After the quake: a design for Christchurch’s new “cardboard cathedral" designed by 2014 Pritzger laureate Shigeru Ban. Photo: Getty
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How a cardboard tube inspired a cathedral, and other happy accidents in architecture

The critic Mark Lawson discusses the Pritzger prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel, and the everyday items that inspire buildings.

The Pritzker prize is regarded as architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. And, as is standard with the awards endowed by the Swedish inventor of dynamite, this year’s Pritzker is open to the suspicion that it has been awarded as much for political as for cultural reasons – it went to the only member of the profession who might be a plausible future candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Shigeru Ban, the 2014 Pritzker laureate, is the answer to critics who complain that the imagining of new buildings is dominated by egotistical, super-rich “starchitects”. He is personally modest and if he were to have a punning tag, it would be “disastertect”.

Ban has specialised in creating emergency structures from improbable materials in crisis zones. After the earthquakes of 1995 and 2011 in his native Japan, he created shelters for the homeless from beer crates and shipping containers, respectively. Last year, in the tremor-wrecked Christchurch, he raised his masterpiece to date, a construction that feels as if it should be found in the pages of a magical realist novel rather than in urban New Zealand: a cathedral created from cardboard.

The Pritzker citation acknowledged that Ban got the $100,000 and bronze medal for his disaster relief work as well as his architecture. However, as when the judges of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature complimented Harold Pinter on his political activism alongside his plays, it’s important to recognise that the recipient would have deserved the award for his artistic contributions alone.

The two key decisions for an architect are shape and substance and, in these areas, Ban is as innovative and influential as three previous Pritzker winners: Jørn Utzon, whose Sydney Opera House encouraged an epidemic of white, curved roofs and canopies around the world, and Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, who turned design thinking literally inside out with their Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Appropriately, Ban is a successor to Rogers and Piano in another sense: he built a temporary studio (from paper) on top of the Pompidou while designing the museum’s regional outpost in Metz, which echoes Utzon’s opera house in its vast white swirling roof, made, in evidence that the Japanese architect can also work in more conventional materials, from timber and fibreglass.

Rogers, Piano and Utzon were all working at the edge of the highest technology available. But Ban’s frequent starting point is low-tech and, from a British perspective, Blue Peter-ish. The shape that inspired many of his designs is a cardboard inner tube. Some journalists have been understandably drawn to the bathos of invoking a loo roll but Ban is clear that he first had the idea after getting to the last sheet of tracing paper or – this dates him – fax paper. His use of paper and cardboard as building materials is as brilliantly counterintuitive as Rogers and Piano placing the plumbing on the outside of the Pompidou. Whereas most buildings start on paper, many of Ban’s end in it.

Cardboard rolls are not his only contribution to the mystery of artistic inspiration. The roof of Ban’s Pompidou-Metz was based on a Chinese hat he found in Paris. That architectural catalyst was almost as bizarre as the decision that inspired the design of the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) in Manchester. Struggling to envisage a structure made from interlocking fragments, Daniel Libeskind took the office teapot, placed it in a plastic bag and threw it out of the window. Visitors to the IWMN are unlikely to think of broken crockery, although they will probably have thoughts of war: appropriately, Libeskind’s shattered shapes invoke bomb damage and fallen walls. And the question of whether buildings should be read metaphorically or simply geometrically (analogous to the question posed by abstract art) is one of the challenges set by architecture.

The guys who designed skyscrapers suffered (perhaps deservedly) from their stiff sticks being pointedly described as “erections”. More pleasingly, Utzon intended his white curves in Sydney to invoke the sails and waves at which they gaze.

Sometimes, there are happy accidents. During many days at Lord’s Cricket Ground, it has struck me that the Media Centre, a notably successful example, oddly resembles, through its rounded shape and central see-through panel, a batsman’s protective helmet, although it’s unlikely that its architects, Jan Kaplický and Amanda Levete, intended that connection.

Similarly, Zaha Hadid was bemused-amused when I suggested that the jutting-out gallery of her MAXXI museum in Rome brought to my mind the loading tray of a DVD player. But, later in the interview, she mentioned that one of her relaxations is watching box sets of Little Britain and other comedies, so the inspiration may have been unconscious.

None of these visual leaps, however, is as extraordinary as the journey from Shigeru Ban looking at a used cardboard inner tube to a cathedral in Christchurch and paper pavilions in Madrid, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere. Prizewinners are given their citations in a roll tied with ribbon. Who knows what the cylinder handed to this year’s Pritzker winner might inspire. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis