Shigeru Ban has earned international acclaim for repurposing inexpensive materials to build cheap housing in communities struck by catastrophe. His pioneering technique of building with tubes of paper has been instrumental in sheltering refugees from natural as well as man-made disasters in places like Rwanda, India, Japan. Today, Ban becomes the latest recipient of the most prestigious award in architecture, the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Since opening his architecture practice in 1985, Ban has designed everything from private residents to corporate offices to museums. But it's his humanitarian work—building temporary yet sturdy shelters for refugees of earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters through his non-governmental organization, Voluntary Architects' Network—that the Pritzker jury cites when pronouncing that Ban "reflects this spirit of the prize to the fullest."
These humanitarian projects, like the Cardboard Cathedral he built in Christchurch, New Zealand after a deadly 2011 earthquake, appear to contrast starkly with the Metal Shutter Houses, the New York City condominium where I meet Ban a few days before the announcement. Completed in 2011, Ban's 11-story condo building in an area of Chelsea that has become a starchitects' playground in recent years houses a handful of luxury duplexes. It's located in what is starting to become Pritzker Row—Ban's condo building abuts 1989 Pritzker winner Frank Gehry's curvy glass IAC Building, and directly across the street is 100 Eleventh Avenue, a 23-story residential tower with a checkerboard facade of angled glass panels by French architect Jean Nouvel, who secured his prize in 2008. (To the east is the blue terra cotta entrance of Annabelle Selldorf's 520 West Chelsea residences, another high-design condo building dominated by floor-to-ceiling glass, though she has yet to receive the Pritzker honor.)
Ban insists he sees no distinction between his luxury residences and his work on behalf of refugees. "For me there are no differences" between private commissions and his pro bono work, he says. "The only difference is whether I’m paid or not," he explains, as if that's no difference at all.
The Pritzker Prize, which comes with a $100,000 grant, aims to honor "a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture," a description that certainly fits the bill here.
"Shigeru Ban's commitment to humanitarian causes through his disaster relief work is an example for all," Tom Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, the prize's sponsoring organization, said in a statement announcing the 2014 winner. "Innovation is not limited by building type and compassion is not limited by budget. Shigeru has made our world a better place."
Ban, dressed in his trademark all-black and perched on a sofa in one of the Metal Shutter duplexes, remains exceedingly humble about joining the elite ranks of the Pritzker laureates. "Still, I cannot believe," the 56-year-old architect says. "I originally thought this is too early for me, compared to the other laureates." Indeed, the prize often goes to architects in their 70s. The 2013 laureate, Toyo Ito, was 71. Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who won in 2006—a year Ban served on the Pritzker jury—was 77. However, it's not unheard of for the award to go to someone relatively young: 2012 winner Wang Shu was only 48.
Ban insists the spotlight will not change the trajectory of his career, which includes a mix of social-good and high-end commissions. "I’m really sure this is a big encouragement for me to continue working for society and disaster area projects," he says, activities he thinks of as "unusual for architects."
"We are hired to make monuments to show to the public," he says. "That is the profession. I’m not saying I’m not interested in making monuments, but I like a balance." He just wants to keep doing what he's been doing. Soon, he'll be flying back to the Philippines, where he's working on building shelters and a temporary cathedral for communities devastated by an October earthquake and November's Typhoon Haiyan. His firm has just been selected to create a world heritage center at Mount Fuji. The art museum he designed for Aspen, Colorado, will open later this year.
Over the years, Ban has gained a reputation for sustainability. He first started experimenting with recycled paper in 1986 for an exhibition on Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and began adapting the technique for larger structures with the construction of an outdoor pavilion in Nagoya, Japan in 1989. The cardboard tubes that are Ban's calling card—appearing in many of his refugee shelter designs—are inexpensive and create virtually no waste. He loathes waste.
Yet he still balks at any mention of him being a sustainable architect. "This is a misunderstanding," he says. "I’m not keen for sustainability." Environmentally friendly buildings have become a fashion, he argues, but sustainability is now largely a business strategy, one that doesn't necessarily distinguish between what's actually sustainable and what just looks (and sells) like sustainability. "I’m not interested in that," he says. "I’m just trying not to waste material and to use locally available material."
Rather, he points to how he's repurposed other existing materials as building tools. The unique retractable facade of the Metal Shutter Houses—which is perforated to provide shade, privacy, and mosquito protection without compromising the building's spectacular views—is based on the shutters Ban observed being pulled down over the windows of the neighborhood's galleries at night. Inside, the 20-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling windows fold in the middle, based on the bi-fold doors of an airplane hangar. They fold in the middle, rising up and away to open the entire apartment out to the balcony, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor space.
Ban's expression brightens as he watches the windows tuck up and away. We stand surveying the scene, with a brisk wind coming off the Hudson River and filling the space, which has suddenly turned into an outdoor patio. He wanders through the expansive front room of the duplex, hands clasped in front of him, looking out across the balcony onto the High Line. He points to it and asks if I know it was designed by architect Ricardo Scofidio, co-founder of the award-winning firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. "He was my professor at Cooper Union," he mentions, seemingly excited to plug for someone other than himself.
Ban appears more worried than delighted by the prospect of resting on his laurels, deserved as that might be. "I want to be very careful," he repeats whenever I hint at the notion that this award might be A Big Deal. As our conversation winds down, he points to a small crack along the baseboard of one wall, hidden behind a standing lamp. "Even today, I found some cracks I have to fix," he laughs. "When you design a building, it’s like a child," he says. "You have to take care of it."