(By Mark Lawson/New Statesman) The Pritzker prize is regarded as architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. And, as is standard with the awards endowed by the Swedish inventor of dynamite, this year’s Pritzker is open to the suspicion that it has been awarded as much for political as for cultural reasons – it went to the only member of the profession who might be a plausible future candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Shigeru Ban, the 2014 Pritzker laureate, is the answer to critics who complain that the imagining of new buildings is dominated by egotistical, super-rich “starchitects”. He is personally modest and if he were to have a punning tag, it would be “disastertect”.
Ban has specialised in creating emergency structures from improbable materials in crisis zones. After the earthquakes of 1995 and 2011 in his native Japan, he created shelters for the homeless from beer crates and shipping containers, respectively. Last year, in the tremor-wrecked Christchurch, he raised his masterpiece to date, a construction that feels as if it should be found in the pages of a magical realist novel rather than in urban New Zealand: a cathedral created from cardboard.
The Pritzker citation acknowledged that Ban got the $100,000 and bronze medal for his disaster relief work as well as his architecture. However, as when the judges of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature complimented Harold Pinter on his political activism alongside his plays, it’s important to recognise that the recipient would have deserved the award for his artistic contributions alone.
The two key decisions for an architect are shape and substance and, in these areas, Ban is as innovative and influential as three previous Pritzker winners: Jørn Utzon, whose Sydney Opera House encouraged an epidemic of white, curved roofs and canopies around the world, and Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, who turned design thinking literally inside out with their Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Appropriately, Ban is a successor to Rogers and Piano in another sense: he built a temporary studio (from paper) on top of the Pompidou while designing the museum’s regional outpost in Metz, which echoes Utzon’s opera house in its vast white swirling roof, made, in evidence that the Japanese architect can also work in more conventional materials, from timber and fibreglass.
Rogers, Piano and Utzon were all working at the edge of the highest technology available. But Ban’s frequent starting point is low-tech and, from a British perspective, Blue Peter-ish. The shape that inspired many of his designs is a cardboard inner tube. Some journalists have been understandably drawn to the bathos of invoking a loo roll but Ban is clear that he first had the idea after getting to the last sheet of tracing paper or – this dates him – fax paper. His use of paper and cardboard as building materials is as brilliantly counterintuitive as Rogers and Piano placing the plumbing on the outside of the Pompidou. Whereas most buildings start on paper, many of Ban’s end in it.