Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who has used high-strength cardboard tubes to make temporary housing for victims of natural disasters and refugees fleeing conflicts, on Monday was named the 2014 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field's highest honor.
Sponsored by Chicago's billionaire Pritzker family, the annual award recognizes "consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture."
Those words resonate for Ban because his simple but spirit-lifting buildings have lent shelter and dignity to people who have suffered from civil war, genocide, earthquakes and tsunamis. He is the most socially-conscious architect ever to win the Pritzker Prize, first awarded in 1979, and the first to win largely on the basis of structures that are temporary, not permanent.
"Through excellent design, in response to pressing challenges, Shigeru Ban has expanded the role of the profession," said the citation from the eight-member Pritzker jury, which consists of architects and other experts in the field. Ban, the jury added, "has made a place at the table for architects" as part of the response to calamities.
The award, which comes with $100,000 and a bronze medallion, will be presented June 13 in Amsterdam. Ban is the seventh Japanese architect to win the prize. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, two Japanese architects who work as partners, shared it in 2010.
Ban's selection comes after a year in which critics attacked the Pritzker Prize jury for not recognizing the role that women and teams of designers play in the field. Two students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design sparked the debate with a petition asking the Pritzker jury to retroactively recognize Denise Scott Brown, the wife and partner of the 1991 winner, Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi. The jury declined.
Ban, 56, a former member of the Pritzker jury, said he learned of the honor from Martha Thorne, the prize's executive director and a former architecture curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.
"It's a big surprise," said Ban in an interview from New York, where he has one of three offices (the others are in Toyko and Paris). "I got the phone call from Martha. And I thought she was just kidding me."
Raised by a father who worked for Toyota and a mother who designed high-fashion women's clothes, Ban experimented with paper tubes in a 1986 exhibition of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's furniture and glassware at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The tubes formed an inexpensive alternative to costlier wood.
His first use of the tubes as a framework for temporary shelter came in response to the civil war and genocide that devastated the central African nation Rwanda in the 1990s.
Following the 1995 earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, Ban designed temporary houses whose walls were made of cardboard tubes resting on foundations of sand-filled beer crates. Canvas formed the roof of the design, which was dubbed the "Paper Log House" because it resembled a log cabin.
Later, Ban helped organize a non-governmental organization, the Voluntary Architects' Network, which brings together people to design buildings for disaster victims as well as raise funds and provide materials for the structures.
"In the wake of his relief work at Kobe after the 1995 earthquake, Shigeru Ban gained a reputation as a man of action, his studio, the architectural iteration of Doctors Without Borders," Riichi Miyake wrote in the 2009 book "Shigeru Ban: Paper in Architecture," referring to the humanitarian group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
Ban's "Paper Log House" was modified to serve victims of a 1999 earthquake in Turkey and a 2001 earthquake in India.
His other disaster-related designs include courtyard houses for victims of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in 2004; an elementary school for Chengdu, China, after an earthquake hit that city in 2008; and a "cardboard cathedral" that replaced a religious structure destroyed by a New Zealand earthquake in 2011.
Ban's work extends beyond disaster-related designs to museums, experimental housing and office buildings. He designed a temporary office for his firm, built of paper tubes, on a top floor of the Pompidou Center in Paris, and a branch of the center in Metz, France. The jury cited his "exceptionally wide-ranging career."
Skeptics invariably ask Ban how his paper architecture stands up to the elements.
"Paper is an industrial material. It can waterproof and fireproof easily," he said. "It's very strong …. The strength of the building has nothing to do with the material. Even a concrete building can be destroyed by an earthquake."
A temporary Kobe, Japan, church that Ban designed after the 1995 earthquake was only supposed to last three years, he said, but it stood for 10 years and then was dismantled and rebuilt in Taiwan.
"As long as people love (a building)," he said, "it becomes permanent."
Ban, like many architects, has visited Chicago and its architectural masterpieces, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in the city's far southwest suburbs. He's also a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Asked if his selection sends a broader message about the field, Ban replied: "Since I was active as a jury member, I know that we are supposed to choose great architects. That's why I was very surprised to be chosen …. This is (a) really big encouragement for me to continue for society in the disaster area."