Brick by Brick: Shigeru Ban Rebuilds With Rubble in Post-Earthquake Nepal

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the heart of Nepal on April 25th this year, the country’s people and their built environment suffered immeasurable damage. The tragedy spanned from the city streets of Kathmandu to the snow-covered slopes of Everest: more than 9,000 people lost their lives, and many more were left bereaved, injured, and homeless. An estimated 875,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed completely, and the priority for many architects has been devising swift, temporary solutions to help those most in need.

One such architect is Shigeru Ban, the Japanese Pritzker Laureate who has been specializing in disaster reconstruction and the design of refuges for two decades. Ban has developed a series of houses for Nepalese citizens that combine his in-depth knowledge of innovative construction materials with a simple design template, such that anyone can build the shelter in a matter of days.

The design combines a number of unconventional materials that are both pragmatic and poetic, typifying Ban’s penchant for exploring new solutions in response to the most challenging contexts. First, three-foot-by-seven-foot timber frames are to be in-filled with salvaged bricks, each one retrieved from the mountains of building rubble left behind by the devastating tremors.

Each timber frame can be constructed swiftly and roof applied to provide immediate shelter, after which inhabitants have time to collect and build up the rubble walls, panel by panel. This use of recycled masonry is at once practical — it will require minimal transportation to site from the surrounding region — but also incredibly poignant, as each imperfection within the bricks’ textured surface tells a story of fractured earth and fragile lives.

The second key element of the concept is the roof assembly, a pitched structure made from cardboard tubes, a material that Ban has become renowned for. The Japanese architect has spent years refining the details of his paper architecture concepts: in Christchurch, his “Cardboard Cathedral” became an instant landmark upon completion in 2013.

“The strength of the building has nothing to do with the strength of the material,” Ban emphasized when talking about his Christchurch project. “Even concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes very easily, but paper buildings cannot.” In Nepal, the locally produced cardboard tubes are built to last, the rigid structure being protected by a triple layer of plywood, polycarbonate sheets, and thatched materials.

The resulting building is rich with vernacular details, humble yet woven with subtle moments of modern sophistication. The plywood junction that connects each cardboard tube to the next, for example, is considered with a combination of creativity and rigor one would expect from a Pritzker Prize winner. Further details evoke the local architectural language of Nepal and harness passive climate techniques in keeping with the environment: simple wooden doors and pivoting timber window panels will facilitate cross ventilation throughout each building.

Ban’s knack for such contextual responses reflects his unparalleled experience in designing for disaster relief. The Nepal shelters follow similar projects in the Philippines, India, Haiti, New Zealand, and his native Japan. The level of permanence for this project is not rigidly defined, but Ban adopts a typically open-minded philosophy when it comes to architecture’s longevity. Speaking to the Japan Times two years ago, the “People’s Architect” stated:

“Ultimately, what determines the permanence of a building is not the wealth of the developer or the materials that are used, but the simple question of whether or not the resulting structure is supported — loved — by the people.”

They are words that members of the architectural profession across the globe would be well advised to reflect on. Time will tell in Nepal, but with Ban’s record for producing architecture that is loved and cared for by its users, these rubble refuges will likely be embraced for many years to come.

Conceptual renderings by Calzada Visualization.