For quake and tsunami victims left homeless, simple shelters help ease discomfort.

Photo courtesy Shigeru Ban Architects
Emergency centers set up in gymnasiums and other large structures offer little privacy. In response, Shigeru Ban conceived a partition system made of paper tubes and canvas sheets.

“I have been to disaster areas all over the world,” says Shigeru Ban. But never had the Japanese architect and veteran relief worker seen the degree of devastation that struck his homeland on March 11, 2011. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake, followed by the massive tsunami that crashed down on 311 miles of coastline, left thousands of people dead or missing and many more homeless. “This tsunami was incredible,” says Ban. “It came nine minutes after the earthquake, so there was no time to escape.”

As in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and other countries where he has helped out, Ban immediately went to the disaster site and identified a need that was not being met by government agencies or nonprofit groups. While evacuation centers quickly sprang up in gymnasiums and other large structures throughout the blighted region, many were crowded and had little provision for much-needed privacy — a condition that will continue for months, until the government completes temporary homes for the victims. In response, Ban devised a curtained partition system to shield individual families.

Ban’s first foray into partition design followed the 6.8-magnitude Kobe earthquake that shook neighboring Niigata Prefecture in 1995. His latest partitions, a simplified version of his original system, are made from paper tubes of three different diameters — large for columns, medium for beams, and small for joints — that fit together without any additional parts, aside from tape to seal the connections. White canvas sheets attached to the frame and held together with safety pins provide coverage. Though adjustable, each unit easily conceals the 161-square-foot area typically allotted per family.

Ban, paired with his students from Tokyo, loaded the disassembled parts into a van and headed north to several evacuation centers in late March. Their mission was to demonstrate how the system works and convince authorities of its value. Manufactured and sourced in Japan, the units can be delivered quickly and directly to the relief centers, where Ban’s students work with local residents to assemble the partitions. Though authorities at some shelters placed orders to cover nursery and changing rooms only, others, such as the mayor of Yamagata City, requested one apiece for each of the 250 families currently staying in the municipal sports center.

Funded exclusively by donations from around the world, each unit costs $300. But Ban isn’t concerned about financing at the moment. “I have to continue to build [partition systems], as many as are needed,” he says. “The money will come later.” For more information and to make a donation, visit

Naomi R. Pollock, AIA, is RECORD‘s Tokyo-based international correspondent and coauthor of New Architecture in Japan (Merrell).