The Ultimate Architect of Cardboard Buildings

“What is the difference between temporary architecture and permanent architecture?” No architect is more qualified to explore that question than Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. “Temporary” architecture, in disaster zones, is Ban’s calling card. For over 20 years, the 2014 winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel, has best been known for his well-publicized humanitarian work. From Rwanda to Japan to Nepal, he has turned cheap, locally-sourced objects—sometimes even debris—into disaster-relief housing that “house both the body and spirit,” as Architectural League president Billie Tsien puts it.

Perhaps more than any architect in his generation, Ban, 57, best exemplifies the maxim, “it’s not what you use that matters, but how you use it.” From churches made of paper tubes, to a nomadic museumconstructed from shipping containers, Ban is a bricoleur, and a Macgyver-level improviser with building materials.

In 1995, after the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in Kobe left 310,000 people homeless, Ban devised the first “Paper Log House,” using cardboard tubes as walls and beer crates weighed down by sand bags as foundations. This would form the prototype for cheap, comfortable, and beautiful disaster-relief buildings that Ban deployed in India, Turkey, and the Philippines.

In the end, the difference between permanent and temporary structures, concludes Ban, is love. That is not a word that one finds often in the usual parlance of architecture, notoriously replete with words like “typologies” or “tectonics.” But it seems apt for the architect who has seen the face of true despair, and the emotional toll wrought by natural and man-made disasters. “Even if a building is made out of paper, if people love them, then they will become permanent,” Ban told his New York audience of students, fellow architects, and former teachers. “Concrete buildings built by developers only for profit can be demolished.” In the end, they’re all monuments, he said. The community decides what stays and what goes.

Read more on how Ban goes about his visionary projects here.

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