A paper-thin humanitarian ethos

April 6, 2011

As Shigeru Ban responds to the Japan earthquake with a new prototype for paper shelters, David Neustein assesses how effective these projects have been in remediating the effects of natural disasters.

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“Please Support Japanese Architect Shigeru Ban’s Relief Project Helping Quake-Stricken Japanese Families!!”

Barely a few days after an earthquake and tsunami had devastated the area around Fukushima in Japan, I was inundated with a slew of such messages on Facebook, Twitter, and by email. Amidst an outpouring of concern for Japan, news spread rapidly that Ban was planning an initiative to build temporary partitions for displaced families taking refuge en masse in school gymnasia. Whereas many charitable organisations discouraged specifying donations to Japan, preferring to distribute funds themselves, Ban offered a tangible cause to support. Attached to many messages was a link to his website, where the project is described and a bank account listed for direct contributions. Though the architect has been associated with disaster relief efforts for 17 years, he has never enjoyed this much public attention. The scale of the Japanese disaster, the depth of media coverage, Ban’s ties to his native Japan, and (one presumes) some well-timed media releases all contributed to the impact of his initiative. So widely was his name mentioned that when the 2011 Pritzker Prize recipient was announced recently, I almost expected to hear ‘Ban’ once again.

So where did this all start? In 1994, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) began distributing plastic sheets and hatchets amongst the 2,000,000 refugees of the Rwandan genocide. So many trees were cut down for shelters and fires that erosion and landslides became a major problem. But when the UNHCR distributed metal poles in place of branches, the poles were sold and tree-cutting resumed. Enter Shigeru Ban. Having first employed ‘paper’ (cardboard) tubes for a 1986 exhibition on Alvar Aalto, and subsequently experimenting with the tubes as structural supports in his projects in place of timber or steel, Ban realised that paper might be the solution to the Rwandan problem. He designed a temporary paper tube dwelling. The tubes could be manufactured locally and cheaply, and had no market value beyond their intended use. ‘I had no experience with this sort of problem, but I went to Rwanda and went to see the high commissioner,’ Ban is quoted as saying in a 2007 New York Times story. ‘My timing was good.’ However, in the same article, former Cooper Union classmate Laurie Hawkinson dispels any notion that Rwanda was a simple matter of right place, right time. ‘I mean he’s forceful and incredibly persistent,’ says Hawkinson. ‘He got into the relief work by calling up the United Nations and just not taking no for an answer.’

In 1999, by the time Ban was eventually able to build 50 prototype shelters in Byumba Refugee Camp, Rwanda, he had already deployed his paper tube structures in Japan, Turkey and India. In the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, Ban built 27 ‘paper log houses’ with sandbag-filled Kirin beer crates for foundations. He then constructed dwellings of the same design in Kaynasli, Turkey and Bhuj, India. In addition to the log houses, Ban erected a Paper Church in Kobe, an ephemeral and particularly poetic outcome of his tube technology.

Recently, Ban has created temporary classrooms for an elementary school in China’s Sichuan Province, and a concert venue in L’Aquila, Italy, after earthquakes in both places. He is currently attempting to build 50 shelters in Haiti. Predictably, these projects involve the use of Ban’s trademark paper tubes. However, in 2006 Ban was forced to depart from his usual methods to construct 50 houses for tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka. Faced with the requirement that the houses be permanent, the architect resorted to compressed earth blocks and wood instead of cardboard. Writing in Shigeru Ban: Complete Works 1985-2010, a Taschen monograph, author Philip Jodidio raises questions about the architect’s favoured material. In Sri Lanka, writes Jodidio, “emphasis was placed on locally available, inexpensive materials rather than Ban’s favorite paper-tube elements.” By implication, Ban’s paper tubes are exotic, expensive, and have limited longevity. In the monograph, humanitarian projects such as those in Rwanda and China are published alongside art museums, expo pavilions and private residences, most of which also feature paper tube elements despite having radically different budgets, life-spans, contexts and users. Seen in this light, the ongoing choice of paper tubes could be more about branding than functionality. This was certainly the impression I had when I briefly met with Ban to discuss the conical paper tube tower that he had built for the 2009 London Design Festival. ‘I am interested in two things,’ he said at the time. ‘Firstly, creating architecture that helps people, and secondly, proving that paper can be a viable building material like steel or concrete.’ The London tower, a temporary folly, demonstrated neither point. Ban’s website (with disaster relief projects highlighted amongst others in emergency red) currently displays prototypes of the temporary partition system which Ban has developed for Japan. The partitions are built from paper tubes, with an elegant set of architectural diagrams explaining possible configurations of the system. We might ask: is this a functional or aesthetic solution? Would some kind of cardboard sandwich panel have done the trick?

Who cares, you might well say. Ban is a pioneer in humanitarian architecture, working to help the masses where others will not. But what I question is how much of this work is humanitarian, and how much of it self-promotional. Interviewed a week ago for another New York Times article, Ban was introduced as an architect ‘known for his acts of modesty’. Asked the interviewer: ‘Katrina. The Asian tsunami. Haiti. Every time a natural disaster of this order occurs, designers present innovative ideas for shelters that never get built. Why not?’ ‘We don’t need innovative ideas,’ replied Ban. “We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly. A house is a house.’ He later stated: ‘I’m just doing what other architects don’t do.’ Presuming both of these assertions have been correctly quoted, they hold serious implications for an assessment of Ban’s work. His entire modus operandi is based on offering innovative solutions for disasters. And there are numerous other architects and architect organisations operating in the area of humanitarian or post-disaster architecture, including Architects sans Frontières, Architecture for Humanity, Elemental, Emergency Architects and Healthabitat, co-founded by Australia’s Paul Pholeros. Working in Australia and Nepal, undertaking housing maintenance and constructing permanent sanitary infrastructure for remote communities using available materials, Pholeros appears to be the complete opposite of Ban. He is reluctant to publish or promote his efforts.

Ban’s humanitarian architectural work is certainly admirable. But it needs to be stated that, excluding Sri Lanka, his attempts to create temporary mass housing have not advanced beyond the prototype stage. Fifty dwellings have been built for Rwanda’s 2,000,000 refugees, and another 50 planned for Haiti’s 1,200,000 homeless. Despite the fantastic public reaction to his latest project, there is no guarantee that Ban’s partition system will be rolled out in Japan. For architect-designed shelters to become the norm in such places, it will take a concerted and collaborative effort to achieve traction with the UNHCR and other official aid organisations. If Ban is genuinely interested in achieving widespread progress, he profits little by discrediting the enterprising work done by his contemporaries. Perhaps a change of name should be the first item on his agenda. Founded by Ban in 1995, the Voluntary Architects Network (VAN) is the umbrella organisation for his humanitarian projects. In Japanese, the acronym VAN is pronounced ‘BAN’. It’s time to take the ego out of the initiative.

David Neustein is the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia. This piece was prepared with the assistance of Lachlan Delaney, who received the 2010 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship for his study ‘Sago Studio: Architects Building Capacity’, which includes an evaluation of the methodologies of architects associated with humanitarian projects.

Image Paper Emergency Shelters for the UNHCR, Rwanda. Shigeru Ban

  • Beatriz Maturana April 7th, 2011 2:29 pm

    Another difference in regards to Paul Pholeros’ work is that his work is local–he does not presume that a solution appropriate for indigenous housing in Australia can be exported anywhere else.

  • Lee Stickells April 11th, 2011 4:16 am

    Some really well made points David. As you imply, there are important distinctions to be made between the shelter needs produced by disasters at different scales, and in different stages of recovery. Bespoke architectural solutions rarely seem very effective though (and often indulgent)… An interesting contrast to Ban’s work (sorry, here comes the plug) is the DISASTR HOTEL project by DV Rogers, as part of the show “The RIght to the CIty” currently at TIn Sheds Gallery in Sydney. DISASTR HOTEL is constructed using the open source “hexayurt” system, with equipment and materials readily available from hardware stores.

  • UomoViso April 12th, 2011 1:06 am

    I wrote an article on Ban’s disaster work recently, at http://www.panfilocastaldi.wordpress.com, lavishing praise on his efforts. David’s insightful commentary has altered my perspective somewhat – perhaps Ban has fallen pray to a good (but not great) idea… He is too involved in the paper project to be able to see when certain applications are not appropriate.

  • Brad Cook April 15th, 2011 3:17 am

    Interesting points raised David. And as stated, the geographical and topographical differences between said disasters should certainly dictate different solutions to the materiality of the shelters. However the sheer size and number of Japanese paper mills is stagering and therefore in Japan his ideas may still be relevant – if not a little single-minded as UomoViso has pointed out. I know from first hand experience the scarcity of materials in the Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima and Ibaraki areas of northern Japan – even more so now following the crippling of the manufacturing industry in the immediate areas. It will almost certainly take a governing organization to adopt and develop Ban’s ideas to make them achievable. But as mentioned, he may need to step off his soapbox and concentrate on the actualities …

  • Martha Thorne, Executive Director, Pritzker Architecture Prize April 23rd, 2011 7:24 am

    Shame on you David Neustein! In the face of unprecedented suffering, you question Shigeru Ban’s motives, you question his materials, and you question the scale of his efforts to respond to disaster. This sounds to me like an attempt on your part to create a story based on innuendo and speculation. I wish you had done your research and spoken directly to Ban. I am confident you would have reached other conclusions. Often the first step is one person or one prototype, thereby setting an example for others to follow.

  • Barnaby Bennett April 27th, 2011 4:25 am

    Having visiting the Shigeru Ban Projects in Sri Lanka, and interviewed local architects involved with the Village first hand I can say that they were really disappointing. The houses got 2-3 times the budget of other post-tsunami constructions. While the detailing was certainly very nice, the design overlooking a critical cultural factor that the housing was for a muslim population and it was entirely inappropriate for the living spaces to be viewed across properties. We were able to stand in one building and see through around 5 other houses. This is the sort of obvious mistake that is easily avoided by proper engagement with the future users. Although I should add that Ban’s projects were by no means the only ones that go things wrong in Sri Lanka, although they may well have been the most expensive. I’m sure Shigeru Ban is a very lovely person with great intentions, and he is no doubt a great designer. But as a design community we need to be able to critique work that isn’t live up its it promise or potential. Good motives isn’t enough.

  • David Neustein April 28th, 2011 5:33 am

    Martha thanks for your comment. My story was not based on innuendo and speculation, but thorough research. I have, as is stated in this article, spoken to Ban in the past. Since this article was published I have entered into correspondence with other architects who also question the viability of Ban’s methods. In particular, they have raised concerns with the difficulties of recycling paper, suggesting the emphasis on “recycling” is rhetorical rather than practical.

    There can be little doubt that Shigeru Ban is a fine architect. And I agree that there is significant merit in setting an example for others. This is why I found his published comments discrediting the work of other architects who share his humanitarian focus to be so objectionable. You cannot set out to run a monopoly on socially-conscious architecture without attracting scrutiny.

    I note your affiliation with the Pritzker Prize. My intent was not to damage the credibility of this award by critiquing the work of someone who will no doubt be a future recipient.

  • Vinay Gupta April 29th, 2011 12:55 pm

    I’m Vinay Gupta, the designer of the hexayurt.

    Our approach to this is pretty simple: if you don’t use the materials locally already, there’s probably a good reason for that. We don’t build ordinary housing from plastic tarps or cardboard tubes, we use wood, cement and steel, and for very good reasons.

    Using wood, cement and steel in simple, easy-to-build, efficient ways is a sensible use of disaster funds. Paper and plastic are not.

    On the topic of cultural fit, it’s madness to expect to get an architecture right in one shot. We should cultivate an approach of building small numbers of evaluation buildings, say a few dozen houses a year, until a design is found which genuinely works for people.

    After a disaster, that “reference design” can be build in large numbers with a greatly reduced chance of substantial technical or cultural error.

    It’s all common sense, at the end of the day. Common sense and forethought.

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