Ban pulls out designs from two current projects: a temporary church in Christchurch, New Zealand, a soaring, elegant structure, 24 meters high, made from cardboard tubes; and temporary housing for the recent earthquake victims in Onagawa, in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan. Along the eastern Japanese coast, ravaged by a tsunami, there’s only so much level terrain to build the government’s standard one-story temporary housing, he says. Which is why he designed a three-story housing complex, 189 units in total, made from shipping containers stacked in a checkerboard pattern—the containers themselves housing small bedrooms and bathrooms, the spaces in between used as living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens. Ban has designed a mini-village around the units with a central market, a café, and a children’s library.
Now that Ban has persuaded the authorities to approve his project—the units are the same size as regulation temporary housing but cost “a little bit more” than the government standard, he says, because of the price of stacking the containers and adding fire protection—construction has started and will take two months. Given the extensive rebuilding that Japan faces, Ban estimates that victims could live in the houses for as long as five years. Why shouldn’t they be well designed? Because the Japanese government has approved his plans, Ban sees no reason why a company couldn’t mass-produce his units in the future. “That’s why I am doing this,” he says. “I want to change the standard of the evacuation facilities and the temporary houses, create a higher standard.”
Amid the plethora of design proposals for disaster relief housing—Graham Saunders, the head of the Shelter and Settlements Department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says he receives five to 10 emails each week—Ban stands out simply because he has managed to get his projects built. Yet not all have been successful. After the 2001 earthquake in Gujurat, India, Ban designed paper log houses with mud floors for a group of victims. Saunders was impressed with the structures, their architectural integrity, and how strong and easily fabricated they were. As for the refugees, he sums up their reaction this way: “Thank you very much, we don’t live in houses made from cardboard tubes,” says Saunders: “Their thinking was, ‘We need to get back what we lost.’ They had no interest in what was perceived as an alien technology.”
Nor does Saunders see much viability for Ban’s designs being mass-produced on a scale relevant to large humanitarian organizations: 40 million refugees needed temporary housing in 2010, according to appeals received by the United Nations and Red Cross. “It’s the humble, non-exciting, more modest level of innovation that tends to be a lot more successful and a lot more scalable,” he says. For instance, take the paper tube and cloth partitions Ban designed for Japanese earthquake victims who were confined to high school gymnasiums and other large public spaces. The partitions gave victims much-needed privacy, and when mosquitos became an issue, Ban helped supply nets that could be draped over the tubes. Ultimately, Ban’s high-level analysis remains welcome in an arena with not enough architectural voices, Saunders says. Not to mention the publicity Ban has garnered in glossy magazine spreads like this one: “Maybe humanitarianism needs a bit of an artistic architect with a capital A to get noticed, which gets the rest of us noticed.”
Indeed, if Ban is going to change the world, it will be on his terms, through his uncompromising vision. (This is a man, after all, who talks about his career as his destiny.) He doesn’t accept projects unless they pose an interesting design challenge, and draws little distinction between his for-profit and disaster-relief work—all of his designs underscored by a desire to minimize waste. “There is no difference for me between temporary or permanent buildings,” he says. “Even the temporary church I designed for Kobe, it became permanent. It was up for 11 years, then it was donated to Taiwan, and then it was rebuilt there as a permanent church. The question is whether people love the building or not.”
As for his clients, they’re remarkably similar, regardless of the project. “The expensive houses or the temporary houses, people are always demanding a lot,” he says, with a smile.
Dean Maltz, who has called Ban on his cell phone during the interview to make plans for the evening, arrives. They attended Cooper Union together; Maltz says that the penthouse of one of their most recent projects, the Metal Shutter House condominiums in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, has just gone under contract. List price: $12.95 million. Amid the increasing amount of money and time Ban says he’s spending on humanitarian endeavors, the Shutter House project is a reminder that his portfolio of high-end projects hasn’t exactly suffered.
Ban says his time is up, and after a quick handshake, hustles out a side door with his partner, vanishing into the crowd on Park Avenue, on the move again, in pursuit of his destiny.