His enterprise to help earthquake victims continued. In 1999, he went to Turkey. There again, Ban worked with local paper tube providers and built shelters. He remembers one local architect saying, “You are from a country where people live in wooden houses. Here in Turkey, people live in houses made of brick or concrete. I’m afraid people won’t feel comfortable in your shelter if it’s made of paper.” As it turns out, the victims felt more comfortable in Ban’s shelter after they witnessed heavy bricks and concrete collapse and suppress humans’ bodies. They were devastated by the “bigger, harder and sturdier” side of modern architecture. They felt much safer surrounded by paper, an organic material, much lighter and softer, and wasn’t alienating.
After Turkey, he went to India, Sri Lanka, China, Italy and Haiti, before the Tohoku Earthquake occurred. In 2008, he brought 30 students from Japan to build a school Sichuain, China, where many school buildings collapsed because of incomplete construction. They used paper tubes and completed it in five weeks, with the help of local students. Just like what happened to the Kobe church, the school liked it so much that people still use it, many years after the quake.
In Tohoku, the quake was so large that it affected hundreds of thousands of people. First, he focused on providing much-needed partitions for the victims who used large public venues (such as school gyms) as a temporary shelter, which they shared with dozens of other people. Securing privacy was a serious issue. Nonetheless, local authorities were very reluctant to introduce such partitions because “we’ve never done that before,” and because “it will make harder for us to keep situation under control.”
Although he was a non-affiliated architect, Ban ended up playing the role of a negotiator between the victims and local authorities, because he had a solution and he knew who to talk to, after implementing so many projects in different disaster-affected areas.
Demonstration in Hiroshima (Note: This is not at Tohoku earthquake site)
Once again, he used paper rolls as structures. Since they are light and easy to handle, the victims could easily set them up when they needed them, based on their family size and needs. The authorities that didn’t want permanent structures finally OK’ed his idea, because of the flexibility his project offered. His team ended up installing about 1,800 units throughout Tohoku.
After a couple of months, it was time for people to start moving in to temporary houses, which are basically rows and rows of long, rectangular pre-fabricated buildings, partitioned into small modules. Ban was concerned because these temporary houses the government provided were usually focused only on cost and fast deployment, and didn’t pay much attention to how comfortable, or how aesthetically acceptable they were. But he believed that those factors were critical for the victims to heal from the horrendous experiences. That’s why the architects are pivotal in the process because they are the ones who can add comfort and aesthetics to the project. Government staff cannot do that, says Ban.
In Onagawa-cho, Miyagi, he proposed a temporary housing complex using industrial containers. Containers are piled up into multi-layers to accommodate more people in a limited area. Each module was carefully laid so as the living rooms in each floor weren’t on top of each other, to minimize noise pollution. His project also came with some furniture, which was critical for people to live comfortably. And we don’t have to mention aesthetics…they were simply pretty. But with all those improvements, the cost for each unit was under what was allowed by the authorities, says Ban. He says he needed to demonstrate how much you could do even with a limited budget, which was set so as no specific group of victims could get a better deal than another.
His work reminds us that when architecture is sustainable for Earth, it is also comfortable for humans. They are connected to each other. Paper is an organic material which is renewable, AND we feel more relaxed when we are enveloped in it. He also reminds that limited or sustainable budgets doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise. Industrial containers or pre-fabricated units still have unexplored potential, says Ban. It’s just the matter of involving the right people to add needed values – such as involving architects in disaster relief projects.
Through disaster, which makes humans naked and vulnerable in the face of overwhelming power of nature, he continues to help people figure out what our ultimate strengths and resilience are. Through paper tube and all other materials that are accessible and easy to use by all of us, we can remember that our strengths don’t always have to be represented by highly engineered, industrial materials such as concrete.