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

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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