Shigeru Ban (born August 5th 1957) is a Japanese architect who won the 2014 Pritzker Prize for his significant contributions in architectural innovation and philanthropy. His ability to re-apply conventional knowledge in differing contexts has resulted in a breadth of work that is characterized by structural sophistication and unconventional techniques and materials. Ban has used these innovations not only to create beautiful architecture but as a tool to help those in need, by creating fast, economical, and sustainable housing solutions for the homeless and the displaced. As the Pritzker jury cites: “Shigeru Ban is a tireless architect whose work exudes optimism.”
Born in Tokyo to a businessman father who enjoyed classical music, and a mother who designed haute couture clothing, Ban was exposed to a creative environment. He grew up in a Japanese wooden house that was often being renovated by carpenters, which sparked the child’s fascination for traditional carpentry. As a teenager, Ban originally intended to attend the Tokyo University of the Arts, until he came across an article on John Hejduk. The distinguished architect was then a dean of the Cooper Union’s School of Architecture in New York. The models and plans of unbuilt buildings by this “paper architect” were revolutionary for the young Shigeru Ban and would ultimately influence his decision to study architecture at Cooper Union.
In 1977, Ban travelled to California to learn English and to attend the Southern California Institute of the Architecture (SCI-arc). This was the only way that he could attend Cooper Union as the school did not accept international students at the time. There, Ban took interest in the Case Study Houses, many of which showed traces of the influence of traditional Japanese architecture. Ban began attending Cooper Union in 1980 as a transfer student where he would meet his future partner, Dean Maltz, as a classmate. He was taught by Ricardo Scofidio, Tod Williams, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, and John Hejduk. Before graduating in 1984, he took a year of absence from his studies to work at Arata Isozaki’s office in Tokyo. He also accompanied the photographer Yukio Fukagawa on a trip to Europe, where he would be impressed with the materials of Alvar Aalto’s architecture in Finland.
The effect of Ban’s upbringing and early life experiences can be seen in the development of his architectural projects. When Ban started his own practice in 1985, he had no prior working experience; he spent this first year designing installations for various exhibitions as the curator of Axis Gallery in Tokyo. For an installation exhibiting Alvar Aalto’s work, he developed and utilized paper-tube structures, which has since become a recurring theme in his work. Around the same time, he also designed a series of Case Study Houses (PC Pile House, House of Double Roof, Furniture House, Curtain Wall House, 2/5 House, Wall-Less House, and Naked House) which reflected the experimental nature of domestic architecture in his native country.
Ban’s developments in architecture focused on experimental approaches to materials and structural systems. In many cases, he uses ordinary materials such as paper, wood, fabric, and shipping containers, to assemble buildings in extraordinary ways. He used shipping containers as a building material for the Nomadic Museum, and applied traditional joinery techniques to create the Tamedia Office Building in Zurich; the building’s interlocking timber structural system is completely devoid of joint hardware and glue. Ban’s unconventional approach leads to an elegant simplicity and apparent effortlessness in his work, a quality seen best in the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Paris, a competition he won in 2001.
In the 1990s Ban realized that his innovations could be used to improve the lives of displaced refugees and victims of natural calamities. In 1994, he proposed his paper-tube shelters to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he was subsequently hired as a consultant. After a few temporary housing projects, Ban established the NGO Voluntary Architects’ Network (VAN) to start disaster relief activities, providing assistance in Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, China, Italy, Haiti and Japan among other countries. His paper-tube structures proved to be cheap, easy to assemble and most importantly customizable.
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