Millions are displaced from their homes each year by conflict and natural catastrophe. Can architects provide a solution?
When a natural disaster happens somewhere in the world, it does not take long for Shigeru Ban’s inbox to light up. So he was not surprised when, soon after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ravaged Nepal on April 25, he received a flood of messages from people both known to him and strange: NGOs, investors, tourists and Nepalese students in Tokyo, where he is based. One message, from an architect in Kathmandu, stuck out above all. “I’ve been digging temples in search of dead bodies, carried dead bodies to hospitals,” the last sentence read, “but I would like to make a more meaningful contribution.” Ban read this and decided he would go.
During the 1960s and 1970s, young architects tackled the social issues of the day through community-planning projects and affordable housing developments. At some point, though, public-interest design became passé. Graduates became preoccupied with the design of grand buildings. Funding for humanitarian projects is difficult to acquire and architects pursuing philanthropic causes came to seem naive or idealistic.
In 2014 that perception shifted when Ban received the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture. At 58, he has built his share of monuments — the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France is one. But the Pritzker was for his work in areas devastated by natural or man-made disasters, projects such as the Paper Shelter in Haiti and the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. By combining local materials with his signature recycled cardboard tubes, his architecture provides shelter to those who have suffered tremendous loss, while also being low-cost, well designed and beautiful. […]