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Submitted By salee
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The work of this year’s laureate, Shigeru Ban, has also been displayed at Vitra. Huddled on a lawn, his structures, three fifty-dollar tents sheathed in standard-issue plastic tarps from the U.N., intended for the refugees of the Rwandan civil war, looked as if any minute they might be loaded on a pallet and removed. Ban’s work lay underneath the plastic: a simple skeleton of recycled-paper tubes, fitted together with plastic joints and braced with ropes describing the pattern of an unfinished star. Ban, who has built museums, mansions, corporate headquarters, and a golf-course clubhouse in South Korea, takes pleasure in distinguishing himself from his peers, and in pointing up their excesses: not much of their work could fit into a kit that comprises eleven elements (Paper Tube A, Paper Tube B, plastic peg), including the bag. “This company has the most expensive collection of architecture,” he says. “My tents became their cheapest collection.”

In a profession often associated with showmanship and ego, Ban’s work appears humble, and appropriate to a historical moment that celebrates altruism, or its posture. The Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a member of the Pritzker jury, told me that he was moved by Ban’s commitment to the dispossessed. “The world is filled with billions of people, and most of them live in conditions where they will never see an architect or an architect-designed space,” he said. “To have a first-rate architect pay attention to those in need of shelter, and build better-quality buildings to serve their aesthetic and human needs—that is wonderful.”

With a team of student volunteers, Ban has touched down at nearly every major natural-disaster site of the past two decades. The arc of his career tracks the rise of cataclysmic weather as page-one news: the Kobe earthquake, which killed six thousand people (1995); the magnitude-7.4 earthquake in Turkey that left half a million homeless (1999); the Gujarat earthquake (2001); the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004); Hurricane Katrina (2005); the Sichuan earthquake (2008); the L’Aquila earthquake (2009); Haiti, Tohoku, the Philippines. Ban’s practice, according to Riichi Miyake, a scholar of Japanese architecture, is “an architectural iteration of Doctors Without Borders.”

Ban, who is fifty-seven, has pillowy lips and lids, and a barrel-shaped body perpetually swathed in softly pleated black linen; behind him trails a small black suitcase on wheels. He looks clicked together, like a Lego figurine. (He used to play rugby, No. 8.) A black pen with a red dot on its clip—a sole concession to color—is tucked between two buttons on his shirt. His mother, a dressmaker with a small atelier on the second floor of his suburban Tokyo studio, designs his clothes. In addition to Tokyo, he has two other offices, in Paris and in New York, and some seventy employees. Masako Ban, the wife he rarely sees, makes accessories and women’s pocketbooks inspired by industrial materials. They don’t have children.

On August 9th, Ban will mark the public opening of the Aspen Art Museum, his first permanent museum in the United States. The building, a glass box nested in a lattice screen made from resin-infused paper and topped with a timber truss roof, is an astonishing plexus of materials pushed to their limits. Materials—in his case, paper tubes, shipping containers, beer crates, sustainably sourced wood—and their capabilities have always been Ban’s primary concern, placing his work in sharp contrast to the spectacular, parametric, digitally derived architecture that dominates today. “I’m not the architect to make a shape,” he told me firmly. “My designs are always problem solving.” Rafael Viñoly, who worked on a team with Ban in 2002 to propose a design for the new World Trade Center—they made it to the final round—says, “This is a guy that still thinks architecture is about building, the mechanical part of building and what the building does. Architecture is not writing or talking, it’s building buildings.”

“Beautiful—that’s all we need to sue them into oblivion.”
Toyo Ito, another Japanese Pritzker winner, wrote in an e-mail, “Many architects in the world today are competing only for the beauty of the architectural form. Ban-san’s attempt is a counter-punch against these architects, and I think he represents a new model of a ‘socially responsible’ architect.” To many in the field, though, Ban represents a conundrum. “I don’t know exactly what to do with him, really,” Kenneth Frampton, a noted architecture critic who teaches at Columbia, told me. “Underlying his work is an idea of a minimalism based on the notion of energy and ecological sustainability. He’s connected to the Japanese tradition, but also very influenced by America and a Yankee-tinker attitude, which was Buckminster Fuller’s approach. It’s a value-free technical performance, detached from anything you could call a critical cultural position.” Like Fuller, who was obsessed by structural and engineering questions but indifferent to the dialogue around aesthetics, Ban labors at his private puzzles and patents his inventions. Whatever meanings may be embedded in his materials—globalism, consumerism, thrift—he will not be the one to tease them out. “I am not reflecting on it,” he says. Another time, he wrote to me, “I do not know the meaning of ‘Green Architect.’ I have no interest in ‘Green,’ ‘Eco,’ and ‘Environmentally Friendly.’ I just hate wasting things.”

Ban counts stubbornness as one of his great strengths, but he is not entirely free of self-consciousness: he had to interrupt his Pritzker acceptance speech, flustered, he said, because “Rem is looking at me.” In March, when the prize was announced, Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, posted on Facebook, “I worry if the criteria of the Pritzker Prize . . . are now also being diverted in the direction of political correctness.” To others, Ban’s focus is so far from the aesthetic concerns of the discipline that he poses no threat at all. Tod Williams, a prominent New York architect who taught Ban and likes him, said, “It’s barely architecture. There’s no real depth to the work, and that’s why it’s a good, clear message.”

In airports, Ban is quick. Catching up to him is embarrassing. You may choose to lag. A comfortable range is one where you can see the small bald spot on the top of his head and know that you could reach him at a sprint. He is a hard man to buy a sandwich for. If you succeed, you must ask him questions while he chews. (Is it a conversation if one of you is also writing e-mails on his iPad?) He exasperates quickly. Many things are too complicated to explain. You must read his official biography, on the Web site of the Pritkzer Foundation. You must attend his upcoming public lecture. Parting ways, even when you are boarding the same plane, he will say, “See you tomorrow,” but it’s possible you will never see him again. His seat, in first, is in Row 1, by the aisle.

On Memorial Day, Ban flew to Aspen—his fifth city in as many days—to check on the progress of the museum. A nineteenth-century mining town, where Victorian houses go for four million apiece, Aspen has never had an “architectural” building, at least not one that the public could access. In the mountains around the city, there are numerous fine examples of contemporary architecture, including the first residential project by Renzo Piano, which belongs to Tom Pritzker, of the prize family. (They own the Hyatt hotel chain.) But, despite the presence of Prada and Frette, downtown is a place of low-slung red brick. The pride of the city—the tallest building in the historic core—is the Wheeler Opera House, built to fifty-five feet in 1889. The museum, thirty-three thousand square feet right at the base of the ski mountain, is a behemoth by local standards—shockingly contemporary and, at forty-seven feet, dangerously close to upstaging the Wheeler. The mayor, Steve Skadron, campaigned for office on the strength of his record: as a city-council member, he had cast the single dissenting vote on Ban’s proposal. “Our built environment is the one thing that keeps us from looking like everything else,” he told me, then added, forebodingly, “A short way up the highway is Vail.”

Using inexpensive, everyday materials, Ban has created a variety of structures for disaster survivors: houses, churches, classrooms.
Using inexpensive, everyday materials, Ban has created a variety of structures for disaster survivors: houses, churches, classrooms.
The art museum was founded in 1979 by local artists hoping to attract interesting shows. Based in a former hydroelectric plant across the river from downtown, the old museum—the only accredited museum on the Western slope of the Rockies, and one of four in the entire state—had less than three thousand square feet of exhibition space. In 2005, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, a savvy curator from the Berkeley Art Museum, took over as director, determined to reshape the museum’s identity and harness the community’s abundant and largely untapped wealth. “We could be the best midsized museum in the country, which is so not sexy—it’s like being plus-sized at the mall,” she told me. “Or we could be the best non-collecting museum in the world. Our donors could give their collections to other institutions and give us funding.” Her ambitions for the museum, which would focus on contemporary art, required something more than a squat on the outskirts of town. In order to build and endow a new home, and make it free to the public, Jacobson and her board raised more than seventy million dollars. Becoming a member of the architecture-selection committee required a seven-figure donation.

At the construction site, a team from Denver was preparing to install the lattice screen, stained a mellow rusty brown. Ban, wearing a bright-yellow construction vest and a hard hat, said that the building was meant not to stand out but to reflect and complement the local environment. “In a traditional Western downtown, the street fabric is controlled—all the buildings are the same height, same material,” he said. “In Aspen, there are many nice, old brick buildings. I wanted to make this a traditional volume, a brown boxlike building, to be part of the downtown fabric.” The weave would be uneven, opening wider at opposite corners, to give the façade a sense of movement and to mimic the imperfections in old brick.

The building hugged the sidewalk; along one side, behind an orange mesh fence, workers were excavating to make an outdoor sculpture plaza. Ban slipped into an alley and through the museum’s service door. Yellow strand lights glowed dimly in the dusty interior, and a heater blasted, curing the plaster gallery walls. He trudged up the back stairs, three flights, not panting, to the roof. The problem he had solved in Aspen was that of a nondescript site with no ground-floor view of the mountain, and a museum director who wanted maximum gallery space. With no room for a large entry foyer, and a directive to create a vantage point, Ban decided to invert the building. Arriving visitors ascend, as on a gondola, by means of a large glass elevator or a sweeping staircase to the topmost level, a café where they can enjoy the view from beneath the truss roof or the open sky. From there, they “ski” down through the galleries.

Ban was hired to design the new Aspen Art Museum. Its director says, “Everyone was so taken by the humanitarian work.”
Ban was hired to design the new Aspen Art Museum. Its director says, “Everyone was so taken by the humanitarian work.”
Ban looked up at the truss. The wood, a golden-yellow spruce, made a pattern of interlacing chis, held together only with screws at the tangent points, no steel braces. It was a feat both of physics and of resourcefulness. “Wood is the most ecological thing,” he said. “Steel, concrete—we are just consuming from a limited amount. Timber is the only renewable material.” He continued, “A concrete building stays only a hundred years, and it’s very difficult to replace or repair, where timber is very easy to repair. Also nicer. Such a nice material. Can you imagine if this truss was made of steel?” He grimaced. To achieve the curvaceous shape, several pieces of wood had been glued together to a six-inch depth and carved. “It’s quite economical. You just glue like this and cut like this”—he stacked his hands and traced a saw’s movement—“without wasting.” I said that the swooshing lines reminded me of overlapping ski tracks. He looked at me blankly. He doesn’t ski, and, in the course of seven years of work on the museum, with trips roughly every other month during the construction phase, he had yet to ride the gondola to the top of the mountain.

Aspen is Ban’s second major museum commission. His first, an extension of the Centre Pompidou, in Metz, a small city in northeastern France, was completed in 2010. Inspired by the airy bamboo weave of a Chinese hat that he’d bought in Paris, Ban created an intricate hexagonal timber grid shell, then covered it in a translucent white Teflon-coated membrane. A seventy-seven-metre spire makes reference to the year—1977—that the original Centre Pompidou, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, opened, in Beaubourg. In pictures, Ban’s building appears ready to glide through the landscape like a remote-controlled attack stingray. (Others have likened it to a Smurf hat or a mushroom.) “The mayor was looking for a monumental building for tourism, but museum people hate sculptural buildings,” Ban said; curators prefer spaces where the art takes priority. “I felt the building had to be architecturally interesting but also very practical.” To satisfy the curators, he built three rectangular “tubes,” containing the galleries, which protrude from underneath the chapeau’s brim.

As a foray into shape-making, Pompidou-Metz was less than triumphant. Architectural Record deemed it “conspicuously, tragically less than the sum of its parts.” The reviewer wrote, “If it’s a tent, it’s a lugubrious one; if it’s a museum, it’s a shoddy one.” Ban, however, told me that to view the building as an attempt at sculptural architecture was a mistake. “It looks like an organic shape, but the timber roof has very strict geometrical and structural rules,” he said. “I’m not criticizing, but the form-making of Frank Gehry at Bilbao is more instinctual, and it requires very complicated technology to make a drawing out of his form. My form has rules behind it. Even if it looks like the same kind of organic shape, there’s a process of making underneath.” In any case, Ban measures the building by a different standard. “It is a very successful building because the people of Metz love it,” he wrote me in an e-mail. Hélène Guenin, the museum’s acting director, says that in the four years since it opened the building has attracted 2.2 million visitors, more than twice the expected number. A report commissioned by the city showed that the building had almost paid for itself in its first year.

“Politics is the art of nothing is possible.”
Pompidou-Metz cost ninety-three million dollars. The Aspen Art Museum, about a third the size, cost twenty-four million. “It’s very economical,” Ban said, up on the roof. Construction costs were running about seven hundred and twenty-five dollars a square foot; Architect had just published a survey of Renzo Piano’s museum projects and found that most of his recent designs cost more than a thousand a square foot. Compared with the Aspen museum, Ban said, “many of the houses around here cost more.”

That night, Jacobson, who is wiry, with straight blond hair and an air of self-possession, hosted a small dinner for Ban, the project architect, and a couple of museum patrons at the Little Nell hotel, at the base of the gondola. “Do you want champagne?” she asked Ban when he arrived. “That’s what you usually want.” He took a glass and answered a few questions from the guests about the progress on the screen. “Shigeru builds out of paper,” Jacobson said. “That we would have the surface of our building made out of paper is his dance move.” (No matter that the “paper” layer is mostly synthetic.) She said she’d also asked him to incorporate paper tubes, his other dance move; they decorate the boardroom ceiling and the gift shop. Later, she told me she had originally asked Ban for three designs. He said, “No, Heidi, I only do one design.” She was incredulous. “If I do three, obviously one is going to be the best,” he said. “You’re only going to want the best, so I’m only going to show you one.” The logic was inescapable.

According to Jacobson, Ban’s disaster-relief projects were central to his selection as the architect. “Everyone was so taken by the humanitarian work, because people here are so philanthropic,” she said. “It’s just part of their spirit.” The opening exhibit in the museum’s largest gallery is “Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture,” and includes a U.N. tent and a cabin with walls made of upright paper tubes, which he has used around the world. At dinner, she described her plans for the grand opening, a twenty-four-hour gala, with a silent dance party and an opportunity to sleep in the galleries and have your dreams analyzed upon waking.

“Perhaps Shigeru can design partitions,” the project architect said wryly, referring to paper-tube-and-curtain systems that Ban has erected in gymnasiums to give evacuees privacy in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. Ban seemed untroubled by the notion of exhausted guests playing the part of disaster victims—Marie Antoinettes of global homelessness. “They can sleep in my house!” he said, referring to the cabin that would be on display. “It is designed to sleep in.”

The conversation turned to the lack of affordable housing in Aspen—a city, the saying goes, where the millionaires have been driven out by billionaires. Ban said that the 2011 earthquake in Japan had exposed the country’s severe shortage in resources for dealing with widespread displacement. In collaboration with a large Japanese home-building company, he is planning a plant in the Philippines for the manufacture of prefab units that can be deployed either as temporary emergency housing or as long-term affordable housing. “It will create employment and improve the slum, and at the same time it can be imported to other countries in disasters,” he said.

Jacobson, who lives in Snowmass Village, a ski town next to Aspen, had another idea for the prefabs. “That’s what I want our guesthouse to be,” she said.

In Ban’s childhood, his parents were continually renovating; the house, it seemed to him, was always full of carpenters, wielding beautiful hand tools. He wanted to be a carpenter, then changed his mind to architect. In high school, he worked with a tutor to prepare for the rigorous entrance exams to Tokyo University of the Arts. As it happened, he did not pass the exams: too much rugby, not enough model-making. But at his tutor’s home he came across a magazine article about John Hejduk, the iconoclastic dean of Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, in New York, and set himself on going there. His father, who had a desk job at Toyota, disapproved: “Cooper Union” didn’t sound like a real school to him.

Cooper Union required students to be U.S. residents. Speaking little English, Ban moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and took classes at a language school in Santa Monica. There he learned of a fledgling architecture school called SCI-Arc. The founder, Ray Kappe, a pioneer of prefab housing, admitted Ban based on the paper models he’d made for his application to school in Tokyo. In spite of the language barrier, Kappe placed him in the second year.

Housed in a warren of industrial buildings that had previously been an LSD factory, SCI-Arc was radical. Students built their own workspaces using scaffolding, and were encouraged to scavenge from a pit full of old airplane wings and other industrial refuse. They studied tent-making and beehive morphology, and made Fuller-style geodesic domes and lightweight space frames inspired by the German architect and engineer Frei Otto. Instead of mailboxes, they used bisected paper tubes. Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry were teachers. Ban, who had planned to be there for a year before transferring to Cooper Union, stayed nearly three. Still, he claims to have been affected only marginally by his time there, mostly through exposure to the Case Study Houses, a numbered series designed by well-known mid-century architects, which were meant to serve as prototypes for affordable, modern living. The Case Study Houses introduced him to the concept of prefabrication, which gave rise to a construction method he has practiced both in commissioned buildings and in disaster work, using factory-built bookshelves to hold up a house. They also gave him an indirect education in the Japanese notion of indoor-outdoor space and the use of screens.

The Cooper Union curriculum was rooted in the rational modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, with flourishes of Dada. One seminar consisted of Peter Eisenman reading “In Search of Lost Time” aloud to the students for several hours at a time. “I felt that it was important culturally for them to know how important Proust was to thinking about space,” Eisenman, who now teaches at Yale, told me. Hejduk asked students to design a house in the mood of Juan Gris, and to study a piece of fruit over the course of a semester, as it decayed. A self-styled poet, Hejduk also insisted that architecture students take a poetry workshop. Ban says he was often asked to read his poems aloud, as examples for the class. “Surprisingly, I was very good,” he told me. “My poems were always short.” At night, he tutored his friends in structural engineering. One of them was another transfer student, Dean Maltz, who later became his New York partner. “He just understood it intuitively, better than any architect in our class,” Maltz told me. “He’s very calculating—I don’t mean strategically calculating, though he is—but calculations are what goes on in his head.”


A rendering of the Aspen Art Museum, which opens on August 9, 2014. The building is a glass box nested in a lattice screen made from resin-infused paper and topped with a timber truss roof.
As a student, Ban was hardworking, literal-minded, and impervious to criticism. His designs, classmates told me, tended to be based on one big idea, seemingly drawn from one of the masters or from Hejduk himself. Tod Williams said, “He seemed shockingly clear, almost naïve, in the kinds of work that he brought to the studio. It was almost embarrassingly direct.” Ban was sometimes at odds with his professors. Eisenman, to his displeasure, called him Sugar Bear. His thesis project—a Tribeca warehouse space for the display of Richard Serra’s sculptures—didn’t pass, causing him to graduate six months late. But he remained devoted to his teachers’ ideas. For one early residential project in Japan, he completed Hejduk’s standard first-year assignment, to design a house on a nine-square grid. He called it the Nine-Square Grid House. Another early commission, the Curtain Wall House (or Case Study House 07), demystifies one of modernism’s great features, the non-load-bearing exterior wall known as a curtain wall. The house, a blocky all-white structure in downtown Tokyo, has exterior walls formed by a billowing white curtain. Metaphor! Be gone.

Ban’s industrious and entrepreneurial side emerged early. During a year off from school, in which he was an intern in the office of Arata Isozaki, one of Japan’s most prominent architects, he arranged to bring an experimental show organized by Tod Williams and another Cooper Union professor, Ricardo Scofidio, to a gallery in Tokyo. Instead of using his professors’ installation design, he surprised them by coming up with his own. Maltz, who was also living in Japan that year, in the only tatami room in the Bans’ Western-style house, started to view him as “the Pied Piper of architecture.” He said, “I didn’t even really know this was going on, and all of a sudden he goes, ‘Dean, we’re putting up the exhibition at the Axis Gallery, in Roppongi. Why don’t you help us out this weekend?’ I get there and it’s like thirty people helping assemble this thing. Where did all these people come from?” The Japanese wonderingly referred to Ban as “the American.”

On a trip to New York, shortly after opening a practice in Tokyo, Ban went to see Laurie Hawkinson, a friend from Cooper Union, who now teaches at Columbia. He was telling her about a new material he’d discovered in the course of designing installations for the gallery. At first, she could not fathom what he was talking about. Then he showed her pictures of his paper tubes being used to hold up display stands. If they could support a stand, why not a full-scale building? “He could do it because he actually knew and could calculate the loads,” she said.

Using the tubes allowed Ban to slough off his modernist masters. He told me, “I was hoping ever since I was a child to not be influenced by fashion, and to develop my own structure and materials.” Paper appealingly undermined a basic premise of architecture. “When people try to do something new, they always think something stronger or more acrobatic,” he said. “My development was using more humble material, or weaker material. The strength of the material has nothing to do with the strength of the building, even nothing to do with durability. I knew logically that even using a weaker material like a paper tube I could make a strong building.”

Convincing building inspectors and code enforcers was another matter. In an effort to prove his concept, in 1995 Ban built himself a weekend house on Lake Yamanaka from an S-shaped colonnade of a hundred and ten paper tubes. It has scarcely been used. “I have no time,” he told me. “I have no weekend. The main purpose was not to enjoy the weekend. Its main purpose was to get government permission to use the paper tube as a permanent building material—otherwise I could not use this idea for another project.”

Humanitarian work has also allowed Ban to explore materials and systems that might be disallowed outside a disaster area. Not long after completing his weekend house, he learned about a group of Vietnamese immigrants who had lost their homes in the Kobe earthquake and were living in flimsy tents in a park, where they were vulnerable both to weather and to public opinion. Under conditions far less bureaucratic than when he was working on his own house, he built them a cluster of cabins with walls made from upright paper tubes, set on a foundation of donated Kirin beer crates filled with sand. “In an emergency, I don’t need to get government permission for a new structure as long as I make sure of the safety by myself, working with an engineer,” he told me.

Pleasingly geometric, with an eco-friendly, brown-rice look—smooth paper columns supporting crisp white canvas roofs—the Kobe cabins have an aesthetic that lies somewhere between a Tinkertoy masterpiece and a Seventh Generation diaper with operable windows. They are inexpensive, easy to assemble, and made from widely available, energy-efficient components, and Ban has since replicated them around the world, making small adjustments to suit the local climate. In areas where alcohol is prohibited, he makes foundations from rubble scavenged at the site. His very materials can seem like a rebuke to inefficiency; the tubes he builds with are most commonly used as disposable molds for concrete columns, by-products of the profligate construction industry.

When the Kobe cabins were finished, Ban built a temporary community space for a Catholic congregation that had lost its church in the earthquake. An oval formed from paper tubes and a white tent roof, it is quietly consoling, with the plain beauty of a Greek shrine to a minor god. A decade later, the church was disassembled; in 2008, it was reconstituted in Taiwan, after an earthquake there, and has become a permanent monument. The Taiwanese government took his word for it that the structure would hold.

“Architects mostly work for privileged people, people who have money and power,” Ban said recently. “Power and money are invisible, so people hire us to visualize their power and money by making monumental architecture. I love to make monuments, too, but I thought perhaps we can use our experience and knowledge more for the general public, even for those who have lost their houses in natural disasters.” One employee on the Tokyo staff devotes the majority of his time to disaster-relief projects, and others pitch in as needed. Ban claims not to worry about balancing the books. (“That’s why he has partners,” Maltz says.) The two sides of Ban’s practice are symbiotic. His commissions pay for his pro-bono work, and the pro bono serves both as a testing ground and as a powerful marketing tool. “He is both deeply concerned about humanity and also sees it as a way to uniquely advance his career,” Hawkinson said. “They help each other.”

“We’ve been standing here talking about how to pitch to the batter for way too long, haven’t we?”
NOVEMBER 1, 2010
In the past decade, according to Alexander Betts, an associate professor at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, more than a hundred million people have been forced from their homes by natural disasters. A report released in June by U.N.H.C.R., which concerns itself primarily with political refugees, estimated that in 2013 there were more displaced people than at any time since the Second World War. Ban’s paper structures may prove a brilliant solution to the political difficulty posed by camps, where structures that appear permanent distress host governments and those which don’t tend to be insufficient for long-term needs. “You have settlements designed for the emergency phase lasting ten to fifteen years,” Betts said. “Ban’s work with paper and cardboard creates an aesthetic of temporariness. Something that is durable and sustainable but has the appearance of non-permanence might be desirable.” The question, Betts said, is scalability. During the Rwandan crisis, Ban sent fifty tents. In Kobe, he produced twenty-one temporary houses and the church; in Turkey, seventeen houses; in India, twenty. A fishermen’s village in Sri Lanka, a permanent settlement, has forty-five houses. In China, Ban built nine classrooms. A shipping-container complex in Tohoku serves a hundred and eighty-nine families. One of his most spectacular projects, the Cardboard Cathedral, erected in Christchurch, New Zealand, holds seven hundred people. Ban likes to say, “It’s become the new symbol of Christchurch.” When pressed, and not in an auditorium before a loaded slide show, he adopts a more modest tone. “I look for people who have a particular problem,” he told me. “Always I take care of smaller groups of people. My capacity is not big enough. The bigger number of people has to be taken care of by the government.”

Ban’s greater effect may lie in his potential to catalyze innovation in humanitarian relief. Eric Cesal is the executive director of Architecture for Humanity, a consortium of public-interest designers which was founded in 1999 as a kind of protest against the culture of celebrity architecture and gee-whiz buildings. He sees Ban as an important vector, and a reference point for the increasing number of young architects who are driven to design for the disadvantaged. “There are very few people that do what we do that have a signature brand and aesthetic,” he said. “Ban can live in both worlds.” As the social divisions around the world grow starker, the work becomes more urgent and, potentially, more attractive. “If you set aside all ethics and morality and humanitarian idealism, seventy-five per cent of construction in the next twenty-five years will happen in the global south,” Cesal said. “This is the emerging market.”

Several weeks ago, I visited the single unit that Ban built in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, in collaboration with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, after Hurricane Katrina. The house, a taupe-colored box with a triangular roof, on eight-foot concrete piles, was missing its front porch and the staircase leading up to the front door, owing to rot. I entered the back way, which meant passing underneath the house, where a network of vines dangling limply from a trellis attempted to establish themselves as a green wall, and up a steep flight of stairs to a sliding glass door. The house belonged to Ann Parfaite, a seventy-two-year-old retired financial-aid administrator, who was inside serving bread with butter and syrup to her grandchildren. Her old house, where she’d lived since 1966, had entirely washed away. She had paid a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—partly covered by her insurance money and a forgivable loan from Make It Right—for the new one. “People say, ‘You live in one of the Brad Pitt houses,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘No, I live in my own house.’ ”

Parfaite, who had soft gray curls and an unlined face, shooed her grandchildren to a back room and sat down in an easy chair. She said she had chosen the Ban design—instead of, say, the Gehry house, the David Adjaye, or the Thom Mayne—because it included an attic room, with a separate stairway, for her son, and had “oodles and oodles of storage.” An open “memory shelf,” filled with portraits of young people in football uniforms and on graduation days, ran the length of the room; the other side was all built-ins. (Ban based the design on his furniture houses.) She showed me a framed picture of herself with Pitt and Ban, and said she had tangled a little with her architect. “The front steps went straight up,” she said. “I wanted an L-shape, but he said, No, that didn’t fit with the integrity of his design.” She prevailed, and got a landing, then also insisted on a back stairway. “If anything happens in this house, I can’t jump down,” she said. A golf ball, left by the kids, rolled down the gentle slope of the not-level floor to rest in a corner. Parfaite had no real complaints, though. Like all the Make It Right projects, her house is LEED platinum, and her electricity and water bills are minimal. More important, her son had stayed in the house through Hurricane Isaac and been safe, the only damage a bit of mildew and a leak.

You can live in a house designed by Shigeru Ban only if you are recently homeless or exceedingly wealthy. His latest residential project in New York is a full interior renovation of a landmarked building in Tribeca, with a two-story, fifteen-million-dollar glass-box penthouse cantilevered over the roof. Dean Maltz, wearing a white denim sports coat and white pants, gave me a tour of the model in a sleek showroom—blond wood and art lighting. As Ban’s New York partner, he is responsible for business in the Americas. “I call it the ship-in-the-bottle project,” he said. “The existing building is the bottle, the ship is what’s inside. Le Corbusier refers to the ship as the symbol of creating a new architecture.”

JANUARY 31, 2011
For about half the price of the Tribeca penthouse, you can buy a two-thousand-square-foot unit in Ban’s Metal Shutter Houses, a boutique building in Chelsea, which backs up to Gehry’s IAC Building and looks out on a Jean Nouvel apartment complex and a coming Norman Foster tower. For now, it has a great view of the High Line. The north face of the apartment is a single twenty-foot window, leading onto a small terrace. At the push of a button, the window lifts and folds like an origami crane, opening the living room to the outdoors. Another button lowers a perforated metal shutter, to screen the terrace.

At the end of May, Tom McInerney, a forty-one-year-old tech investor, brought his girlfriend, Yuko Mizutani, who is thirty, to hear Ban lecture on his humanitarian work at a Landmarks Preservation Foundation forum, and afterward they went to see the Metal Shutter Houses. McInerney liked the apartment, but he was most impressed by the lecture. “It was cool that as an architect he had this existential crisis where he thought, Is my job to make monuments for rich people?” he said. “He was thinking bigger.” McInerney decided that he wanted Ban to design a house for him on a piece of land that he owns at the Yellowstone Club, a private ski resort near Big Sky, Montana, whose members include Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates. (The motto of the club is “Private Powder.”) “I looked at him on the cardboard and thought, Wow, this is an innovative guy,” he told me. “My business, we’re change agents, we like to get in there and disrupt.” If things went well, he thought, he might also like to hire Ban to make a paper-tube cabin for a hilltop property he owns in Los Angeles.

One Sunday morning in mid-July, Ban—first class, Row 1, aisle—arrived in Bozeman, was conveyed by Range Rover to a helicopter, and took off south, following the line of the Gallatin River, over red-roofed agricultural buildings; in the distance was Ted Turner’s bison herd, ants on a green blanket. The hills be-low, covered with bristly train-set pines, turned rocky and molar. The helicopter flew over the snow-licked Spanish Peaks and into a valley, landing on a paved pad above a golf course with a man-made waterfall and sand traps in the style of Matisse cutouts. McInerney and Mizutani were waiting there with Maltz.

Ban’s design process begins when he visits a site. “I don’t know how he does it, frankly,” Maltz told me. “We go to the site. I never speak to him about it. Weeks later, we get a sketch and go, Ah, wow, that’s kind of amazing.” His employees render the plan on the computer, using basic architectural software. Ban marks up the renderings until they get it right. “His idea is fully formed when he gives us the sketch,” Maltz says. “We’re just trying to articulate it.” Next, the architects build a model from foam core and mat board and sometimes wood, which Ban edits. “Then you present it to the client and the client loves it,” Maltz says. “I’ve never seen a client not love it.”

Ban got out of the helicopter, shook hands in silence, and took a small camera from his backpack. Maltz pointed out the boundaries of McInerney’s lot, a one-acre triangle just below the helipad, on the thirteenth hole, with views of Lone Mountain to the north and a less dramatic range to the east. Ban photographed three hundred and sixty degrees, then asked for lunch.

In the car, McInerney addressed Ban deferentially. “Shigeru—Shigeru-san,” he began. “The architecture here is very traditional so far, and it’s, um—I don’t like it. So we’re going to build something very new and different.” Ban took in a line of maximalist cabin-chalets. “Those houses were built by the developer?” he asked. “But a private owner can build whatever he wants?”

“I think so, yeah,” McInerney said. “There are some guidelines that we’re going to have to work with, but we have to push the boundaries.” He went on, “Let’s build something beautiful, and we’ll figure out how to get it through the committee.”

Arriving at the clubhouse, a massive lodge crowded with bison heads and stained-glass light fixtures, Ban tapped curiously on the walls. Plywood panelling, over steel! And the scale: a Disneyfied version of rusticity. There would be no authentic architectural language to draw upon for ideas. “The design board may be challenging,” Ban said, sitting in a U-shaped leather club chair. “I may have to make some interesting interpretation of the vernacular, instead of making something against it.” Maltz said it would be fine, so long as they used natural material, like concrete.

“Concrete is not a natural material,” Ban said.

“To them it is,” Maltz said.

McInerney showed Ban a picture of himself in front of a reclaimed-wood shop in Bozeman, where they could get Douglas fir, redwood—any wood they wanted, with the nails removed, stamped and graded for structure.

“Timber siding,” Ban said softly, as if an idea were stirring. He liked the prospect of reclaimed wood, less wasteful than fresh-cut, though it would be more expensive.

McInerney showed him pictures of andesite.

“Local rock?” Ban wanted to know.

“What do I do? I’m a film remaker.”
JUNE 13, 2011
McInerney and Maltz had a long conversation about wood, rocks, glass, sun, and snow, during which they excitedly presented Ban with images on cameras, phones, and an iPad, and in the project book for McInerney’s site. “It’s the beauty of the nature, and every day is different, every day the sky is different, the clouds are different,” McInerney said plaintively. Ban was mostly quiet. Who knew what he was thinking? “Do you have mayonnaise?” he said finally.

After lunch, Ban returned to the site. He and Maltz walked across a field of yarrow, vetch, and shale—a smaller man dressed in black and a taller man wearing shorts. Maltz said he preferred the range to the peak. Ban studied the view to the east, and to the north. Mizutani blew the seeds off a dandelion head. McInerney prayed for the Lone Mountain view.

Ban, taking in the less dramatic range, said, “It’s nice to see this mountain, very simple.”

McInerney boldly asked if they could capture both.

“We can picture the different views, but we should not see everything,” Ban said, walking to the far end of the lot, where he could be alone. From his backpack, he took a hardbound black sketchbook, the kind he started using at Cooper Union and which Maltz still buys for him at the Utrecht store downtown and sends to him wherever in the world he might be. He started drawing. He was worried about protecting the house from the thirteenth hole. Clink! A golfer teed off, and the ball sailed past. No vernacular. Two views. He swatted a mosquito forcefully, like a bear pawing at a tree. He did not yet know what he would do, but whatever he decided he would never change his mind. ♦


Dana Goodyear
Dana Goodyear, a staff writer, was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker from 1999 to 2007, when she began writing full time for the magazine.
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