Building a strong reputation

Architect Shigeru Ban, this year's Pritzker Prize winner, is the seventh Japanese to win the award - a feat matched only by the Americans.

TOKYO - Cardboard tubes and beer crates; what people dismiss as waste architect Shigeru Ban sees as construction material.

Since the 1990s, Mr Ban has been pioneering the use of such cheap, recyclable materials to construct temporary shelters and buildings in disaster areas around the world. Over the years, he extended their use to more permanent structures.

The innovative use of non-traditional building materials is one reason for Mr Ban winning this year's Pritzker Prize - dubbed the "Nobel Prize for architecture" in industry circles.

In fact, industry sources say the creative use of construction materials is what makes Japanese architects stand out in the field.

Mr Ban is the seventh Japanese architect to win the Pritzker, a feat matched only by the Americans in the 35-year history of the prize, which was started by members of the family behind the American hotel chain Hyatt to honour an architect for his body of work and his contributions to society.

The winner of the prize takes home US$100,000 (S$125,000) and a medallion.

Japanese architects have been on a roll recently, with four winners in the last five years. Last year's winner - Mr Toyo Ito - is known for his creative use of lightweight metals such as aluminium panels in his buildings.

"Japanese architects have a sensitivity... a feeling for the materials," says noted architect Yusuke Obuchi, who teaches at the University of Tokyo's school of architecture.

The Japanese respect for materials perhaps stems from the Shinto religion, one of which beliefs is that a divine being resides in objects like a stone or a tree.

To architect Tomohisa Miyauchi, the general belief "that there is a spirit or a soul even in a small stone" explains the care Japanese take in using materials for crafts or buildings.

The result is a culture of appreciating innovation, craftsmanship and sophistication, and a healthy respect for the environment.

Since 1950, Japan has designated as Living National Treasures those who have reached the top of their fields such as ceramics, metalworking and papermaking. There are now more than 170 such craftsmen who receive a 2 million yen (S$24,600) annual stipend.

All these give Japan an edge, with great architecture taking generations to achieve, says noiz architects partner Keisuke Toyoda.

"Even if an architect has a great idea, he cannot realise it on his own. The client, the contractor and even the carpenter must have the level of skills, understanding and institutional experience to make it happen," he said.

It has taken many generations, five to six centuries of them by his reckoning, before Japan was able to develop its own style.

The level of sophistication acquired can be seen in traditional architecture, with its distinctive Zen gardens, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, castles, wooden houses with tiled or thatched roofs and innovations such as the fusuma, or sliding doors.

Apart from indigenous innovations, Japan has also imported ideas from the outside world. However, this did not mean blindly following foreign architectural trends.

Japanese architects such as the late Kenzo Tange, the first Japanese to win the Pritzker in 1987, and Mr Fumihiko Maki, the second to do so in 1993, were inspired by Western modernist architecture.

But operating in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, a time of rapid economic growth, they had to tackle local issues such as urban congestion.

Mr Tsuto Sakamoto, who teaches architecture at the National University of Singapore, said the two were able to come up with "unique, yet refined, internationally modern architectural works" through the exploration of the double agenda.

The Pritzker wins of Mr Ito and Mr Ban suggest that Japanese architects are again ahead of the curve.

Both architects are widely recognised for their humanitarian work in disaster areas, a point clearly referred to in the citations for their wins.

The message is clear that social contributions will carry greater weight than they have to date, said Mr Toyoda.

"There is a shift back to basics, that economic value and aesthetics are not the only ways of seeing and evaluating architecture," he said.

boonlai@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 15 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.