by Ophélie Chevalier

The Pritzker Prize is architecture’s most prestigious award.  The 2014 winner was Shigeru Ban.  In announcing this year’s laureate, Tom Pritzker said, “Shigeru Ban’s commitment to humanitarian causes through his disaster relief work is an example for all.  Innovation is not limited by building type, and compassion is not limited by budget.  Shigeru has made our world a better place.”

Shigeru Ban received the 2014 Pritzker prize in architecture for his commitment to humanitarian causes

Shigeru Ban received the 2014 Pritzker prize in architecture for his commitment to humanitarian causes

Shigeru Ban is a Japanese architect whose work is characterized by the use of unconventional materials, such as paper or plastics.  His first designs for paper-tube structures were used to provide temporary homes for Vietnamese refugees after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 (they are known as the paper house and the paper church). Since then, the architect has traveled to sites of natural and man-made disasters around the world to develop low-cost, recyclable shelters for affected communities.

Shelter for refugees after the Kobe earthquake (1995). These 16-square-meter structures elegantly proved Ban’s cardboard concept; tubing could be used as load-bearing structures, and could be made both waterproof and flame-resistant. Beer crates were used for support.

Shelter for refugees after the Kobe earthquake (1995). These 16-square-meter structures elegantly proved Ban’s cardboard concept; tubing could be used as load-bearing structures, and could be made both waterproof and flame-resistant. Beer crates were used for support.

The fact that an architect is interested in temporary or low-income housing is unusual.  The fact that an architect with such interests receives the field’s most prestigious award is unprecedented.  This should be welcome, given the tendency of most architects to stay away from low-income housing—in other words, low-income housing can be hot!  In many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, more than half of all households—particularly low- and middle-income families—build their homes on their own, with little technical assistance, and over the long term, in an incremental way.  Those households have never heard of an architect and they build their house with very little technical assistance.

Nomadic Museum (2005) Constructed from shipping containers, this temporary art housing has become a traveling exhibit; the paper tubes are packed up in between showings in a spare shipping container, moved to the next city, and then used to set up shop with rented containers from that area. It was first used to house the 'Ashes and Snow' photography and film exhibition by Gregory Colbert at the West Piers in Manhattan.

Nomadic Museum (2005)
Constructed from shipping containers, this temporary art housing has become a traveling exhibit; the paper tubes are packed up in between showings in a spare shipping container, moved to the next city, and then used to set up shop with rented containers from that area. It was first used to house the ‘Ashes and Snow’ photography and film exhibition by Gregory Colbert at the West Piers in Manhattan.

Mr. Ban’s interest for this informal sector and the recognition that he got for his interest shed light to discussions on how to enhance cooperation between households, authorities, and professionals like architects and urban planners, as well as how to promote safe, good quality construction practices. From a public policy perspective, it also raises the question of how to include informal actors into the formal housing supply chain.

In 2013, Ban’s office introduced its new disaster housing prototype, the New Temporary House, whose exterior is made of insulated sandwich panels and fiber-reinforced plastic.

In 2013, Ban’s office introduced its new disaster housing prototype, the New Temporary House, whose exterior is made of insulated sandwich panels and fiber-reinforced plastic.

Looking into how to bring together people from such different backgrounds—low-income families in the informal sector, architects, urban planners, local authorities—is a key step in finding answers to those questions. What could be a simple, easily accessible to bring them together?  In a world of social media and apps, cell phones can help! Almost every family has a cellphone.  It is more than just an upgrade from a land line. It is an important facilitator of many users’ social relationships—and a simple but crucial way to easily access information. An idea could be to develop a phone application to help connect all the people involved so that the incremental process becomes more efficient.