Shigeru Ban Wins the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's Highest Honor

The Pritzker Prize is a little bit like the Oscars of architecture: It usually ends up being a chance for everyone to air their complaints about the industry. But every so often, there's a real cause for celebration—such is the case today, when the jury announced that Japanese architect Shigeru Ban would become 2014's recipient.

According to Architect's Newspaper, which reported the award 30 minutes before the official announcement was made today, the 56-year-old architect will become the next recipient of the Pritzker. It couldn't go to a more deserving designer: Ban has designed disaster shelters everywhere from Kobe to Turkey to Rwanda. He's spent the years since the 2011 Japanese tsunami devoting a huge portion of his practice to designing temporary housing for survivors, and permanent structures for the displaced, too.

Shigeru Ban Wins the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's Highest Honor

Shigeru Ban's Hannover Pavilion, 2000.

If his name doesn't ring a bell, his signature material might: Paper. Ban pioneered the use of cardboard as a structural material, with which he began building in 1989. His approach involves rolling paper into tubes, which bolsters its compressive strength, and treating it with chemicals to make the columns waterproof.

Shigeru Ban Wins the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's Highest HonorShigeru Ban Wins the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's Highest HonorCentre Pompidou-Metz by Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines. Image: Steve Silverman and Annie Dalbéra,

Using these paper tubes, he's built everything from a soaring pavilion for the Hannover EXPO 2000, above, to a cathedral for the earthquake-devastated community in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Shigeru Ban Wins the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's Highest Honor

Ban's Christchurch Cathedral.

Here's what he had to say about winning the prize:

When Martha Thorne [the executive director of the Pritzker] called to tell me, I thought she was joking. I knew about the reason why I was chosen, and I knew that the reason was quite different from other laureates. It was an encouragement for me to continue to do the kind of social work I do as well as making projects like museums and others, so I try to keep a balance between other kinds of projects and working in disaster areas. So I'm taking it as an encouragement rather than the award was for such achievement.

If you're not familiar with the Pritzker, here's the deal: The annual award has been given to a single architect, who is chosen by a jury of five or so architects and critics, since 1979. Nominations can be made by anyone—in fact, Gordon Bunshaft even nominated himself before winning the prize in 1988. The prize is a $100,000 stipend, financed privately by Chicago's Pritzker family. It's been compared to the Nobel Prize, but for architecture.

Why does the Pritzker matter? That it even does is debatable—but the simplest answer is that it matters because it exists. Unlike other fields, there aren't terribly many internationally-recognized awards for a single architect. Just by choosing a single living architect to honor, the prize gives culture at large a sense of what matters at the moment in a profession that tends to come off as opaque to non-architects.

Shigeru Ban Wins the Pritzker Prize, Architecture's Highest Honor

At the same time, the fact that it's given to a single architect is exactly why some criticize the prize. Architecture is a team sport—a complex, years-long game in which hundreds of people all play vital rolls. By praising a single designer, the prize helps to perpetuate the myth of the lone genius, which has plagued the profession since Frank Lloyd Wright first donned a cloak.

Another major pitfall: Only two women have ever won it, and one of those was one half of the only two-person winner. Tension over the gender disparity reached a breaking point last year over the award's 1991 winner, Robert Venturi, who works in a partnership with his wife, Denise Scott Brown. Tens of thousands of people signed a statement condemning the jury's willful ignorance of Scott Brown's roll in the work. But Pritzker administrators had little to say of the controversy: "[The] jurors change over the years so this presents us with an unusual situation," the Prize's executive director told CNN at the time.

So the Pritzker is a way to draw attention to architecture, which is great. But its relevance is being questioned more and more by younger architects and critics, who feel alienated by the self-congratulatory elitism of its ranking members—which sounds a lot like the Oscars, actually.

By choosing Ban, the jury has made its smartest decision in years—to reward architecture that actually matters, rather than simply architects who matter.

Lead image: AP.