Earth Week Heroes 2014: Shigeru Ban Humanitarian Architect

Cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand, made of paper tubes, was built after the earthquake and opened in 2013.

Cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand, made of paper tubes, was built after the earthquake and opened in 2013.

Tokyo-born Shigeru Ban is a talented, globe-trotting architect, who designs dwellings of elegance and simplicity and notable public commissions (Pompidou Centre-Metz France). But that’s not why he was internationally recognized earlier this year with the Pritzker Prize in Architecture, or for that matter, the Jefferson Medal in 2005. Ban’s public profile is best known for the humanitarian work he has done for 20 years, designing refugee housing, temporary schools and churches on several continents for people who have survived disasters — hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.  Add to that his innovative use of humble and recycled materials and Ban is a standout in the environmental world. (Article and slide show of his temporary structures)

Ban’s motivation and aesthetic is “mottainai“– which in Japanese means, too good to be wasted, to describe his economy of style and materials. He doesn’t care for the moniker “the paper architect.” But many of the disaster relief buildings he designs are based on simple, nontoxic recycled cardboard tubes used for beams, walls or tentpoles. The benefits of the paper tubes? They can be water- and fire-proofed, they are recyclable, and can be easily assembled into structures using students and volunteers. Catalog of his of paper tube structures

Temporary housing after the earthquake in tsunami in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Courtesy of VAN

Temporary housing after the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Courtesy of VAN

Ban started his quest in response to the 1994 Rwanda conflict, with millions living in terrible conditions. He proposed making paper-tube shelters, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees brought him on board as a consultant. With the Kobe, Japan, earthquake in 1995, Ban used the innovative design for temporary housing and a community center – all made with cardboard tubes of recycled paper. Known as the Paper Log House, the design was then adapted when earthquakes struck Turkey (1999) and India (2001).

In 1995, he founded a non-governmental organization (NGO) called VAN: Voluntary Architects’ Network. VAN has helped Ban conduct humanitarian work in Japan, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, China, Haiti, Italy, New Zealand, and currently, the Philippines. Facebook page for VAN

“Shigeru Ban’s commitment to humanitarian causes through his disaster relief work is an example for all,” said Tom Pritzker in announcing the 2014 Pritzker Prize. “Innovation is not limited by building type and compassion is not limited by budget. Shigeru has made our world a better place.”

In a New York Times interview this year,  Ban commented, “I’m not really interested in making money,” he said. “I’m not interested in the design fee. As long as I can make people happy to use my building, I’m happy.”