“Welcome to the new world of architecture,” said Sarah Williams Goldhagen in The New Republic. When the field’s most prestigious honor, the Pritzker Prize, was awarded last week to Shigeru Ban, it signaled an end of the era in which serving the public good was considered antithetical to superb design. Ban, who first made his name two decades ago by rethinking how best to build temporary shelters for war refugees, is a bit older than a rising generation of other socially conscious architects who are putting problem-solving at the heart of their practice. But at 56, and armed now with his Pritzker, this Japanese-born, American-educated innovator is “positioned to have a profound influence on the profession and in the world.”
Throughout his career, “Ban has shown how even the cheapest materials can serve to create designs of luminous integrity,” said Julie V. Iovine in The Wall Street Journal. He frequently uses recyclable cardboard tubes and paper walls for his temporary structures, but adapts his approach to suit the resources, skills, and living needs of the population he’s serving. Three recent earthquakes inspired him to create three types of community centers—cardboard schools for China, a cardboard concert hall for Italy, and the “exquisitely beautiful” Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand. He’s beginning to earn commissions for more permanent projects too, including the Centre Pompidou-Metz in northeast France and the soon-to-open Aspen Art Museum in Colorado. “What’s interesting is that even when working for prestigious museums, Ban essentially takes the same approach as he does with the emergency shelters”—using “intense craftsmanship” and “generous natural-light effects” to get the most out of relatively low-cost materials.
That impulse doesn’t always serve him well, said Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times. In his grander structures, some of the detailing is so crude that it’s as if he’s “determined to hold on to his low-budget bona fides.” Still, the timing of last month’s award was “exquisite,” said Paul Goldberger in VanityFair.com. Past Pritzker recipient Zaha Hadid had recently embarrassed herself in an interview when she said it was not her duty as an architect to worry about the migrant workers who’ve died while building the World Cup stadium she designed for Qatar. Ban clearly believes otherwise. “Yes, an architect’s primary responsibility is to shape form. But there is social meaning inherent in every structure, in every form, in every place, and in every situation, and it does architecture no good to suggest that the art of form-making is separate and distinct from the uses to which a form will be put.”