Building Houses Out Of Cardboard Just Won This Guy The Top Prize In Architecture

RealClear Staff


Shigeru Ban at the premier of the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2010.

When you think of architecture you think of permanence. You think of the pyramids sitting out in the deserts of Egypt for 5,000 years. You think of the great cathedrals of Europe built over centuries and surviving war after war after war. You think of aspiring to build something that is not only beautiful but outlasts you. The winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, the most coveted award in architecture, rejects all of that. He rejects stone. He rejects steel. He rejects cement. Shigeru Ban builds with cardboard. 

Seriously. Shigeru Ban built this store for Davines, an italian beauty products company, entirely from cardboard. Pretty cool, huh?

Okay, he doesn’t build entirely with cardboard. He also uses a lot of wood—and even occasionally metals—on bigger projects, but what made him famous was building temporary cardboard houses after disasters. Cheap and easy to assemble, Shigeru Ban and his buildings rushed to the scene to offer as many people shelter as quickly as possible.

He was there after the Kobe earthquake:

Built only to last 3 years, there were people still living in Ban's emergency housing a decade after the Kobe earthquake. 

He was there in Haiti:

When the situation is desperate, carboard structures can be assembled far faster and far cheaper than more permanent metal or even wooden structures. 

After the earthquake in New Zealand that destroyed the Christchurch Cathedral, Ban built a new cathedral out of cardboard tubes so that while the real cathedral was being rebuilt, the people of Christchurch would have a place to gather and worship. 

Built from wood, cardboard, and some shipping containers, the "Cardboard Cathedral" cost only $4,250,000 to build. Ban did the design work for free.

Each of those tubes is 20 feet long and weigh over 1000 pounds. 

Ban started his work with cardboard back in the mid-90s after visiting a refugee camp in Rwanda. Seeing the way that the refugees lived in those camps made him reevaluate the purpose of architectures, the purpose of what it is he did for a living. “I’m not saying I’m against building monuments, but I’m thinking we can work more for the public,” he told a conference for environmentally sustainable construction in London. “Architects are not building temporary housing because we are too busy building for the privileged people.”

Ban set up this house, called the Hermes Pavilion at Milan Design Week 2011. It's not really a functional house because its roof and walls are full of holes, but it is really gorgeous to look at it.

Shigeru Ban doesn’t just want to build buildings, he wants to change the way people conceive of building buildings—what their purpose is—what the end goal is—is it just to make a pretty thing, or a monumental thing, or is it to actually help people live their lives? Is it better to build one spectacular home for one wealthy family that will last forever, or to provide many people decent housing for a short period of time? Is the quality of the present more important than the quality of eternity? 

Unlike the Hermes Pavilion, this Paper Tea House is entirely cardboard. No wooden supports. It's also a building you wouldn't much want to be inside during a snowstorm.

Because of these questions, a lot of Ban’s work actually ends up in art galleries instead of out in the elements. He’s a conceptual architect, if you will, as well as an architect architect. In that capacity, he actually worked with a team of architects to design a memorial for the World Trade Center that would have replaced the two giant buildings with what amounted to their ghosts.

If you're interested, there were a whole slew of designs submitted for the WTC reconstruction other than the Freedom Tower. Some of them are pretty interesting.

The design, of course, was never built, but it’s quiet, haunting beauty confirmed Ban’s position as one of the world's best and most thoughtful architects. Since then, he's been able to buld some pretty impressive buildings. And not from cardboard either. He designed the new Pompodou Center in the French city of Metz:

Supposedly the shape of the Pompidou-Metz was inspired by a bamboo hat. 

Look at that woodwork. Now look at the original Centre Pompidou in Paris. Pretty radical difference, right?

And the new headquarters for the Swatch company in Switzerland:

This building hasn't started construction yet, but when its finished it'll have this massive, wooden, proboscis peeling off the central offices and then twisting out into the garden.

But even in those buildings, his elegant flourishes are all built from wood—a material that in time will decay and have to be replaced. Metz may have a new modern art museum. Swatch may have a beautiful headquarters. But not forever.



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