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Interview with Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban

This year’s Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban is renowned both for his innovative work with paper and deep humanitarian concerns. He discusses moving beyond Japanese architecture and why he thinks it is ‘too early to win the Pritzker’

‘I thought it was too early to win the Pritzker’, Shigeru Ban, this year’s laureate says with disarming modesty. He had been on the jury in the past, but that didn’t stop him thinking ‘someone was kidding’ when he received a telephone call with the news.

Born in 1957, he feels he has much more to come, and his very particular model for practice seems set to ensure that he has several decades left to push the boundaries of architecture across the spectrum from disaster relief to sophisticated urban designs like the Metal Shutter House in Manhattan where we meet. Indeed, his conception of architectural practice and the range of issues it enables him to address may have contributed to his award – even at this stage in his career.

He explains how he structures his work. The large projects, with more conventional programmes, clients and budgets like the Pompidou Centre in Metz or the Metal Shutter House are run through his practice, Shigeru Ban Architects, but the disaster relief projects such as the paper cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand and a temporary, post-typhoon school in the Philippines, he does pro bono.

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Metal Shutter House in New York. Photo: Michael Moran

To avoid tensions with his partners he has an NGO with one assistant, interns from his studio teaching at Kyoto University with extra students drafted in from an architecture school local to the project who are invaluable for local knowledge and no doubt get invaluable experience in their careers, however tragic the circumstances which bring them into contact with Ban.

‘Students and young architects’, he says, ‘are very interested in social work’, in contrast to his contemporaries in Japan who, graduating towards the end of the long post-Second World War boom, went headlong into the commercial world.

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Conventional projects such as the Pompidou Centre in Metz are handled by Ban’s architectural practice…

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…whereas disater relief projects such as the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch are managed by a separate NGO

But, points out Ban, he has never been a conventional Japanese architect: he gained a reputation abroad before he became known in Japan, and ‘apart from an internship with Isozaki’ he has never worked for a Japanese architect and has no obvious followers there. As a teenager he came across an issue of A+U on John Hejduk, and knew that he wanted to study with him. So ‘not speaking English’ and against the advice of his businessman father who was concerned about him going to an institution called ‘Cooper Union’ rather than a university, in 1975 he headed for New York, only to be told he was not eligible.

Fortunately the then three-year-old SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) did accept him. He enjoyed being taught by Ray Kappe there but as soon as he had learnt enough he went back to Cooper Union where alongside Hejduk his teachers included Ricardo Scofidio, Todd Williams and Diana Agrest, who helped to structure his passion for inventiveness.

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Ban has pioneered the structural use of paper in architecture which is strong and lightweight while being of little value to thieves and environmentally friendly

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Ban on site in Port-au-Prince helping to construct disaster relief shelters after the 2010 Haiti earthquakes

In 1986, a few years after graduating, he started thinking about paper as a building material, and his use of it helps to place his own practice against Japanese tradition. In Japan, he explains, ‘paper is used only as a screen … to use a material the way it is, is very Japanese.

I wanted to use it differently’, to explore how a material might be cajoled into a different character without going against its inherent nature. For him paper can become solid, form, void and structure, the repertoire of classical architecture, but with a very different form of expression. Its cheapness, universality and ease of transport and working make it very appropriate to the disaster relief, but for Ban there is something about the material which transcends the contingencies of context and programme and touches on a theme that ranges across his practice, the relationship between temporary and permanent.

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995 the authorities wanted to provide temporary housing outside the dense urban core. But workers from one factory couldn’t commute from the designated sites so they were living rough in a park. Ban worked out how to house them there and they stayed for 10 years rather than the original plan for three, and those structures have been reused in Taiwan.

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After a Kiwi priest saw Ban’s paper church in Kobe Japan he approached the architect by email. The exchange led to the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand. Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai

What makes a building permanent or at least long lived, is not its solidity or cost, but whether ‘people love it … it is for users to decide whether it is temporary or permanent’. By contrast, ‘developers destroy buildings’, even perfectly usable ones, in the quest for profit above social usefulness.

Ban’s ideas and working practices proliferate buildings. The paper cathedral in Christchurch started when he received ‘an email from a priest who had seen the paper church in Kobe’. He accepted for several reasons: the new building could serve secular as well as religious functions and people from Japan were among the victims. The interactions between place and purpose that he outlines in several projects give a general insight into his architecture.

When working on temporary housing in Turkey in 1999, the most readily available materials were beer crates and paper tubes, but ‘people in Turkey are used to concrete and brick’, causing a ‘surprising reaction’ from local people. ‘This can still be appropriate in a different culture’, though it is the approach, rather than the literal method, that is transferable, he explains, citing a project in India which ‘used mud brick, taking advantage of a local material … the solutions are always different’.

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Ban uses local materials where possible such as in these paper log houses in Bhuj, India. Photo: Kartikeya Shodhan

By ‘always looking for small communities with particular problems’ in his disaster relief projects, such as ‘a small minority community of Islamic fisherman in Sri Lanka’, he consciously seeks opportunities for invention and innovation. He avoids governments, and their ‘blanket solutions’. These sensibilities filter into his more conventional commissions too. While conceiving the Metal Shutter House he walked around the site in Manhattan’s Chelsea district and saw ‘metal shutters’ and realised they were as much ‘a contextual material’ there as mud bricks in India.

Even if, in his words, it is ‘too early to win the Pritzker’, he sees it as an endorsement of his approach, ‘it’s an opportunity to engage’ and to continue to develop the pattern he has established, of practice, ‘disaster relief and education’. Buildings, he says, whatever their brief and whether temporary or permanent should be ‘comfortable and beautiful’. This prize is a tribute to a broad and mature architectural intellect – but one which will continue to comfort and delight.

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Japan Pavilion, Hannover Expo, 2000. Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai

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