Shigeru Ban is the celebrated architect who refuses to become a celebrity. Thus, at 57, his career has run opposite to the dominant trend in the profession. For a generation there has been a star system in architecture, as tacky and ludicrous and overblown as the Hollywood original. Ban, softly spoken but strictly principled, is outside it.
New money — gas- and mineral-rich individuals and, indeed, whole nations — seeks prestige through stand-out buildings. The stage army of celebrity architects who once made their reputations through ingenious design have become willing collaborators in a vulgar conspiracy. Instead of selling ingenuity, or humbling themselves with notions of public utility, the starchitects have been doing slick promotional selfies as premium brands. You want a glitzy new cultural centre in Backofbeyondistan? Call Zaha! Call Rem! Send your jet! They can pack their Prada overnight bag in minutes.
But there is a reaction. Item 1. Even Koolhaas, a supernova in the star system who once enthused about creating identical mega-cities, says we now need to concentrate more on architecture than on architects. This is rather like Karl Kraus’s observation that Freud was the disease he purported to cure. Item 2. Next month Shigeru Ban will receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize at a ceremony in Amsterdam’s newly refurbished Rijksmuseum. His popular obscurity will be over. But who is he?
Ban was educated in Tokyo, California and at New York’s Cooper Union, where a presiding spirit was Victor Papanek, author of Design for the Real World (1971), a book that argued for creative recycling. At the time, Papanek seemed to be merely a contrarian opponent of imperial industrial America and its religion of waste, but now his arguments for reuse appear visionary. They have been reused, or resurfaced, in Shigeru Ban.
Paper is a special interest. An early architectural project in Ahmedabad (where Le Corbusier once worked in unyielding concrete) had Ban employing the rigid cardboard tubes used in the textile industry. The meanings of paper are specially significant to this architect: not only is it inexpensive, natural, 100 per cent recyclable and surprisingly strong, it also has a pleasingly direct cultural connection to shoji, the paper doors and screens you find in traditional Japanese houses.
In 2000 Ban used cardboard tubes to construct the Japanese Pavilion at the Hannover Expo. And in the same year he built The Naked House in Saitama Prefecture. This has become a building venerated by a new generation of architectural students. The ‘house’ is a translucent corrugated-plastic hangar-like structure and, within it, the rooms are large, open-ended wooden boxes that can be moved about on their casters. Intended to stimulate delightful personal interaction, it is disruptively strange and eerily beautiful. The Nomadic Museum is another characteristic project: in defiance of accepted notions of ego-driven monumentality and sentimental genius loci, this is a building that evolves as it changes sites.
While the celebrity architects were queueing for manicures and back rubs in hotel spas, Ban was standing knee-deep in slurry helping with disaster relief in Rwanda, Kobe and Fukushima, proposing low-cost shelters for emergencies. In New Zealand, he rebuilt Christchurch’s quake-devastated cathedral in cardboard. The only reason he doesn’t publicise his ability to make a proper house for a mere $30,000 is that it’ll overexcite the dispossessed before anyone has organised the means to satisfy demand.
There are four elements to Shigeru Ban’s work. From Victor Papanek there is the commitment to recycling. And from Buckminster Fuller there is the fascination with lightweight structures. Ban’s interest in organic form has European roots in the designs of, for example, Alvar Aalto and Hans Scharoun. But there is at the same time a pervasive mysticism and controlled aesthetic that is profoundly Japanese. The four elements make a unique whole.
If Shigeru Ban’s work were merely scavenger-chic and lofty humanitarianism it would not be so very interesting, but he has a keen sense of beauty. Nor does he disdain swanky big-ticket jobs when they come his way. For the Mallorquin shoe manufacturer Camper he built a landmark store on SoHo’s Prince Street. His startling Centre Pompidou-Metz was inspired by a Chinese hat found in Paris and he is specially proud of his campus for the Swatch-Omega conglomerate in Biel, which will be finished next year.
This is a flowing, serpentine, wooden, glazed structure that gloriously exceeds the limits of the architectural vocabulary. Zaha Hadid is very good at architectural shape-making too, but her designs are notoriously difficult to build and struggle to reach any level of meaning higher than advertising. Ban, by contrast, understands structure and invests his buildings with attractive and subtle meanings.
He is more interested in solving problems than in causing them and is a fine advertisement for the design principle that constraints are not the same as compromises. Making a pop-up cathedral out of cardboard, a museum from a shipping container or a respectable dwelling for the cost of a hatchback nicely illustrates John Updike’s idea of ‘giving the mundane its beautiful due’.
When the 2014 Pritzker Prize winner was announced, the New York Times wrote, in a bravura passage of gleeful score-settling, that Ban had inspired students ‘anxious to make an impact beyond the bubble of fading glamour in which stardom derives from designing costly art museum expansions and megaprojects for clients in Qatar and Dubai built on the backs of indentured labour’.
After years of spectacular indulgence in architecture, it is good to see radical economy and radical thinking prioritised over spectacle and sensationalism, what Tom Wolfe called ‘kerbflash’. This year’s Pritzker Prize resets architecture’s compass: I hope it doesn’t point to Shigeru Ban becoming a celebrity. It was John Updike, too, who said that ‘celebrity is a mask that eats the face’. Unlike many of his peers, Shigeru Ban can look in the mirror and not feel disturbed.
Stephen Bayley’s latest book is Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything.