Earlier this month a brand new art museum opened in the posh mountain resort town of Aspen, Colorado. As a relatively high-profile museum, the project gathered an expected amount of attention from the architectural press. On top of that, the building drew an atypical amount of mainstream attention due to the fact that its designer, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, had recently been named the 2014 Pritzker Prize laureate, the highest honor in architecture.
The Pritzker transforms architects from being merely good practitioners in a fairly insular field into global celebrities. Frank Gehry. Zaha Hadid. Norman Foster. Et cetera. Suddenly the work of these architects becomes a matter of public consumption.
That’s why it’s so interesting that Ban is the latest inductee into this group of “world-class” architects. Despite the flash of his new Aspen museum, he’s an architect who has gathered most of his acclaim for the clever and elegant projects he’s designed to respond to humanitarian crises and natural disasters.
It’s a very different building type from the concert halls, skyscrapers and museums designed by most Pritzker laureates. That Ban has now joined their ranks is causing many to reconsider how the world’s top-tier architects should be using their design skill and what should really be considered important architecture.
Ban’s most notable works are simple but beautiful structures built to meet the immediate needs of communities in the midst of recovering from disaster and conflict. Through the use of cheap but sturdy paper tubes, his projects can be built easily and quickly, providing much needed shelter and community centers in places like post-earthquake Port-au-Prince and Kobe.
Born in Tokyo, Ban was educated at architecture schools in the U.S. before returning to Japan in the 1980s to open his own practice. His early works were mostly high-end residences, and he often used bamboo-like paper tubes in these designs. After the 6.9-magnitude earthquake in Kobe in 1995, he shifted his attention to using architecture to respond to the chaos of life in the aftermath of disasters.
The Pritzker jury’s citation highlights the impact of his work:
“Through excellent design, in response to pressing challenges, Shigeru Ban has expanded the role of the profession; he has made a place at the table for architects to participate in the dialogue with governments and public agencies, philanthropists, and the affected communities. His sense of responsibility and positive action to create architecture of quality to serve society’s needs, combined with his original approach to these humanitarian challenges, make this year’s winner an exemplary professional.”
Though Ban and his firm, Shigeru Ban Architects, have built dozens of projects ranging from high rise towers to concert halls to museums to upscale residences, it’s the more modest disaster recovery projects that have garnered the most interest and respect.
Compared to the architecture of other prominent Pritzker winners, these works are of an almost foreign category. 2004 laureate Zaha Hadid has spent decades designing sleek museum projects and stadium spaces. 1989 laureate Frank Gehry has become the quintessential provider of iconic object architecture, such as his many museums.
Many Pritzker winners have made their names designing houses for millionaires, which is, of course, a good way to stay in business. These architects have also designed more modest and even humanitarian projects, as have many others in their peer class of world-famous architects. But most of their work is of the large-scale trophy variety, commissioned by people and organizations that want both impressive buildings and the cachet of the architects’ names.
That’s not the fault of the architects, at least not entirely. Even Ban functions within this system, as the Aspen museum illustrates. Thanks to the spotlight of the Pritzker, Ban will likely take on other similarly high-profile and large-scale commissions. Some look at the Aspen museum and wonder whether Ban will be able to continue creating his humanitarian “virtuous” architecture.
This work has been the through-line of his practice since the mid-90s, and remains an active part of his firm’s work: one of his paper houses was built earlier this year in a typhoon-wracked part of the Philippines, and a temporary paper-based nursery school was built in Sichuan, China after a 2013 earthquake.
Now that Ban has been elevated to the upper echelon of globally famous architects, it may be more difficult to squeeze in the humanitarian work among all the high-paying projects he’s likely to be offered. But his higher profile should also make it more economically feasible to continue his work in disaster recovery. Ideally it would also make the argument to other top-tier architects that they should make more of an effort to apply their artistic and architectural skills to low- or no-pay work. Ban’s Pritzker win may have turned him into a celebrity architect, but it has also reframed humanitarian architecture as world-class alongside all those fancy houses and museums.