Japanese architect and humanitarian Shigeru Ban has been announced as the latest recipient of the Pritzker Prize, called the “Nobel of architecture” and considered the industry’s top honor.
While many of his peers rely on traditional materials like concrete and steel, Ban prefers cardboard tubing and plastic crates. His inexpensive, often temporary structures are deployed in disaster zones around the globe.
“For twenty years, [Ban] has been responding with creativity and high quality design to extreme situations caused by devastating natural disasters,” read a citation from the prize’s eight-member jury. “His buildings provide shelter, community centers, and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction.
“Through excellent design, in response to pressing challenges, [Ban] has expanded the role of the profession; he has made a place at the table for architects to participate in the dialogue with governments and public agencies, philanthropists, and the affected communities. His sense of responsibility and positive action to create architecture of quality to serve society´s needs, combined with his original approach to these humanitarian challenges, make this year´s winner an exemplary professional.”
Ban first experimented with rolled paper tubes as a design medium in 1986, then began building with cardboard as a core structural material in 1989.
He found his life’s calling – combining architecture with humanitarian work – after building relief shelters for victims of the Rwandan civil war and subsequent genocide in 1994. A year later, he returned to assist his home country after the Great Hanshin Earthquake leveled the busy port city of Kobe.
“Following the [quake], Ban designed temporary houses whose walls were made of cardboard tubes resting on foundations of sand-filled beer crates,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “Canvas formed the roof of the design, which was dubbed the ‘Paper Log House’ because it resembled a log cabin.”
His studio would go on to be called the “architectural iteration of Doctors Without Borders,” according to Riichi Miyake, the author of a book about Ban’s work.
Some of Ban’s most noteworthy contributions to disaster relief include an elementary school in Chengdu, China, and a cardboard cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. Both acted as replacements for buildings destroyed in earthquakes that struck those cities in 2008 and 2011.
“I always feel sorry for doctors and lawyers who work only with people in distress, while architects get to work with people who are happy to be moving into new houses,” Ban told The New York Times. “We have a responsibility to work with people who have problems, too, because we have an opportunity to provide them with something beautiful and comfortable.”
Aside from his humanitarian work, Ban has also constructed some “permanent” buildings, including the Center Pompidou-Metz in France, the Hannover Pavilion in Germany and the Naked House in his native Japan. He is also designing the headquarters of Swatch and Omega in Switzerland.
Ban is the second Japanese architect in a row to win the coveted Pritzker Prize, which is sponsored by Chicago’s billionaire Pritzker family. The prize includes a $100,000 endowment and a bronze medallion, both of which will be presented at a June 13 ceremony in Amsterdam.
When asked about winning, Ban remained humble while emphasizing his goal of helping those in need.
“Honestly, it was a big surprise. I didn’t expect it,” he told CNN. “As a [former] juror I knew the level of the past winners and I didn’t think I was at that level. But then it was explained to me that this year the jury considered not only the argument of architecture, but also my activities in disaster areas for 20 years… I thought this was not awarded because I reached a certain level as an architect, but as encouragement for me to continue working in disaster areas as well as designing architecture.”