Many years ago, somebody told me that the up-and-coming young architect I should look into was Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA. I contacted Ban and, when I was in Tokyo, rode out to his suburban office jammed into a residential neighborhood. Ban had already designed the Curtain Wall House, whose billowing sails reminded me of Léon Krier’s renderings of neoclassical utopias, but which was a real place of breathtaking beauty. He had also devised a system of using cardboard tubes to create cheap, temporary structures in Africa and then in India, Japan, and Turkey. He indeed seemed worth watching, as well as being amazingly bright and articulate—and now he has won the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Ban deserves the Pritzker Prize for one reason above all else: He showed us that architecture that helps can also be beautiful, and vice-versa. Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, may be the only one who disagrees with the Prize committee that awarding socially responsible architecture is a good thing. My argument has always been that good design (in a social, ethical, environmental, and moral sense) doesn't really work if it is not beautiful. By this I mean that buildings or objects that are devised only to function—and that make it evident that they are there to do good—only serve to pigeonhole both that kind of design and the people the buildings are meant to serve. People with little means deserve more than mass-produced shacks or concrete boxes that only imprison them in a culture, space, and place of poverty. And the earth deserves more than a mishmash of technological devices sprouting off yet another ugly object taking up space and resources.
Not all of Ban’s objects are beautiful, and some of them even seem banal, but he does seem to be able to coax both strong and delicate effects out of a limited palette. He can use those tubes to create an abstract and thus clarified version of a church, as he did with Cardboard Cathedral. He can even swoop and curve with the best of them, sometimes by placing a hat on top of a simple box (Centre Metz Pompidou), and sometimes just by letting material react to its surroundings (Wall-less House).
Those familiar with his work tend to think of Ban as the cardboard guy, even though the breadth and materiality of his work is much more varied. I hope that the degree to which the Pritzker jury has emphasized the social aspect of his work does not serve to limit our perception of him even further, even though I understand and admire their desire to show an exemplar of good work that does good.
Two particular projects in New York show that he is capable of using a wide range of materials to strong effect: a temporary structure on a Manhattan pier for a photography exhibition, which he made out of shipping containers (the Nomadic Museum) and a condominium whose spaces open to the outside by pivoting up metal and glass panels (Metal Shutter House). They also show interest in and the general importance of two aspects of contemporary architecture I believe are fundamental: one, that we must think of all buildings as temporary and make them as much as possible out of reused material, and two, that we should blur the distinctions between inside and outside, public and private, solid and void. Ban does those two things as well as he makes disaster-relief structures or funny hats, and for me that is all the more reason I am happy he has received the Pritzker Award.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.