Shigeru Ban, who was announced on Monday as the winner of architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize, is both an unexpected and a good choice. He is an architect who has made his name using cardboard rather than concrete, paper rather than glass, and through building for the afflicted rather than the affluent. His ingenious and inventive architecture is a rare blend of the sustainable, the recyclable and the beautiful.
Born in Tokyo in 1957, Ban studied in the US and has been based in Paris since 2004, though he also has offices in New York and Tokyo. It was during one of his earliest commissions, the exhibition design for a show on Alvar Aalto in Tokyo’s Axis Gallery in 1986, that he discovered the cardboard tubes that were to become his trademark (for a while, indeed, his Paris studio was a cardboard pavilion on the roof of the Pompidou Centre). Lacking the budget to build what he wanted in timber, he turned to the ubiquitous cardboard tubes lying around every architect’s office to create curving walls and an undulating ceiling in a strikingly clever design that evoked the Finnish architect’s organicism.
He went on to use cardboard in real construction in the Poet’s Library (1991), a freestanding garden structure at a house in Kanagawa, Japan. Here cardboard tubes make the shallow vaulted roof structure and the frame in a contemporary version of the Japanese timber and paper house which poetically refers to literature and a life dedicated to books. Then, in 1995, came the Paper House, a pavilion by Lake Yamanaka, its walls an undulating colonnade of vertical tubes.
Ban’s experiments with cardboard led to a commission from the UNHCR, then struggling with the refugee crisis in Rwanda. He experimented with cheap cardboard tube structures to make emergency “paper log houses” which were deployed as post-natural-disaster shelters in Japan, Turkey and India. His designs were quick and easy to construct and, in some cases (notably the delicate Indian designs with woven roofs and windows) quite beautiful – itself a huge uplift to morale. His 1995 Paper Church created in the wake of the Kobe earthquake spoke to this same need. It led indirectly to one of his most lauded creations, the remarkable Cardboard Cathedral (2013) he built for Christchurch, New Zealand, after the 2011 earthquake. The tall, triangular gable with its coloured glass wall created a popular landmark, meeting place and memorial for the devastated city.
Not all Ban’s buildings have been houses of card. The irony of his Pritzker is arguably that, while most of his predecessors have won for their public and cultural buildings, Ban’s big museum, the Pompidou in Metz, is a mess, in marked contrast to his Japanese compatriots Sanaa’s exquisite, if cool, new building for the Louvre in Lens. But Ban’s Curtain Wall House in Itabashi, its front walls replaced by billowing white curtains, is a wonderfully surreal comment on architecture and solidity. Similarly playful is another Japanese commission, the Naked House in Saitama, whose bedrooms are contained in wheeled boxes that can be moved around the warehouse-like space of the interior in endless configurations. The Metal Shutter House beside New York’s High Line, meanwhile, sees the front façade as a checkerboard of steel blinds so that the whole building can be opened up to the city or closed off from it.
In between there have been stations and catwalk shows, paper theatres and cardboard medical centres, chairs, schools and corporate headquarters. This summer his extension for the Aspen Art Museum will open and he has just won the commission for a new visitor centre at Mount Fuji, which looks, from the rendering, spectacular.
“There is no difference between temporary and permanent,” Ban told me in 2008. “If a building is loved . . . it will become permanent.”