On January 17, 1995, the northern side of Japan’s Awaji Island suffered the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Some 310,000 people were evacuated to temporary shelters. The disaster devastated Kobe, a city of 1.5 million residents on Awaji Island.
Shigeru Ban explains that this was the first time he had ever seen such wreckage and living conditions: “I’d never been to a place destroyed by an earthquake before Kobe. After the Kobe earthquake, Vietnamese refugees lived in dingy, dirty tents.” Yet by the time the government has begun building temporary shelters, they were locating them in the sprawled Kobe suburbs. With this project, as with most of Ban’s humanitarian work, he identified a group that he felt needed special attention, who fell through the cracks of government and worldwide humanitarian aid. To resolve this, Ban devised his Paper Log houses.
For Ban, the choice of paper tubes and recycled material did not originate from a conventional sense of environmental consciousness. The paper tubes were coated in polyurethane and tield into a foundation of sandbag-filled beer crates. The walls insulate from heat and cold, and tenting forms the protective but ventilating roof and ceiling. The paper tubes, available around the world, do not suffer supply shortages of lumber and other traditional building materials at disaster times and they are lightweight for easy shipping to the sites and for inexperienced volunteers to handle when building.
Thus began the Pritzker-winning architects career of combining sustainability with humanitarianism through architecture. Ban is different from most previous Pritzker winners in focusing on projects for those who also haven’t had the voice to ask for them, pioneering construction with paper tubes, among other novel materials, and extending the definition of temporary architecture through the uses of recycled, off-the-shelf, environmentally friendly materials before many others were thinking along these lines.
Ban’s interest in simple, easily transported, reusable materials surfaced in a project that paved the way for the Pritzker: shelters he devised for refugees in Rwanda made of slender paper tubes. He made temporary housing—log cabins with paper-tube walls for disaster victims—first in response to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, where he also built a paper church, and later in Turkey and India.
Ban’s inspiration comes largely from the philosophy of modern architecture. The architecture critic Michael Kimmelman stated the following: “A devotee of Alvar Aalto, [Ban] is an old-school, change-the world Modernist with a poet’s touch, pragmatist’s hard nose, and an engineer’s inventiveness.”
“Anything can be recycled, except maybe concrete,” Ban says. For him, green or sustainable architecture is therefore about more than saving energy or using recycled materials. It’s about people’s emotional connection to the buildings they occupy, and about making buildings that may have different identities at different times. They can still be green so long as they don’t require more energy to take down than they did to put up.
While Ban’s practice has expanded significantly over time (he recently began work on a sprawling timber campus for Swatch in Biel, Switzerland), his commitment to simplicity and the reuse of materials remain central to his work.