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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon