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Japan's "Disaster Architecture" Star To The Rescue After Ecuador Quake

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, winner of the 2014 Pritzker, has used material like paper and cardboard to rebuild homes in disaster zones. The displaced of Ecuador await his singular eye.

In Portoviejo, Ecuador, on April 18
In Portoviejo, Ecuador, on April 18
Paula Baldo

QUITO — For years, Handel Guayasamín tried to get renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to attend the architectural biennale in the Ecuadorian capital.

As president of the Pichincha province's College of Architects, Guayasamín was enthralled by Ban"s unique designs for building multiple homes with light, cheap and easily assembled materials like cardboard.

Now in a bittersweet twist, disaster is finally bringing the 2014 Pritzker Prize winner to Ecuador. Ban will be giving a talk in Quito on May 2, as part of his planned work for the Ecuadorian state after last month's 7.8-magnitude quake in the country's northern coastal districts, which killed more than 600 people and left thousands homeless,

"It's a historic event," says Guayasamín of Ban's arrival.

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Shigeru Ban — Photo: Forgemind ArchiMedia

The 58-year-old Tokyo native will share his experiences in so-called "crisis architecture," for which work he was awarded the world's top architectural prize two years ago. The Pritzker jury cited Ban's ability to take the same inventive and skillful designs in the work for private clients and apply them in his post-crisis constructions.

Emergency solutions

Ban is the only top-tier architect who builds with paper and cardboard, which he described in a 2013 TED talk as a "tough" material, easily adapted to resist water and even fire. It is not earthquakes, he noted, that killed people, but falling buildings, and architects had some responsibility for that.

When he realized there were no architects focused on disaster relief, where people need shelters built as quickly as possible, Ban decided to turn his focus to this challenge.


Take 5: Natural Disaster Recovery Around the Worldpar Worldcrunch

In 1989, Ban built the first cardboard structure in Nagoya, Japan, which stood for six months before being dismantled. He has since perfected his techniques in various projects characterized by the quality of their architectural spacing and use of cardboard.

His first opportunity to show his work in crisis architecture came in Rwanda in 1994. Civil war there between ethnic groups had left more than two million refugees, and the United Nations camps offered nothing more than plastic structures, which the refugees would strengthen or isolate thermally by cutting trees. This provoked considerable deforestation, while the aluminum tubes proposed as supports were expensive. Ban proposed recycled paper tubes as structural supports, which fitted into his budget of $50 per shelter.

The next year, when Kobe, Japan was hit by a quake and subsequent fires, Ban rebuilt the city's church using the same paper tubes. It was a building of great importance to people in that situation. The building stood for 10 years before being taken down, then rebuilt in Taiwan, following another catastrophe. In Kobe he also built 50 housing units using beer crates as foundations.

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Shigeru Ban-designed Takatori church in Hyogo, Japan— Photo: Bujdosó Attila

In 1999, Ban built a refuge in Turkey using the material and rubble left by an earthquake. In 2008 in China, he built nine school buildings of 500 square meters each within a one-month time frame. In all his projects he has used help from volunteers, generally students. In 2009, he built a temporary concert hall for L'Aquila, after the Italian city was hit by a major earthquake.

Now, he is expected to use his designs and expertise to help reconstruction efforts in Ecuador. The cardboard tubes are, by now, a Ban signature. He used them in Japan in 2014, to partition a large gym and provide privacy for the people staying after a quake.

Emergency buildings often face a land space problem, Ban once noted, since they have long been conceived as single-floor structures spread across a large area. But this too he has begun to address: In 2014, he used ordinary containers to built three-story structures on a baseball field in Japan.

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Visiting Paris on Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksïï Reznikov recalled that a year ago, the United States had refused him ground-air Stinger missiles deliveries. Eleven months later, Washington is delivering heavy tanks, in addition to everything else. The 'no' of yesterday is the green light of tomorrow: this is the lesson that the very pragmatic minister seemed to learn.

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