Shigeru Ban, the 57-year-old winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize for Architecture, has built a career that pushes the possibilities for architecture. Ban is almost certainly the only laureate in the Pritzker Prize’s 36-year history whose name is familiar to officials of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Red Cross, as well as to the high-flying art-world curators (he built The Nomadic Museum, which spent four months on Pier 54 in New York City) and fashionistas (he’s responsible for designing exhibitions for Hermès and Issey Miyake).
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new world of architecture (and gratitude to the Pritzker Committee for celebrating its arrival). As recently as ten years ago, superb design and the social good were usually antithetical to one another; designing for the public good consigned you to the ghettos of social housing or the emerging sustainability movement. But the trifecta of globalization, climate change, and digital technology has thoroughly reshaped architecture as a profession and as an art. One of the many consequences of this reshaping is that so-called public architecture—the built environmental analogue to “public health”—commands a first-row seat alongside other pursuits in the profession.
Public architecture, unlike much politically inflected contemporary art, is rarely naïve or insufferably preachy. More important, it neither sneers at aesthetic distinction nor insistently distinguishes art from life. Its products, now in the ground on every continent, are evident in the works of a whole generation of architects several decades out of school, including David Adjaye, who has designed an impressive series of community libraries in underprivileged neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.; Alejandro Aravena’s social housing projects in Chile with his firm Elemental; Ana Heringer and Eike Roswag’s beautifully made “Handmade School” in Bangladesh; Diébédo Francis Kéré’s schools in Burkina Faso; Urban Think Tank’s many projects in Venezuela; and the Butaro District Hospital and Doctor’s Housing in Rwanda and Primary School in Kenya by Boston’s Mass Design Group.
Ban, about a decade older than most architects in this activist generation, was there first. In 1994, he discovered that destitute refugees from Rwanda’s genocide were selling the aluminum poles that the UNHCR had provided as the skeletons for temporary housing and mowing down trees for their structural lumber instead—a doubly wasteful problem. Ban emerges from a historical tradition of practitioners, like Frei Otto and Eladio Dieste, who coax artistry out of structural and material innovation; he had been experimenting with architectural uses of paper, and especially cardboard tubing, since the mid-1980s. Ban contacted the UNHCR and didn’t stop phoning until someone heard the message: substituting cardboard tubes for aluminum rods was a feasible alternative. Refugees would get their temporary housing; the UN wouldn’t waste so much money; Rwanda would keep more of its trees; and the world would be just one little bit more sustainable, since cardboard tubing was lighter to ship and could be recycled when people moved into more permanent shelters.
If Ban’s temporary housing is not much to look at, many of his other disaster relief projects are beautifully made and beautiful to look at; they may be made from paper, cardboard, earthenware bricks, shipping containers, and more, but they’d look right at home in Bomb or Wallpaper. And these temporary churches, schools, houses, and more—designed to accommodate local conditions and to capitalize on the skills of available labor pools—have measurably improved the lives of people in forsaken places. Kobe and Onagawa (near Fukushima), Port-au-Prince, Bhuj in India, Chengdu in China, and Kirindu in Sri Lanka are all a little bit better, thanks to Ban’s determination, social conscience, and exemplary marriage of pragmatism, sustainability, and artistry.
Ban approaches all his projects—from disaster relief to a museum in Aspen—as part of the continuum in his artistic project. In each project, Ban’s minimalist aesthetic is disciplined by structure, and draws expression out of patterned repetition, materiality, and the processes of construction. And geometrically shaped spaces defined by tall ranges of repeating, evenly-spaced columns or rectangular prisms look good whether they are made from cardboard and shipping containers or more conventional, more expensive materials.
What Ban’s higher-end projects showcase is his playfulness. He first came to international recognition in 1995 with the publication of his extraordinary Curtain Wall House in Tokyo. Its very name riffs on the architectural profession’s jargonic habits, in this case, of metonymically referring to the window-walls in tall buildings as if they were Victorian draperies. The Curtain Wall house alleviates the micro-teensy-tinsy proportions of the typical Japanese residence with a system that allows inhabitants to replace the house’s exterior glass walls with flowing white fabric in clement weather.
What can Ban do when the architectural program is more complex? It is one thing to design a single, simple, extraordinary space. It is quite another to artfully accommodate the irrational couplings and triplings and quadruplings of contemporary urban life, like those typical of an art museum or mixed-use commercial building. Two projects, the Nicholas G. Hayek Center in Ginza, Tokyo and the Centre Pompidou-Metz offer different answers. The Hayek Center, finished in 2007, is a mixed commercial building with office, retail, and residential units; for it, Ban reinterpreted his Curtain Wall House idea in tower form, dividing it by four to make as many multistory, multilevel atriums. In the bottom unit, differently sized rooms and spaces pop out of the floor like fast-growing mushrooms, and hang, or so it seems, off vertical walls. The whole place crackles and pops with a joyful, attitude-filled intelligence, whether the garage-door-like façades are open or closed. Transparent, pod-shaped elevators do double-duty as floor-to-ceiling display cases, hawking the Swatch company wares.
In the Centre Pompidou in Metz, Ban allows his engineer’s aesthetic (in which problems are solved with elegant, long-span spaces) to trump a fully architectural design. From afar, the building resembles an open-lattice basket upended in the landscape: Ban engineered a dramatic, hexagon-and-star-shaped wooden lattice frame to articulate the building’s footprint. But underneath this lovely form, which he likens to a Chinese hat, Ban inserts galleries that are remarkable only for their conventionality, and he fails to create any sort of hierarchical transition between inside and out—which is such a necessary component in a museum, in order to create the sense of distance from everyday life that facilitates quiet contemplation.
Whether intended for disaster victims or for "fashion victims," Ban’s work always contains something thoughtful and eye-catching. His is a restless inventiveness. Empowered by the Pritzker, with its almost Nobel-Prize-like aura, Ban is positioned to have a profound influence on the profession and in the world. He has the drive. He has the intellect, the moral, and the social vision. Most of his work suggests that he has the technical and aesthetic skill to make this promise a reality.
So let’s hope for Ban’s continued good fortune—and for the good fortune of the younger generation of architects for whom he is a de facto leader—since the kind of success that actually changes the world involves a good measure of happenstance, as well.