive house. My construction is still the same. The only difference is I'm not paid for one. Both projects are just as difficult, and I get the same satisfaction for both."

It was partly for his humanitarian work that Ban was named the Pritzker Prize winner this year, but he has no plans to give up commercial work. "It's important to have a balance of both."

In fact, nothing has changed for him since his win, with the only excitement coming from the endless bouquets of congratulatory flowers that flooded his office. "It looked like a flower shop - we had to give some away to our neighbours."

While most architects might jump at the chance to take on more and bigger jobs after a win like his, Ban insists that "I don't want the office to grow bigger, as the quality of each project will get lost. I will have less time on each one, and that is not what I want."

The 57-year-old has barely enough time now, at the rate he commutes between his offices in Tokyo, Paris and New York - which also happen to be his favourite cities. Pinning him down for an interview requires extensive planning and right down to the minute you meet him, there's no guarantee that he will show up.

But when he does, he's friendly and obliging, happy to share that he loves food and travel, but never takes a proper holiday because "I'm always travelling for my projects or for lectures." He loves French food but "you have to pay a lot for it", and he won't tell you the name of his favourite restaurant "because it's a secret".

He hates going into downtown Tokyo, particularly Shibuya and Roppongi because "it's a waste of time and too fancy". Which explains why his office is located in a non-descript concrete building in Setagaya, about 20 minutes by train from Shinjuku.

He shares the same building space as his mother, a fashion designer who has her own atelier just below his office. "She designs my clothes." His father is a retired businessman. Ban is married to an accessory designer and they have no children.

Even today, Ban personally conceptualises all his projects, down to the sketches. His tool of choice is a pencil, which he says is the best for sketching. "The advancement of technology does not make architecture better. To do that, you need to spend more time designing and constructing."

The US-trained architect - as a child he wanted to be a carpenter because he enjoyed working with wood - has a solutions-oriented approach to his work. "I take into context the project site conditions. I try to look for some problem which I can solve by design."

He says he's "lucky" to have started his practice in Japan. "In developed countries, only the rich hire architects to build their homes. But in Japan, even the middle class hire architects to design small houses." It provided good training for him, and all that practice bore fruit when his Naked House (2000) in Saitama first caught the eye of the Pritzker Prize jury. Ban clad the external walls in clear corrugated plastic and sections of white acrylic stretched internally across a timber frame, and it must have kept Ban on the jury's radar.

Now that he's won architecture's ultimate prize, Ban feels a need to be more picky. "There will be many opportunities but I must make sure I don't change. I shouldn't take on too many projects so I can maintain the same quality."

It's an easy trap to fall into as he cites the example of other award-winning architects who "change, and the quality of their work gets worse" - "I don't want that."

If nothing else, he wants to stay true to himself. As a man concerned about the world, who can do something about it.

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