I am an architect, and therefore I feel more comfortable sketching with a pen than writing on a keyboard. Saying this though, for passion’s sake, you try new things that you are not most comfortable with at first. I am a person who likes challenges and I believe in a certain design philosophy and that is why I have joined, by invitation, the Creative Cloud team.
Architecture is all around us and as architects we create space and volume for people to live in. One could say we are ‘social’ builders and we define the built geography of everyday life. This could be true for the first/modern world, but one does not need an architect to build a vernacular dwelling or an emergency shelter. And this brings me to the subject of my first article –
What do the fashion house of Hermes and the earthquakes in L’Aquila or Christchurch have in common?
The answer is simple, one great man and a very special architect.
It was back in April of this year that my wife and I visited the 50th Salone del Mobile, part of Milan Design Week 2011. We went to see the best design from the past 50 years including furniture icons and museum pieces created by the most revered designers in the world. However, most of all we wanted to see and feel a house pavilion made out of paper and cardboard. Hermes of Paris commissioned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to create a transportable pavilion that would house their 2011 furniture line. The pavilion was to be built inside an old swimming pool facility and had to convey the same attention to detail that is intrinsic in Hermes. It was with much baited breath and anticipation, walking through the Brera Design District that we came to the Maison Hermes. On entering we were speechless and in awe. This illuminated building of great translucency looked like it was floating in the air like a Japanese lantern. The sheer clarity of the detailing and the lightness of the materials created a truly magical sense of volume. Displayed here were recycled and cheap materials with the power and strength to create a pure design aesthetic that was tranquil to the senses. Consideration was even given to the three different diameters of the main cardboard support tubes. This was not for structural reasons, but for the ease of transport as all the tubes fitted inside one another a bit like a Russian doll, thus reducing the volume of shipping and space for storage. And all this designed by a ‘starchitect’ for one of the leading luxury brands in the world. Nice, but how can this be related in any way to an earthquake zone, you might be wondering?
Because Shigeru Ban is a special architect. He has returned to the roots of why we human beings create shelters and dwellings. In so doing he has addressed the needs of human beings on a social level like none of his fellow contemporaries. The connection has been realised by using materials and design concepts that aid people in situations of emergency or crisis. To serve this cause he has founded a voluntary architects network called NGO that intervenes as soon as there is an emergency worldwide. This brings me to the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch and the Temporary Auditorium in L’Aquila. The Cardboard Cathedral was proposed in August. A feasibility study is being done and hopefully the provisional temple will be concluded for the first year anniversary of the quake next February. However, not every good initiative is appreciated equally. The Auditorium in Italy is shrouded in controversy. Mr Ban offered a complete project involving a new home for the Alfredo Casella Conservatory and adjoining auditorium. Rather than constructing a new building from scratch, Ban’s proposal involved using the skeleton of an underground garage on the outskirts of town, which had never been completed. By using the existing structure, costs would be reduced and lead times shortened. At the G8 meeting, Mr. Ban not only donated the project to Berlusconi but he also guaranteed to raise half of the finance needed for its construction, the other half being donated by the Japanese government. A few weeks later, and without explanation, the Italian government refused the magnificent offer with the excuse that the unfinished parking was not ideally positioned and if it were to cost more, the Italian government was not in a position to support it. However, in the meantime, a new project for the auditorium has been approved and apparently work should start shortly. Nothing out of the ordinary if it were not for the fact that the future building looks as boring as it gets and will cost at least six times the price of Mr. Ban’s project, which would have been donated and would have generated an immense attraction. I bet the auditorium will end up like the parking: fully paid for and never built. No news from Italy.
These two projects are not the only emergency architectural projects that Shigeru Ban has done. He has worked for Rwanda (1994), Kobe (1995), Turkey (1999) and Haiti (2010). All the buildings are transportable, recyclable and can be erected with local labour at a cheap cost.
I choose to take these three projects of reference by one man, firstly because I have personally experienced the work of Shigeru Ban and secondly I have a growing feeling that the world of architecture has taken a marked turn since September 2009. No longer are projects by architects defined by the budget and the client’s needs only. I feel that the value system has changed and includes another parameter: social and environmental responsibility. Shigeru Ban is a pioneer. Hopefully there will be many more following his path.