Ban’s shel­ter crafted for city

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -


here 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 tem­po­rary­hous­ing 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-of­factly 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.”

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