Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log House built on humanitarian principles

The acclaimed Japanese architect's design, on view now at the Vancouver Art Gallery's Offsite space, has been modified to shelter earthquake victims around the world

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      There are a number of factors that make the Vancouver Art Gallery’s newest Offsite exhibit—an interpretation of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s widely recognized paper-log house—relevant not only to Vancouver but to this particular moment in time.

      First, there’s the gallery’s upcoming show Cabin Fever, which, from June 9 to September 30, will trace the history of the seemingly ubiquitous cabin as a fundamental architectural form and cultural artifact. With its modest size and wood-and-cardboard construction, Paper Log House serves as a natural extension of this exhibition. Second, there’s Terrace House, a residential development designed by Ban—and situated blocks away from the VAG’s outdoor Offsite space—that, when complete, will be the world’s tallest hybrid timber structure. A sustainable shelter built primarily from cardboard tubes, Paper Log House, then, offers Vancouverites a way to engage with the renowned architect’s environmentally conscious work on a smaller, more accessible scale.

      Discerning the third—and most compelling—reason why Paper Log House is such a felicitous installation for Vancouver, however, requires some brief knowledge of Ban, whose practice emphasizes humanitarian aid. Founder of the Voluntary Architects’ Network, a nongovernmental organization that sends teams of architects to natural-disaster sites to assist in reconstruction efforts, the Pritzker Architecture Prize–winning figure is revered for his innovative temporary-housing solutions that offer refuge to people devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis, and other uncontrollable circumstances.

      “We’re expecting an earthquake,” Bruce Grenville, senior curator at the VAG, states matter-of-factly during an interview with the Straight at Offsite. “And there’s this need to kind of conceptualize that, and support and endorse creative work related to this reality.”

      Originally conceived as emergency shelter for Vietnamese refugees in Kobe, Japan, following a 6.9-magnitude earthquake that struck the area in 1995, Ban’s paper-log house has since been modified by the designer to accommodate earthquake victims in Turkey, Sri Lanka, and beyond. The efficacy of the dwelling lies in its adaptation: in each case, the structure is built according to what materials are readily available at a disaster site with thoughtful consideration of a region’s geography, culture, and traditional construction techniques.

      In Kobe, for instance, the houses’ bases were composed of beer crates filled with bags of sand; in Bhuj, India, following the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, rubble from collapsed buildings made up the foundations. This malleability makes the piece not only incredibly cost-effective, but swift and easy to assemble—all musts for a city dealing with the aftermath of a crisis.

      Although not erected in response to a catastrophe, Vancouver’s paper-log house also utilizes local materials. Most notably, Ban trades beer cases for electric-blue milk crates at Offsite, though, like the Kobe iteration, the 52-square-foot structure is manufactured mainly from cardboard tubes and plywood. “This is a project that’s really about sustainable, viable forms of architecture,” notes Grenville. “Architecture that can be done relatively cheaply, that has all the characteristics of viable shelter for people under dire circumstances, and really responds intelligently to the place it’s being built in.”

      Inside, the space is warm and inviting, a welcome departure from the tents typically distributed in disaster relief. And while it’s hopeful to think that Ban would allow the city to keep this Vancouverized version as a blueprint that will aid in rehabilitation after the inevitable Big One, Grenville is quick to stress that this very idea goes against the essence of the dwelling. (More likely, the piece will be dismantled and returned to Ban’s team for showcasing or simply recycled.)

      “I said to Shigeru, ‘We’re going to have an earthquake someday here. It’s bound to happen. So would you design a relief house for us—something that we could set aside?’ ” Grenville says. “And he said, ‘It doesn’t work that way, because it’s a response to the disaster. It’s not the response to an ideal problem.’ ”

      Still, Vancouverites should find much to ponder at this exhibit about the role architecture plays in both the commonplace and the catastrophic. “We often think towers and condos are the ways architecture works,” says Grenville. “But, in fact, shelter and our relationship with the built environment are multifaceted. And I think that architects, like so many different groups of people, have an opportunity to contribute to the well-being [of society], and support a culture in times of disaster.”

      Offsite: Shigeru Ban is at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite (1100 West Georgia Street) until October 8.