Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Good on paper?

I note that Japanese architect Shigeru Ban is this year's Pritzker winner.  In a blog post in June last year, I reflected at length on Ban's energetic promotion of his signature paper prototypes in the inexhaustible 'emergency shelter' domain.  It wasn't a kind reflection, asking whether the work had true value, or whether it was a notably focused polemic of self-promotion.

I am curious what will be said of his work in the flurry of commentary now he has Architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.  I think it is safe to say that Ban has succeeded in maintaining a rhetorical focus, until he stood out from his peers, and has now been duly rewarded.

However, one has to admit, that especially lately, Ban's buildings have taken on transcendental qualities that may have derived from a mastery of an unusual material, but also appeal more broadly to refined aesthetic sensibilities.

See a slide show of his work at Dezeen at


Dominic Tanaka Van de Ven said...

My congratulations go to Shigeru Ban.

Prompted by this post to look back at your previous post on emergency shelter competitions, and Neustein's article [], I hope to take the opportunity to respond here in some defence of Ban and the competitions.

The concerns for purely pragmatic design in the increasingly present disaster relief efforts are well deserved. Paraphrasing your earlier post, "50 [houses] for Haiti's 1,200,000 homeless" may be entirely fruitless in itself.

With that said, although his approach may lack the modesty, rigor and downplayed nature of other architects such as Pholeros of Healthabitat, Ban has shown in almost 20 years of practice that he has real concerns for these emergency disaster responses ( It would be remiss to argue that he spent that much of his life as a shamefully disguised act of self promotion. Furthermore, one could consider the span of his influence to be greater still, having operated on responses to disasters and in sustainable /renewable materials for longer than any of the NGO's listed have existed (Architects sans Frontières, Architecture for Humanity, Elemental, Emergency Architects and Healthabitat).

Just as Al Gore earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his efforts to "build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-mage climate change" (, Ban's work will undoubtedly continue to influence aspiring architects to recognise the significance of architecture in disaster response efforts. The Pritzker prize may provide him a wider platform to express these modes of thinking.

Ultimately it is not in comparing the efforts of Ban and Pholeros that disaster relief architecture may progress. Rather, it is in the broadened recognition of the significance of architecture as a platform for aid in which we should commend both as well as appreciate the competition projects that universities across the world have pursued.

Claire Boland said...

¬ The project in the image above feels very close to home as I grew up in Christchurch and experienced the earthquakes first hand. This project is Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand. I have personally visited Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral and I have mixed opinions about it. The new cathedral is symbolic towards Christchurch’s rebuild in the years to precede the earthquake and a place for reflection on the events of February 22nd 2011. It has given hope to many people for the future. On the other hand I am not truly convinced a new cathedral is what was really needed in Christchurch with 10,000+ homes being demolished and thousands of people either left homeless or living in unstable structures.

During my visit to this building I learned that this building costs over $1000 a day to run. It is surprising that this money is being spent on a tourist attraction while so many people are still left without a stable home following the 3-year anniversary of the earthquake.

The argument here is whether this building provides enough value for the cost, the cost of the building being $5.3 million ( This goes back to Steve King’s thoughts above and in ‘Emergency shelter: a higher purpose?’ (, as to whether these architectural innovations are merely for Ban’s self-promotion. I believe Ban was trying to help this situation as he designed the Cathedral free of charge; he was able to help New Zealand while Japan, his home country, was in need too.

However, one thing I can’t get my head around is how this is said to be a sustainable building but also a temporary structure. These two statements contradict one another.
This building symbolizes hope and new life while also being a significant reminder of what happened as it is in view of the CTV site where 115 people were killed. I don’t believe the ‘emergency structure’ idea was achieved with the Cardboard Cathedral. An “emergency structure’ by nature is built quickly for an intended short term use, however it took more than 2 years to build and the building is now said to have a significant lifespan ( This building has now been built to outlast another disaster like the earthquake, as said by Shigeru Ban himself ‘concrete buildings are damaged very easily but paper buildings cannot be damaged in an earthquake’ (

It is fair to say that Shigeru Ban’s ideas of an emergency structure where ‘good on paper’ but these ideas aren’t a reality post construction.

Anonymous said...

It is no denying the fact that some professionals may use intentional self-promotion activities in various stages of their professional life, for example in some cases of Public Interest Litigation in India. [ ] Likewise, Shigeru Ban’ works on low-budget disaster relief buildings and his use of paper tubes in construction is criticized as “….could be more about branding than functionality”. []. On that note, my point is the solutions for shelter in different disasters are distinctive in different stages of recovery because of the geographical and topographical differences between the disasters. What is appropriate in the case of an earthquake and tsunami in Japan may not be appropriate for Yumba Refugee Camp in Rwanda. Keeping in mind the most important goal of sustainability and reduction of carbon footprint, emphasize should be given on efficient and sensible use of disaster funds.
Rightly commented by Vinay Gupta, “It is madness to expect to get a great architecture right in one shot. We should cultivate an approach of building small numbers of evaluation buildings; say a few dozen houses a year, until a design is found which genuinely works for people. After a disaster, that “reference design” can be built in large numbers with a greatly reduced chance of substantial technical or cultural error. It’s all common sense, at the end of the day.” (
I would like to consider Ban as a well deserving architect who has spent much of his career focused on well crafted, low-budget disaster relief buildings, also well known for his use of paper tubes in construction. Yes, as the previous commenter said it might be a question whether it is wise enough to spend that much money on such temporary structures or not (Christchurch church---), but as he believes and stated that, “It’s a question of love. If a building is loved, then it becomes permanent.” After watching his Tedx Talk video, along with Steve King, I would also like to appreciate his great achievement of winning the prize as I consider he is different from many other previous Pritzker winners in having focused on projects for those who haven’t had the voice to ask for themselves: insisting that architecture reclaim its historic role as a purveyor of not just wonder and beauty but also social change. Architecture matters, Mr. Ban’s work insists. And I think it should.


Lauren Patnoe said...

I have followed Shigeru Ban's innovation of materiality ever since being exposed to his works in a first-year architectural course at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The professor briefly touched on Ban's emergency shelters and use of cardboard.

As Ban introduces himself in this TED talk he explains he's been exploring these "good on paper" ideas since 1986. Puns aside, any Pritzker-winning architect deserves to be recognized for his years of mastery and contribution to the design world, on top of his ability to self-promote and market those amazing accomplishments. Kudos is owned to Shigeru Ban who has successfully balanced a career of high end profitable work with large scale humanitarian projects.

It is true that none of Ban's shelters have ever emerged from a prototype stage (Emergency shelter: a higher purpose?), and that he only accepts projects that pose an "interesting design challenge," and that he has even failed certain disaster-relief attempts. After the 2001 earthquake in Gujurat, India, Ban's paper-log structures were horribly received by victims wanting a return to what they had previously called home. Despite these negativities, it is hard not to feel inspired by all that he has done and done well.

"The expensive houses or the temporary houses, people are always demanding a lot," [Ban] says, with a smile.

Ban's acclaimed epiphany of his career came after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when he was disillusioned by his practice and the fact that "...we were working for privileged people. Their power and money are invisible, so they want to have monumental architecture to show the public." He approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with a cardboard tube prototype for displaced Rwandans.

Most of his disaster relief projects rely on his loosely organized nonprofit, the Voluntary Architects Network, which consists of students and local architects. In an Architectural Record article by Naomi Pollock, his crisis-design approach is described: Ban arrives on site as soon as possible to identify needs that aren't currently being provided by other forms of aid (i.e. governmental, nonprofit, private). The overwhelmingly usual circumstances are gymnasiums and large buildings becoming overcrowded evacuation centers that lack a much-needed sense of privacy; this is especially significant to Ban and his rooted, Japanese culture that places strong value upon freedom from public attention.

Does Shigeru Ban's interest in cardboard fuel his humanitarianism? Or does his desire to help disaster victims inspire his design innovation? Perhaps it is parts of both scenarios. It is a pity to question his motive and self-promotion because as long as Ban is sheltering even one victim, he's earned respect and mental stimulation from me, an optimistic humanitarian and aspiring designer.