The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, awarded today with the Princess of Asturias Award for Concord, has dedicated a large part of his career to design structures with materials such as cardboard to provide shelter for victims of disasters and conflicts.
A master of minimalism in form and in the use of materials, an advocate of recycling and a renegade of traditional Japanese architecture, Ban founded an NGO called VAN (Volunteer Architects Network) in 1995, with which he has built lodgings and other temporary facilities in various countries.
Solidarity and paper architecture
The first works with their characteristic “paper architecture” offered shelter for those displaced by the conflict in Rwanda that same year and for those affected by the devastating Kobe earthquake, also in 1995, which left more than 6,000 dead in that city of western Japan.
Other places in which Ban raised structures as solid as they are cheap and easy to install, in many cases also collaborating personally on the ground.
Its supportive architecture has used various discarded or disposable materials, from shipping containers to pieces of wall destroyed by earthquakes, passing through bamboo and wood, although the cardboard cylinders made from treated paper are perhaps the most recognizable of his designs.
With pipes of this type, he has created partition systems that accompanied by curtains, they allow the creation of separate rooms in large covered spaces such as gyms or train stations, offering privacy to those who take refuge in these overcrowded facilities during emergencies such as natural disasters or wars.
After being used in various parts of Japan hit by the usual earthquakes in this country, its most recent “Paper Partition Systems” (PPS) have been installed in Paris, Wroclaw (Poland) and several cities in Ukraine, to house the displaced because of the Russian invasion of that country.
Outsider inside and outside of Japan
“They always want to see my projects as Japanese, but I don’t have a Japanese style. In fact, I hate using traditional Japanese style consciously, and as you can see, I don’t have any Japanese influence.” assured Ban (Tokyo, 1957), during a press conference in 2014 after winning the Pritzker Prize.
The prestigious international award already recognized his “elegant and innovative projects for private clients” and also his use “of the same inventive and skillful design for his extensive humanitarian efforts.”
Although outside of Japan he is framed in the Japanese aesthetic for his use of wood and paper and the cleanliness of his forms, Ban does not identify with any architectural school of his native country, and unlike other award-winning contemporary Japanese architects, he studied and worked outside his land from the beginning.
Ban graduated in architecture in New York and has always tried to combine experimentation with reusable materials with commissions from private clients and institutions, with the aim of contributing to improving society instead of “show the power and money of privileged people through their constructions”as he said in an interview with Efe in 2010.
“That was not what I really wanted to do, so I had to find my own balance,” said Ban, whose career has been recognized with other awards such as the Grand Medal of the French Academy of Architecture.
Among his best-known commissioned works are the Pompidou Center in Metz (France), the “Curtain Wall House” or the Nicolas G. Hayek Center, both in Tokyo, the Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand or the Japanese pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hamburg (Germany); all of them sustainable and environmentally friendly constructions.
In another interview with Efe granted in 2019, Ban stated that current regulations prevent more social housing from being built with cheap materials and new techniques, and without neglecting safety.
Ban, who does not care that he is defined as “the architect of the poor”, stressed that materials such as cardboard allow the creation of “beautiful and cheap” architecture, as well as being useful for society.
“The elegance of architecture is independent of the materials, such as when recycled elements are used”said Ban, who added that “when you design with your heart, that’s when you get the most beautiful.” (YO)