Celebrated architects are mostly known for the great buildings they design in expensive, multi-million dollar projects. Thus, when the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was honored with the Pritzker Architecture Prize, it was remarkable in that he has largely been known for his innovation in refugee shelters. The refugee work that Ban has done in his home nation of Japan has helped many displaced by the earthquake/tsunami disaster of 2011, as well as refugees in other parts of the world.
The innovation from Ban comes from his use of disposable and recyclable material. The voters of the award said of Ban, “His buildings provide shelter, community centers and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction.” In 2011 the famous Christchurch Cathedral was decimated after a New Zealand earthquake. Ban built a temporary devotional structure out of cardboard tubes for those left without their religious sanctuary, giving the community an outlet in their time of difficulty.
Ban first got involved with refugee structures in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Ban saw the conditions the refugees were living in, and he said, “I thought we could improve them.” Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ban designed tents using paper tent poles that gave a cheap yet efficient and easily transportable shelter for the refugees. The UNHCR made Ban a consultant after his work in Rwanda.
His work in Kobe, Japan after the 1995 earthquake foreshadowed the work he would do in this decade. Ban designed houses made of cardboard for those displaced and even built a “Paper Church community center.” Some of the structures he made in Kobe were “meant to be used for three years were used for 10.” Ban’s work in these places has not only made a lasting emotional impact, but clearly a physical impact on the landscape as well.
The work that Shigeru Ban has done is exactly the type of innovative refugee work that should be encouraged in dealing with burgeoning international crises. Resources are stretched thin when working at so many different levels at once, and innovative minds like Ban’s can help remedy that strain. The Borgen Project and advocacy groups like it encourage funding for this type of innovative relief work.
The work that Ban has done in Japan since the 2011 disaster has capped off a career of humanitarian work. Ban has built partitions for families living in gyms, making life easier in a difficult situation. He even designed a three-story refugee shelter on the grounds of a baseball stadium. Ban sees the work that he has done in his home country as a necessity that is seen too little among the best of his profession. Ban says, “I was very disappointed in our profession. Because we are mostly working for privileged people, with power and money.”
With this recent award and the $100,000 grant that comes with it, one can hope that Ban is starting a wider trend in the architectural profession.
– Eric Gustafsson