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Natural disasters have been shaping architecture.  After devastating 3.11.2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsumami that washed away modern architecture, many prominent Japanese architects, such as Shigeru Ban, have been taking actions to re-define the relationship of nature and human, and the future of architecture.

Architecture is the revelation of the nature-human relationship, from a humans’ perspective.  It is our manifesto, or answer from humans to nature on how the interaction between the two can be, and should be.  Because of that, architecture is inherently contradictory.  It attempts to go higher and higher, when it’s against gravity. It attempts to become bigger and stronger, and shields against the threats posed by nature, whereas nature’s force is often too overwhelming to beat.

For the most part, though, modern architecture has been providing a much-needed security to people enveloped in it effectively and efficiently.  However, the brutal force of nature sometimes reveals the danger of fundamental contradictions associated with architecture.

Cars that carried to roof by tsunami in Onagawa, Miyagi. Date 30 March 2011
By ChiefHira (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Tohoku Earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 destroyed and washed away a countless number of modern architectural structures.  Many victims lost literally everything that was housed inside those structures.  This tragedy made many prominent Japanese architects re-think what the relationship of nature-human should be, and what kind of role the architecture should play.  Shigeru Ban played a decisive role in changing the way architects are involved in the rehabilitation process, after a destructive disaster. (Also read: Toyo Ito, Kengo Kuma‘s actions and perspectives on 3.11)

Shigeru Ban, the 2014 laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, has been working for disaster victims since 1994.  He started the efforts after he saw the pictures of refugees freezing in poorly maintained camps, during the Rwandan civil war. Determined to do something for them, he flew to the headquarters of the UN Refugee Agency, in Switzerland, with no pre-arranged appointments.

As it turns out, the default protocol for the UN Refugee Agency was to provide refugees with large plastic sheets, and the refugees were supposed to cut local trees to build a structure and set up a make-shift tent on their own.  However, due to the massive scale of displacement, the forests around the camp were entirely cut down in no time, causing serious environmental degradation. 

Concerned, the UN decided to provide aluminum structures, but the refugees ended up selling them to make money.  Ban’s alternative that eventually worked in such a difficult condition was something least expected:  kraft paper tubes.  Paper tubes for architecture?  Indeed, Ban has been using them for years to build large/beautiful buildings. “Paper tubes are everywhere. It’s accessible by anyone, and it is strong to support large structures,” says Ban.

In 1995, the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake occurred (M7, death toll 6,434) in central Japan. Again, he built shelters for the victims, using kraft paper tubes. (The foundation was plastic beer cases in which bagged dirt was placed.)  Then he built a beautiful church. Local people loved it, and it stayed there for 10 years, despite the original plan to place something temporary until a permanent one could replace it.  When that finally happened, the church was dismantled and shipped to Taiwan to help yet another earthquake-hit community, and became a permanent church/community center there.

Takatori Catholic Church By Bujdosó Attila (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

His efforts to help disaster victims as an architect was, in a sense, an effort to find an alternative to the “bigger, harder, sturdier” modern technology of architecture, after it was denied by the force of nature.  We all believed in the “bigger, harder and studier” mantra enabled by modern technology, and its efficiency to shield us from unwanted invasions.  But when it was denied, we were left with massive amounts of irreversible rubble, not easy to handle, or to remove or reuse, not to mention to embrace. Ban recalls what the priest of Takatori Church in Kobe said right after the quake: “I feel like this place finally became a true church when the building collapsed and disappeared.” It reminded people that what constituted a church was not an elaborately designed building, but the people who shared the belief and were ready to work together and to help each other.  

Those experiences convinced him that the definition of “permanent architecture” had nothing to do with the sturdiness of the materials.  If people love the building, it’s permanent to them, even if it’s made of paper.  Moreover, it’s still temporary if it’s a commercial building made to just to make money.  “No matter how much concrete was used, it wouldn’t qualify as a permanent existence in a community if people didn’t care about it,” says him.

By the way, paper rolls are not weak or vulnerable as most people would think, says Ban.  They are strong enough to constitute the structure for large buildings, and they are pretty fire resistant (and you can always apply protective coats to enhance resistance).  They are light, and easy to handle.  They can be sourced locally- actually, paper roll factories are everywhere in the world, and Ban worked with many of them for his disaster aid projects.  In addition to all those advantages, paper is recyclable.  And last but not least,  they are an organic material that have soft, soothing texture that makes people feel relaxed and comfortable.  He would joke: “When I made my first architecture with paper rolls, I used the largest ones for bathrooms: each unit was housed in a large, single tube.  In case you ran out of toilet paper, you could peel off the interior wall and you’d be all set.” His hilarious story reminds us how nature, architecture and humans can stay connected, smoothly and comfortably.

Japan Pavillion at Hanover Expo 2000. One of his iconic architecture using paper tubes.  “Many architects think the completion of the building is the goal. I believe the goal is when it’s dismantled. That’s why I use recyclable materials such as paper tubes,” says Ban. By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons