Photo/IllutrationShigeru Ban installs a mockup of paper-tube partitions for emergency shelters. (Reina Kitamura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Acclaimed architect Shigeru Ban has gained additional accolades for volunteering to help disaster victims around the world, but he said he has never been invited by a stricken local government in Japan.

Ban, a guest professor of environment and information studies at Keio University and winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2014, creates partitions made of paper tubes and fabric at evacuation centers that give the evacuees some much needed privacy, especially if they must spend prolonged periods at such shelters.

But he said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun that setting up partitions is not enough for disaster relief, and society must consider alternative ways to secure privacy for future emergencies.

Although he travels between Japan and other countries almost once a week, he plans to visit Hokkaido, where a magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck on Sept. 6 and left many people homeless.


Question: Are you going to Hokkaido where the most recent earthquake disaster occurred?

Ban: I was not invited, but I will reschedule other jobs to go there. I am now preparing to install paper partitions at evacuation centers on the northernmost island.

Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, I have made contributions to people affected by the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016.

However, not once have I been asked by a municipal government to come.

Q: Are you saying you have never been invited despite so much coverage about your work?

A: I have been invited by overseas nations, such as Turkey and India, but not by authorities in Japan.

Wherever I go, I usually get the same answer from municipal offices, namely: “We don’t need them (partitions) because there is no precedent.”

They also say it is easier to manage evacuees without the partitions, citing, for example, the problems of dealing with someone who drinks alcohol behind the partitions.

Verbal explanations are not enough to get the authorities to understand the necessity for privacy. So I resort to “force” by actually installing the partitions and to make them understand that the partitions are a needed convenience.

Q: As an architect, why did you choose to make paper partitions instead of building something bigger and more concrete?

A: That’s because privacy is one of the most basic rights that humans need. A lack of privacy may also lead to fatal consequences. Someone who stays in a car for privacy reasons could develop a blood clot or other conditions.

I first realized that typical evacuation shelters lacked privacy at the time of the Hanshin earthquake. More than 20 years have since passed, but scenes of evacuees huddled and sleeping together at shelters have not changed.

Q: Is that to say that “everyone is in the same boat, so bear with it”?

A: When I went to Italy in 2009 to provide aid after the L’Aquila earthquake, it was very different. There were no evacuation shelters, and each family was living in a tent provided by the Italian army. They have a different idea about privacy.

But for the 2016 central Italy earthquake, I saw evacuation centers similar to Japan’s and without privacy.

When I took the paper tube partitions there, Italian evacuees did not hesitate to ask for more. On the contrary in Japan, evacuees would say, “I am sorry.”

Q: Does that mean they think partitions are “luxury” items?

A: I believe they shouldn’t think like that, but there is a certain Japanese way of thinking that they feel sorry when they receive special treatment while others do not. They are very modest.

But no matter how many partitions I make, they can still only provide the very minimum of privacy, and the situation remains terrible.

We need to come up with new ideas to prevent people from having to sleep together in huddles at evacuation shelters.

For example, during planning for a large facility, it could be designed on the premise that it would be turned into an evacuation center in the event of an emergency. Municipal governments could be involved in such planning.

Q: What are your thoughts about the situation in which people who are socially vulnerable often have no choice but to stay in public evacuation shelters to the very end?

A: Rich people can choose to stay in hotels or find other homes because living in shelters is harsher than people think.

Sleeping at shelters is really stressful. I have tried it once, just to experience what it is like, and slept in a corridor of an evacuation shelter. It was really tough.

Q: How do you fund your disaster relief efforts?

A: I call for donations. More people are donating through my website. A lot of people made contributions for the victims of the torrential rain in western Japan (in July).

As I work internationally, I sometimes receive donations from unexpected people.

Totally out of the blue, I received an e-mail from film director Francis Ford Coppola, offering to donate sales of his vintage wine collection that would be auctioned off. He came to Tokyo with a check.

Brad Pitt commissioned me to design low-cost residences for New Orleans after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Q: What made you start your charitable work?

A: I realized that architects were hardly contributing to society about 10 years into my career as an architect after I left university in the United States.

The rich build grand architecture to show off their wealth and power, and that has not changed since antiquity.

I started to doubt such a state and began to wonder if architects should also make contributions to society.

In 1994, when I was thinking such things, I saw photos of refugees huddled under blankets to keep warm at a refugee camp in Rwanda.

Without any connections or appointment, I visited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva and proposed to build shelters made of paper-tube posts, a material that can be easily sourced and recycled, for the refugees. The idea was adopted.

The following year, when the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred, I worked for a church in Kobe where a community of Vietnamese refugees had gathered. They had been largely left out of the disaster relief plan.

I built houses that they could live in and a church that could be used as a community hall, both with paper tubes. It was my first project for people affected by a natural disaster.

Q: Why do you keep doing this?

A: I thought I would never do it again after the Kobe project because local volunteers and my staff had a dispute, and I had to stay there for a prolonged time.

But the paper architecture in Kobe won the Mainichi Design Award of that year, and I felt encouraged to keep doing this type of project.

Also, architects I admire built their life’s works when they were around 40 years old. I was 38 at the time (of winning the award) and I felt it was the work of my life.

Q: Do you ever receive criticism that your voluntary contributions are publicity stunts?

A: Criticism cannot be the reason for not doing something. If someone is doing this only for publicity, it won’t last long.

I don’t have much attachment to money, so I gain plenty of pleasure from realizing what I envisioned--and making people happy through it.

I imagine that surgeons, as professionals, operate on patients to give the best possible solution, not because they feel sorry for them. I work in the same sense.

I work out what I need to do as an architect in dire situations where houses are flattened.

Q: But there has been an instance where your voluntary project in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, led to a commission for reconstruction work there.

A: Basically, I do not intend to get involved in the rebuilding process. Rebuilding projects are paid job opportunities, so local architects, who can work closely with disaster victims, should take them.

In the case of Onagawa, I was hoping to build a “sento” public bathhouse in the town by gathering donations. I was then told that there is an “onsen” hot spring next to a station that was washed away by the tsunami, so why not build a complex of train station and public onsen bathhouse. So I accepted the commission.

Q: But do you not get tired of putting up the fight alone?

A: The number of architects who spontaneously offer help to disaster-hit communities is increasing. When I go to disaster-affected areas, I take my students from Keio University.

There are many architects who want to do something when a disaster occurs, but they don’t know where they should go or what skills are needed.

In Britain, there is a body that dispatches architects and engineers to disaster relief organizations. I am a member of the group, and I am hoping to establish a Japanese version of it.

Q: Does being a globe-trotting commercial architect cut into your time to do voluntary projects?

A: Being busy cannot be an excuse, and I don’t use such an excuse.

I used to think that I wanted to balance my work and disaster relief projects, but now I don’t differentiate between the two.

There is no difference between them in terms of the amount of energy I put in and the satisfaction I gain, apart from the fact that I earn an architect’s fee from the former and I don’t from the latter.

I believe it is important to keep learning and training as an architect as well as a human being.

What I have realized is that when people earn a little fame, they gradually turn a blind eye to opportunities to learn from others.

No disasters are the same, so every time I go to places, I need to think hard and cooperate with local people, and that provides a great exercise for me.

So I keep doing (voluntary projects) for my benefit, and by thinking that way, I can continue doing so in the long term.”

Q: That sounds very stoic.

A: No, I am not a stoic man, and I always hope to make my visits to disaster-affected regions an opportunity to try local delicacies and check out good architecture.

These will have a positive impact on designing buildings, too.

Moreover, if I choose to endure the same conditions as the people affected by disasters because I’m aiding them, I won’t be able to continue my voluntary projects.

It won’t be sustainable in the long term if I myself am not fit and healthy.

Q: What do you do to relax?

A: Being in the airplane, which does not belong to any time zone of any country, is so relaxing. No phone call will come in, and nobody will complain if I take a nap.

(This article was written by Haruka Takashige and Wakato Onishi, senior staff writer.)