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Finch interviews Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban’s emergency zone experiments make him a worthy Pritzker Prize winner, writes Paul Finch

Shigeru Ban is in ebullient form as we chat in one of the units in his New York apartment building, Shutter House, on West 19th Street. A modest man, he says he ‘doesn’t think he is ready’ to receive the Pritzker Prize, given his relatively young age (born 1957), and thought the phone call telling him he had won the prize was some sort of joke. Delighted to be the recipient, he says he feels it is ‘encouragement rather than celebration’.

But this truly international architect had done more than enough to impress the jury chaired by (Lord) Peter Palumbo, not least as a result of the extraordinary series of temporary buildings deploying paper and cardboard, produced in the context of disaster zones worldwide.

While Ban’s practice has a conventional architectural operation in several offices, he personally carries out the pro bono work with an assistant and the help of local practices and architecture schools who, he says, willingly come forward when asked to help. This happens where there is a community request and almost invariably follows natural disasters, for example in relation to Kobe, the Sri Lankan tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, or the rebuilding of Christchurch Cathedral. He describes the working process as ‘not inventing but using the existing’, though that use is, in fact, highly inventive.

In all these cases, Ban seeks to find something specific about the community seeking help and the location in which they need help. ‘I am always looking for something in the context,’ he says. He uses local materials and simple technologies to provide accommodation which is temporary, but as he notes ‘will be as temporary for as long as people want it’. Accommodation expected to last for three years after the Kobe quake of 1995 was still there after 10.

He does not regard himself as a particularly Japanese architect, though he is Japanese by birth; he made his name with international projects such as the Japanese pavilion for the Hanover Expo in 2000 and the Centre Pompidou offshoot in Metz, completed in 2010. He had built projects abroad before he ever received a public commission in his own country. ‘Working outside Japan feels very natural,’ he says, recalling that his introduction to architectural education happened in the United States.

Having read an article about John Hejduk in A+U in 1975, he headed for New York and applied to Cooper Union, only to find that they would only take an overseas student transferring from another college.

So he headed to Sci-Arc, California, eventually returning to Cooper Union, ‘where they put me in second year!’ Finally he did get to be taught by Hejduk, and other influences including Ricardo Scofidio, Tod Williams and Diana Agrest.

His link to architectural education these days involves running one of the architectural ‘laboratories’ at the Kyoto University, where he finds that there are many students ‘interested in design which involves work for society, not just big developers’. That work inevitably involves a high degree of collaboration, not just with community clients, but with other professionals, notably engineers. Heavily influenced by the Japanese engineer Gengo Matsui, Ban went on to work with, among others, Frei Otto and Cecil Balmond.

Ban feels governments tend to think in too basic a fashion about emergency accommodation - assuming that people will be happy with whatever they are given. But, as he says, accommodation may be there far longer than originally anticipated, and design should take that into account: ‘You can have comfort and beauty as well as function for the same budget,’ he insists. And, if you are exploiting materials such as paper and beer crates, that is almost certainly true.

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