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.

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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. 

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