Shigeru Ban: When I came back to Japan after studying in the U.S., I realized that architects are not respected in Japan, and I wondered why. One of the reasons is that the profession has a very short history in Japan. Another is that many people think architects drive up costs and create unusual buildings to call attention to themselves. Historically, architects worked for privileged people, such as kings and religious groups; it is the same today when big corporations and government entities use architecture to make their power and money visible. Some medical doctors and lawyers work for the money while others engage in pro bono, humanitarian activities—yet architects rarely take on this kind of work. So I thought it was really important for us to do something for society, not just to build monuments or help developers make money.
My relief work started in 1994 after I saw some shocking photos of refugees in Rwanda. I thought most African countries are hot, but the United Nations gave these refugees very poor plastic sheets that couldn’t keep them warm during the rainy season. In addition, the U.N.’s solution was creating a serious deforestation problem since the 2 million-plus refugees were cutting down trees to make wooden poles to support the plastic sheets. In response, the U.N. supplied aluminum pipes, but the refugees sold them and then resumed cutting trees. I thought we ought to improve their shelters, so I contacted the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, and I proposed using paper tubes instead of aluminum. I was hired as a consultant to develop this idea further.