Architect Shigeru Ban, known for disaster relief, wins Pritzker Prize

For the third time in five years, the Pritzker Prize is going to a Japanese architect.

Shigeru Ban, a 56-year-old architect born in Tokyo, was named the winner of his profession’s top honor on Monday.

Yet Ban’s architecture is markedly different, in form and sensibility, from the work of recent Pritzker winners from Japan. He's best known for quickly assembled buildings, many made of cardboard or shipping containers, designed for parts of the world reeling from war or natural disaster.

His belief in architecture as a political and humanitarian art as much as an aesthetic one separates his work from the sleek, precisely wrought high-tech buildings by last year’s Pritzker winner, Toyo Ito, and the white-on-white, nearly weightless minimalism of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the 2010 honorees.

PHOTOS: Hawthorne's best architecture moments of 2013

Ban traveled to Rwanda after the 1994 civil war and designed inexpensive shelters for the United Nations. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, he produced temporary housing and a church using cardboard tubes coated to protect against fire and weather.

In recent years Ban and architects affiliated with his Voluntary Architects’ Network have designed buildings for tsunami and earthquake victims near Fukushima, Japan, and for quake-damaged towns in New Zealand, China, Italy and Turkey.

Ban also works for private clients. He has designed several houses, an outpost of the Centre Pompidou in Metz, France (in collaboration with Jean de Gastines and Philip Gumuchdjian), and a new $45-million building for the Aspen Art Museum, set to open in August.

What unites the work, along with a keen interest in the relationship between materials and structural engineering, is a certain frankness, even primitivism. His buildings are eager to make clear how they're put together.

In its citation, the eight-member Pritzker jury, which this year included architects Alejandro Aravena, Yung Ho Chang and Glenn Murcutt as well as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, praised Ban for the “elegant simplicity and apparent effortlessness of his works” and for “responding with creativity and high-quality design to extreme situations caused by devastating natural disasters.”

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times

In a phone interview, Ban said architects are typically “too busy working for the privileged. Historically, it’s been the same. The privileged people have money and power, which are invisible, so they hire us to make their power and money visible through monumental architecture.”

He added: “The important thing for me is balance, working on normal buildings and also in disaster areas.”

Speaking of balance, Ban's Pritzker is a clear attempt by the jury to address the longstanding (and recently deepening) rift between architecture's humanitarian and high-design wings.

On one side are those who practice an architecture of engagement, who use their work to address social, political or environmental crises. On the other are architects who express their ambition through form-making and innovative use of materials or technology, who work with an eye toward how a building will look in a magazine spread.

There aren't many architects who try to bridge the divide. The Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan is one. Colombia's Giancarlo Mazzanti is another. Ban is a third.

CRITICS' PICKS: What to watch, where to go, what to eat

Others seem determined to widen it. Zaha Hadid, who won a Pritzker in 2004 for her strikingly fluid, digitally designed buildings, told the Guardian newspaper last month that it was not her "duty as an architect" to address the safety of migrant construction workers in Qatar, where she designed a stadium for the 2022 World Cup. The paper reported that more than 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2012.

Patrik Schumacher, a partner in Hadid's London-based firm, then fanned the flames by declaring, in a Facebook post, that it was foolish to expect architects to concern themselves with "the delivery of social justice." He also complained that critics and prize juries were in the grip of "misguided political correctness."

I can only imagine how he'll react to the news that Ban has won the Pritzker.