Building a strong reputation

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.

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