Architectural Record: What inspired you to take on relief work?

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.

How do you select which disasters to work on?

In 1995, shortly after I started working with the UNHCR, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe. I knew I had to help after I read about a Catholic church, where many Vietnamese worshipped, that burnt down. Because of my work with refugees, I thought that minorities must have a more difficult time after a disaster, so I went to Kobe to look for this church. When I found the congregation, they were having their morning service outside, gathered around a fire. It was such a heartwarming moment. And so I offered to rebuild the church out of paper tubes. The priest refused. After that, I commuted to Kobe every Sunday and tried to convince him. I also visited the park where the Vietnamese congregants were living. The conditions were horrible, yet these people had no choice but to stay there, since they worked nearby. So my students and I started building temporary shelters for these people out of paper tubes and plastic beer-bottle crates. After that, the priest permitted me to rebuild the church out of paper tubes as long as I raised the money and gathered volunteers to build it.

With so many disasters, how do you choose?

After Kobe, I got many faxes and e-mails from disaster-stricken areas asking me to help.

So it sounds a little bit like the disasters choose you.

When the Gujarat Earthquake struck India in 2001, I got a fax from a woman who helps villages preserve their tradition of making handmade paper. She knew about my paper buildings, so she asked me to design a refugee shelter and offered to finance the project. In addition, her nephew’s firm, Kartikeya Shodhan Associates, volunteered to be the project’s local architect.

Do you have any specific criteria for projects that you take on? What makes one project more appropriate than another?

Since I work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), I tend to do projects that do not interest government agencies. The government aids the majority of people, but there is always a minority they cannot help. I always try to find those people. In the case of Sri Lanka, where most people are Buddhist, I helped Muslim fishermen rebuild their village after the 2004 tsunami.

How did you end up working in Sichuan Province this year?

After the recent earthquake, I went to China without an invitation but with a contact at a university located in the disaster area. I hoped to build temporary housing, but because of tight government control I realized that this might be quite complicated. Luckily, I met some local school officials who asked me to build temporary classrooms for an elementary school instead. Actually, this school wasn’t as badly damaged as others, yet it was still slated for demolition—this would require kids to travel to other schools far away. Because the government put more money and resources into the heavily damaged area, the less damaged school did not get any funding or attention.

Practically speaking, how do you actually build these projects?

We always work with local architects who know the regulations and climate and can facilitate communication with the beneficiaries.

Do you spend a long time at the site?

No, usually a few days is enough. The important thing is to go there immediately and meet the right people. Architects tend to be very bureaucratic. So there are lots of discussions but nothing happens. From experience, I know I just have to go there, even without any connections, to find out who needs what. Then one thing leads to another.

A realized project is the most powerful means to convince people of your willingness to help.

After you create a prototype, do the local people clone it or do you stay around to help? Do you create a system and then leave?

Essentially, yes. In Kobe, the church financed the temporary structures and student volunteers built them. In India, students and the local NGO helped us. And after the 1999 Izmit Earthquake in Turkey, we worked with students from Istanbul Technical University.

Is your relationship with these relief clients—that is, the users—and your commercial clients very different or the same?

In some ways it is very different, and in others it is very similar. Both groups are very demanding. In Turkey, we started by asking the villagers who lost their houses what they wanted. It is important to hear people’s opinions and then devise or adapt a design to some of their requests. They are more comfortable if we start building after we have heard their ideas.

In Sri Lanka, the government wanted to control the size of the houses and so they provided a standard plan to all NGOs. I designed my prototype according to this size but inserted a semi-outdoor space covered by a roof in the middle. The families love this space and do everything here. Because of the hot climate, people usually eat or walk under the trees, so I thought a shaded area like this would be very important. But my solution created a new problem, since other villagers, whose homes were not destroyed or who moved into houses made by other NGOs, also wanted my houses.

What is the biggest challenge you face when doing relief work?

Everything is a challenge, but the most important thing is meeting the right people.

Given your hectic schedule, how do you manage to find time for relief work?

Actually, I give priority to and rearrange my schedule for this relief work. If a disaster strikes, I cancel or postpone other things to go to the site as soon as possible.

Do you ever get paid to do relief work?

No. Never. [Donors covered Ban’s travel expenses to India and Turkey. In Kobe and China, Ban paid not only for his travel, but also the cost of prototypes.]

Do you ever test out new materials or structural systems in your relief projects that you then use for commercial projects? Is there a crossover of ideas?

For me, there is no border between commercial and noncommercial work. I approach both the same way—by working with the climate, finding good local architects [who, in disaster cases, will volunteer their services], and choosing suitable materials.

Do you have any advice for architects who want to do relief work?

Go to the site first to find out for yourself what people need. That is the most important thing.