“After I became an architect, I was quite disappointed by my profession,” 2014 Pritzer Prize winner Shigeru Ban told New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman at the 2014 NYT Cities for Tomorrow conference on Monday night. “Because mainly we are working for privileged people,” he continued. “The people who have money and power – power and money are invisible. So they hire us to make monuments in order to show their power and money to the people. I’m not saying I’m not interested in making monuments but I was hoping to work for the public or people who lost their houses due to natural disasters. Not only working for privileged people.” Ban then went on to talk about why he actively seeks out pro bono projects in disaster areas (many of which he finances himself) and what he feels is the key to a building’s permanence. We were also lucky enough to ask Ban about his thoughts on sustainability after the discussion. Read on to see what he said.
If you read Inhabitat, you probably know that we’re long-time fans of Ban’s signature paper tube structures and use of recycled and reusable materials. But the Japanese architect’s unique approach extends far past his design choices. Called an “Architect of Social Change” by Kimmelman, Ban is not only redefining what buildings look like and are made out of, but also the role of the architect.
“For me, there’s no difference between designing permanent institutional buildings like museums or libraries or making temporary housing or temporary churches,” Ban told Kimmelman during their talk about the different types of work – ranging from high-profile paid jobs to completely unpaid projects for communities in need – in his portfolio. “When people move in, I get the same satisfaction,” Ban said. “The only difference is whether I’m paid or not. But otherwise there is no difference because I take the same time and energy and love.”
Ban’s work with temporary structures also raises questions about the distinction between permanent vs. impermanent buildings. “I remember when we first met, I asked you a question about resilience and green design and you were resistant to this idea and you mentioned the [Takatori] church as an example,” Kimmelman said to Ban. “You said to me, ‘You know, concrete is not very permanent if the building is not something people like. But paper, which can seem like it’s very temporary, can last much longer if people like it.'”
Shigeru Ban’s Christchurch cardboard cathedral in New Zealand.
“I finally found out by myself the distinction between what is permanent and what is temporary,” replied Ban. “Even a building out of paper can be permanent as long as people love it. But many concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes very easily but also if buildings are built to make money, like a commercial building by developers, they are very temporary. After other developers buy the land and destroy the building to put new towers, it’s very temporary. So whether a building is permanent or temporary is whether people love the building or not. It’s not depending on the materials it’s made of.”
We were able to speak briefly with Ban after the conference, and ask him about why sustainability is important to him. “It’s not important,” Ban told us. “I never thought about ‘sustainability’. I just started designing with recycled materials before people even started talking about ‘sustainability’. This is just a fashion. Everyone has been talking about ‘sustainability’ but I don’t care about that.”
And with such a varied portfolio of projects ranging from the ethereal Christchurch cardboard cathedral to modular housing for Japanese displaced after the devastating 2011 earthquake, we were curious to know if any were more special than the others. “If you have children, can you choose which one is your favorite?” he said. “All of them are my favorite.”
To see a video of Kimmelman and Ban’s full conversation, visit the NYT Cities for Tomorrow website.