Workers in Chengdu, China, assemble the Hualin Temporary Elementary School, designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. / Forgemind ArchiMedia

 

To win the Pritzker Prize for architecture is like winning a Nobel Prize for literature. The chosen laureate ascends into the pantheon of their art, and critics of that art take to second-guessing the jury’s decision.

Two years ago, when the relatively young and little-known Wang Shu became the first Chinese national to win the Pritzker, his selection was widely read as a political statement, though the meaning of that statement was open to question. Was this some kind of sop to China, or was it a coded rebuke, given the winner’s borderline-dissident stance against his country’s relentless vertical urbanization?

This year’s winner, who receives the award on June 13, is the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Though a bigger name than Wang, at fifty-six Ban is also young for what is often seen as a lifetime achievement award. 

In Ban’s case, the question for critics is whether he won on artistic and technical merit, or for his pro bono work in disaster zones, building temporary homes and schools for the displaced survivors of earthquakes and genocides. Endorsing the jury’s decision, chairman Thomas Pritzker—son and heir of the late Chicago industrialist Jay Pritzker, who founded the award in 1979—put a fine point on Ban’s “commitment to humanitarian causes.” “Shigeru has made our world a better place,” he said.

Responding to the announcement at a roundtable hosted by Architect magazine, a group of critics duly recognised the ad hoc grace and elegance of Ban’s design solutions in extremis. They acknowledged his ingenious use of available, sustainable, recyclable materials—most notably the paper tubing that has become his hallmark and from which he built his so-called Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch after the New Zealand earthquake of January 2011.

As Architect staffer Carolina A. Miranda put it, “On a political level . . . Ban was a really smart choice on behalf of the Pritzker jury . . . difficult to quibble with.” Difficult, but not impossible.

Ethics are one thing, aesthetics another. The critics also shared the view that Ban’s private commissions were not nearly so impressive, his highest-profile commercial work being the poorly received regional Pompidou Center in Metz, France. Since that structure opened to the public in 2010, many professional observers have had unflattering things to say about its hat-like roof and hangar-like atrium.

'I think it is important, psychologically, after all the mental damage of the disaster, that people should see something beautiful,' Ban says.

The British writer Tim Abrahams called it “one of the ugliest buildings in France” when I contacted him for comment. Abrahams—former editor of Blueprint magazine and author of The Stadium, an architectural study of 2012 London Olympics—tweeted something caustic about Ban within minutes of the Pritzker announcement. Invited to expand on this, Abrahams said, “I just don’t think he’s a very good architect.” He went on to tell me that he was unable to get past the “kooky, Middle Earthy, Hobbity” element he detected in Ban’s designs.

Abrahams suggested that this year’s Pritzker jury was effectively paying lip service to the fashionable ideals of social and ecological responsibility that Ban is supposed to represent, thus encouraging the profession “to feel good about itself.”

On the phone from Paris, Ban himself did not care to speculate on why he had won the Pritzker, but agreed with some of his critics that the jury may have made certain allowances in his case. “They must have changed the criteria,” he said, having himself been a juror from 2006 to 2009. “Otherwise I’m sure that I would not have won.” “I don’t think that I would give the prize to myself,” he concluded.

• • •

I worked with Ban, or for him, in the aftermath of the East Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, albeit in the most tangential way. I was living in Japan at the time and spent the spring and summer of that year volunteering with a clean-up crew in the port of Onagawa, one of the badly damaged towns on the Tohoku coast. Our daily work orders varied from hauling debris to tagging family photographs recovered from the wreckage.

We also helped install ergonomic cardboard partitions, to provide a little privacy in the crowded classrooms and sports centers that were then being used as evacuation shelters. Someone told us that the famous Shigeru Ban had designed these partitions, and students from his NGO, the Voluntary Architects Network, showed us how to assemble them.

Ban himself later told me that custom-fitting all that cardboard to different shelters across the stricken region had been the most labor-intensive job he’d ever done—and that the emergency authorities were reluctant to let him do it. “They were not thinking about privacy,” Ban said. “It was not on their list of priorities. But of course it is a basic right of human beings, and especially important if they are suffering.”

I met Ban inside Onagawa’s new and provisional town hall, a grim prefabricated structure on a hill just above the tsunami’s high-water mark. It was March 2012, almost one year to the day after the disaster. (The original town hall had been flooded and subsequently torn down, along with most of what remained of the town center.) Dressed all in black, with no tie—an artist among bureaucrats—Ban looked tired and sounded a bit testy. He was openly frustrated with the process of dealing with all three layers of his country’s national, prefectural, and municipal government. “They don’t want to do anything they haven’t done before,” he said, “so they make the same mistakes again and again.”

By this time, some 5,000 local evacuees had been assigned by way of a lottery to temporary housing blocs on the edges of town and beyond. These standard-issue prefab units were hastily built under government contract to official specifications, and many were already plagued with complaints—thin walls, bad wiring, minimal floor space, zero insulation. I had recently visited a friend in what he called his “rabbit house” to find snowmelt dripping in through one of his power outlets. “The government specs were too low,” Ban said. “I wanted to show how much more could be done on the same budget.”

He credited Onagawa’s town council for allowing him to demonstrate. After considerable wrangling and hesitation, former mayor Azumi Nobutaka commissioned Ban to build a final bloc of housing on the last available tract of land above the inundation line—the site of the local baseball diamond. Ban and his team repurposed shipping containers to construct 189 residential units, stacked them in checkerboard patterns of two and three stories, and arranged them into a small steel village around a wooden-roofed community center and a tented market area. These containers are no bigger than the standard prefab units but are substantially better designed, the interiors fitted with moveable plywood panels that can be closed off into private sleeping quarters or opened to create a communal lounge space.

“It had to be a nice place to live,” Ban said. “Just because it’s temporary, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look good. I think it is important, psychologically, after all the mental damage of the disaster, that people should see something beautiful.”

Ban was speaking English, but kireii, the Japanese word for “beautiful,” also means “clean” or “blank.” I heard it used both ways in Onagawa—with sadness, to describe the town as it was before the disaster, and with a kind of amazement, in reference to the vacancy left behind once the debris was cleared away. Set against that terrible erasure, and the near-dystopian indignity of the more generic housing blocs, Ban’s container village might have been the last place fit for humans in the whole drowned world.

Most of those assigned to the containers had already spent six months in evacuation shelters and lost out in each successive round of the lottery for temporary housing. As the final group of evacuees to be relocated, they considered themselves the unluckiest people in town. But when they were finally moved into Ban’s units, it soon became clear that, if anything, the opposite was true. And even if they couldn’t take much aesthetic pleasure in those brightly painted steel cans, their children, at least, were delighted.

In the world that Ban wants to build, steel is not necessarily cold, and paper can last longer than concrete.

In November 2011, Sadaji Kobayashi and his family migrated from the main shelter at the Sogotaikan sports center to the container village just behind. His ten-year-old daughter told him that their new home looked like something out of Tokyo Disneyland. “She was smiling and happy,” Kobayashi said when I spoke to him last week. “And that was the first time since the disaster that I had any real sense of relief.”

Two-and-a-half years later, and three years after the tsunami, Kobayashi is still living in nominally temporary housing, as is almost everyone else who remains in Onagawa. A civil servant in the town planning department, he understands better than most the logistical problems that continue to hold up the reconstruction. Having personally contracted and managed the initial blocs of prefab units that are now rapidly degrading, Kobayashi is also conscious of the fact that he and his immediate neighbors live in far more comfortable conditions than those who won the first rounds of the post-disaster lottery.

Some in Onagawa say that Ban’s units have started to feel like home; they want to stay in them permanently. Kobayashi understands this feeling: “The soundproofing and insulation is better,” he said of his own container home, “and the open plan arrangement makes it feel bigger than the other houses. It doesn’t seem so oppressive, and that makes a huge difference over time.” (Ban told me that he felt “a bit guilty” about creating such a disparity in local living standards, and he subsequently returned to Onagawa to see if he could improve the prefabs that he had not designed.)

Kobayashi expects to be living in the unit for at least another couple of years and believes Ban’s model is almost ideal in the circumstances, robust enough to withstand the wait. I asked Kobayashi if he felt that Ban deserved to win the Pritzker Prize. “He’s a great architect, and I’m not surprised that he won a great award,” Kobayashi said. “But I only know what I’ve seen here, so I can’t say that I’m qualified to judge him. He belongs in another dimension. He lives in a different world.”

Ban is now based primarily in Paris, at the headquarters of his commercial design firm, Shigeru Ban Architects. His Voluntary Architects Network usually doesn’t hang around disaster zones once the initial relief work is done, and Ban has long since moved on to other projects, though the current mayor of Onagawa, Yoshiaki Suda—himself a resident of one of Ban’s container homes—recently contracted him to build the town a new train station to replace its former centerpiece. The new Onagawa station will be a private commission, as opposed to a pro bono job. “I like his designs,” Suda told me in an email, “and I know from personal experience that his buildings are strong. But it is also good publicity to work with such a famous architect. We need to make bold moves to bring the town back to life.”

• • •

In the world that Ban wants to build, steel is not necessarily cold, and paper can last longer than concrete if it is used right. “The material must also be loved. That’s very important. If it’s loved it can be permanent.” And if this sounded a little touchy-feely, Ban went on to say that he put no less heart into his commercial designs than his nonprofit disaster relief work.

“The only difference is whether I get paid,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was being disingenuous here. In Onagawa Ban had told me of his distaste for the emphasis on “power and money” within his profession, but now he seems determined to reject the growing impression of him as the world’s leading green architect.

So do critics like Abrahams, who do not believe Ban’s work truly addresses the future, the lasting questions of “where and how and what we should build.” “When it comes to disaster relief,” he said, “architecture is most often used as a salve for shortfalls in the modern world, rather than building a better one. Shigeru Ban is basically being rewarded for providing these short-term fixes in areas where the real issue might be bad planning or inadequate housing. I’m not saying that’s not worthwhile; it just seems ephemeral to me.”

Ban himself is inclined to agree that sustainability is a kind of fad, a buzzword that more often refers to business decisions and marketing strategies—a superficial “greening” of architecture—than to substantial change within the profession itself. Ban started using recycled materials in 1986, “long before this eco-fashion,” he told me. But he thinks of himself less as a pioneer than a craftsman who dislikes waste. “I’ll use any material,” he said. “Depending on what’s needed and what’s available. Each has its own advantage.”

He refuses to be the man of the moment, perhaps because this would make him as ephemeral as his critics suggest.

Ban's supporters, meanwhile, believe that his approach points the only way ahead.

Eric Cesal, Executive Director of the global charity Architecture for Humanity, called Ban’s Pritzker win “a great step forward for the prize, and a recognition that this kind of work is exactly what we most urgently need.”

“Look, the barbarians are at the gate,” Cesal said when I called him in New York. “With the collision of climate change and mass urbanization, our built environment is pretty soon going to be public enemy number one. And regardless of what certain idiots might say, Shigeru Ban is one of the only people in the post-disaster sector to realize that a half-assed utilitarian approach just creates more problems down the line. What he wants to do, I think, is what we’re trying to do, which is to help provide safe, permanent, well-designed, and well-built solutions that would hopefully resolve these problems for all time.”

While I lived and worked in Onagawa, a modern town that had come to resemble an ancient ruin, I would sometimes get these odd intimations of the future—the vague apocalyptic feeling that the rising seas to come would make every coastal town and city look like this before long. But Ban’s community of shipping containers seemed to counter these visions. Coupled with the resilience of the residents themselves, they suggested that the worst might be not only survivable, but even liveable.

Ban’s guiding principle was already borne out by his designs, and now, with the Pritzker Prize in hand, it has been validated: “An architect does not need to spend his whole career making monuments for rich people.”