Pritzker Winner Shigeru Ban Learned About Japanese Architecture in Los Angeles

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Reaction to the selection of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban for this year’s Pritzker Prize has been fast and favorable, with critics agreeing the architecture unites beauty, sustainability and humanity in a very important way.

But less commented on is the fact that Ban, the third Japanese Pritzker laureate in the past five years, credits Los Angeles for an education in his native country’s architecture.

But less commented on is the fact that Ban, the third Japanese Pritzker laureate in the past five years, credits Los Angeles for an education in his native country’s architecture. 

The architecture world has been riven in the last decade by a perceived split — stoked by a younger generation of architecture critics — between so-called “starchitects,” interested according to their critics only in fame and photogenic, iconic buildings, and those more interested in community-based, humanitarian design.

In the view of DnA, this is a false dichotomy (explored in this past article and to be explored later on DnA) but nonetheless, if any prize seemed to reinforce that distinction it was the Pritzker prize, which typically favored the avant-garde designs by “auteur” architects for houses and art museums.

The choice of Japan’s Shigeru Ban for this year’s Pritzker Laureate is seen as unifying the two tendencies (even though it does not represent any kind of departure from the Pritzker’s emphasis on designers of freestanding, formally expressive buildings like houses, museums and churches; rare is the architect of large-scale, commercial buildings who gets a Pritzker.)

As Christopher Hawthorne wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Ban’s Pritzker is a clear attempt by the jury to address the longstanding (and recently deepening) rift between architecture’s  humanitarian and high-design wings.

“On one side are those who practice an architecture of engagement, who use  their work to address social, political or environmental crises. On the other  are architects who express their ambition through form-making and innovative use  of materials or technology, who work with an eye toward how a building will look  in a magazine spread.

“There aren’t many architects who try to bridge the divide. The Los Angeles architect Michael  Maltzan is one. Colombia’s Giancarlo  Mazzanti is another. Ban is a third.”

Ban is an architect, commented Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times, “who has made his name using cardboard rather than concrete, paper  rather than glass, and through building for the afflicted rather than the  affluent. His ingenious and inventive architecture is a rare blend of the  sustainable, the recyclable and the beautiful.”

Paper log houses by Shigeru BanHe is almost certainly, said Sarah Williams Goldhagen in the New Republic, “the only laureate in the Pritzker Prize’s 36-year history whose name is familiar to officials of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Red Cross, as well as to the high-flying art-world curators (he built The Nomadic Museum, which spent four months on Pier 54 in New York City) and fashionistas (he’s responsible for designing exhibitions for Hermès and Issey Miyake).”

What pleases admirers of Ban’s work is the extreme elegance of Ban’s often simple structures, though some argue that he is less adept, ironically, at larger, more expensive projects like the 2010 Pompidou Metz in Paris (below right.)

From his earliest disaster-relief projects, writes Julie Iovine in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Ban has shown how even the cheapest materials—paper tubes, beer crates, shipping containers—can serve to create designs of luminous integrity when there is an exacting sense of proportion, volume and careful detailing. For his Paper Log House, designed in response to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, he used sapling-size cardboard tubes aligned vertically to fit snugly into cornices made from 2-by-4-inch studs beneath a canvas roof folded into origami-like peaks (above right, paper log houses in India, photographed by Kartikeya Shodhan).

cardboard cathedral in New ZealandMore recently, following a devastating earthquake in 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, Mr. Ban and the nonprofit he founded, Voluntary Architects’ Network, rebuilt portions of a beloved Victorian Gothic church out of cardboard (left, in photo by Stephen Goodenough). The Cardboard Cathedral, completed last year and intended as a transitional gathering place while plans for permanent reconstruction are hashed out, has been universally admired.

Abstracting the geometries of the original church, Mr. Ban created a gigantic A-frame out of large cardboard tubes (forms for pouring concrete columns) that look like latter-day flying buttresses. The triangular volume’s open ends are filled with pyramids of smaller triangles of colored polycarbonate sheets, creating the impression of stained glass.”

Centre Pompidou-Metz by Shigeru Ban Architects05Los Angeles Influence on Ban

It is easy to see in Ban’s work the voice of his native Japan, with its elegant reuse of paper, its craftsmanship, its calm and simplicity. But Ban himself points out that he came by that influence second-hand, via Los Angeles!

He moved to Los Angeles at age 18 to study at the newly founded SCI-Arc, and became a mentee of the school’s founder Ray Kappe, who was so impressed by the young man’s portfolio he put him directly into the second year.

In an interview with DnA in 2006 (when his traveling Nomadic Museum for photographer  Gregory Colbert, made of shipping containers and columns made of paper chips, put down anchor in Santa Monica), Ban said that  his “Japanese influence came through Case Study houses and houses by architects like Neutra and Schindler. They have such a big Japanese influence connecting inside outside, so my Japanese influence came indirectly, from Los Angeles.”

In the same interview he explained the attraction to low-cost, everyman materials that he uses in his refugee projects, saying, “paper tubes we can get anywhere in the world. . . and because it’s such an in expensive material always the company donates the material free.” He added that “these materials bring stories, saying about the shipping containers he used in the Nomadic Museum: they are wonderful because each container has its own history, they are traveling around all over the world.”

Now Ray Kappe, an admired architect whose calm, flowing, concrete and wood homes, in a late California Modernist language, also channel a “Japanese” influence, reflects on the trajectory of the student he nurtured. “He has not disappointed me nor proved me wrong. He has now been awarded the Pritzker Prize. His phenominal career has been filled with inventive, experimental and socially responsible buildings, deserving of this recognition. I am extremely proud of all of his accomplishments, proud to have opened the door to start him on his wonderful journey in architecture, and that, as he has remarked, “it all started at SCI-ARC.”

Back in 2007, I talked with Ray Kappe and Shigeru Ban at the Hammer Museum. The video of that event is here.