By Nick Narigon
When a tsunami as tall as the Hollywood sign devastated the coastal fishing village of Onagawa on March 11, 2011, it killed more than 800 people, destroyed 70 percent of the Miyagi prefecture town’s structures and deposited cars on the third floors of buildings. With thousands of residents left homeless, it was soon realised that the town lacked land for temporary housing.
‘I rushed to Onagawa immediately [after the disaster],’ says Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. ‘As soon as I arrived, we started disaster relief efforts, and continued visiting on a weekly basis to complete the work.’
In Onagawa, government policies restricted temporary housing to single-floor units, but officials relented to Ban’s insistence that the structures be three storeys tall to accommodate more residents.
Known for his ingenious use of paper and cardboard as building materials, Ban stacked shipping containers in a checkerboard pattern to create open living spaces complete with built-in furniture.
‘I usually work for privileged people,’ says Ban. ‘But it is very important for an architect to be responsible for improving the housing environment of the less fortunate, or those who have lost their houses due to disasters.’
When Ban was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered one of the world’s premier architecture awards, in 2014, the jury cited his humanitarian efforts. Founder of the Voluntary Architects’ Network, Ban, now 60, was also awarded the 2017 Mother Teresa Memorial Award for his work designing sustainable emergency shelters for post-disaster zones and refugee settlements around the world.
Most recently, he visited the earthquake-stricken rural Mexican town of Jojutla, where he plans to build a facility similar to a paper elementary school he set up in Chengdu, China following an earthquake in 2008.
Ban's paper partition system. Photo: Voluntary Architects' Network
‘He has set an example for architects around the globe,’ says American architect Naomi Pollock, a contributor to the books ‘Architecture: The Whole Story’ and ‘Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture’. ‘He championed humanitarian work from very early in his career. As his celebrity has grown, his humanitarian efforts have not slowed.’
Ban’s most famous piece is the Centre Pompidou-Metz art museum in Metz, France, known for its complex timber roof structure. However, Pollock says the Tokyo native’s perhaps most significant work is the Takatori Catholic Church in Kobe, which replaced a structure levelled in the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake.
During prior relief work in Africa and South America, Ban noted that plastic shelters were uncomfortably hot and the material scarce, and struck upon the idea of using paper tubing, which is inexpensive, accessible and surprisingly durable.
The church and community centre, or the Paper Dome as it is known, was built using 58 cardboard tubes and beer crates filled with sandbags. In 2005 it was relocated to Taiwan.
‘The church embodies what his humanitarian work is about,’ says Pollock. ‘Finding an underserved community, meeting their needs and providing a building at no cost to them.’
Having installed emergency shelters in places like Rwanda, Nepal and Kenya, Ban took things a step further with his paper partition systems, designed to create comfort and privacy for displaced persons.
In the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, these were implemented by local governments at evacuation centres throughout Japan.
Almost seven years after the disasters, stylish storefronts, gourmet coffee houses and craft beer halls have replaced the rubble in Onagawa. At the centre of the town’s resurgence is its train station, completed by Ban in 2015.
‘The commission for the station building stated that it would become a symbol of the town,’ he says. ‘The important thing is that my contributions were well-received by the locals.’
The Onagawa station roof is fashioned in the image of a bird with wings spread wide – one ‘soaring towards a bright future,’ says Ban. Hopefully the same is true of the town itself.
Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai