This May, a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan Province in China. Reaching a magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale, it claimed the lives of 400,000 people. Half a year later, though the destruction seems to have lost its newsworthiness, the reconstruction is still very much a reality. However, it doesn’t have to be hopeless! How about a temporary shelter made of paper? In Chengdu city in Sichuan, students from Japanese banlab, architect Shigeru Ban’s research center, and the Hironori Matsubara Lab at Keio University used cardboard tubes to build temporary school buildings. Today, PingMag talks with Wataru Doi, the director of this student project, about the role of architecture after disasters.
Written by Ayana
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
First, how you did you get involved making temporary paper schools?
The Shigeru Ban’s banlab where I work had already been worknig on rebuilding projects after disasters, so after the earthquake in China, we immediately started talking about what we could do to help. Hironori Matsubara has an office in China, and he contacted Shigeru Ban, and went to inspect the region. Also, they got the cooperation of Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu. We gave a demonstration of a temporary house on the university campus, and then an elementary school in Chengdu asked us to build a temporary facility.
How severe is the destruction in Chendu?
Chengdu is about two hours by train from the centre of the worst. Compared to other areas, the destruction was not that severe — but for that very reason, resources for rebuilding were not sent to the area. Still there were people who needed help here, so we worked to build a new school building in time for the start of the new term in September.
And how exactly did you build a paper school?
We created three buildings, each with a floor plan of 6 meters by 30 meters and divided each of these into three sections, creating nine classrooms. Shigeru Ban came up with the basic ideas, and Mr. Harano from the doctoral course made the blueprints. Basically, the framework is made from paper tubes and the walls are made from material that is cheap and easy to produce in China. The roofs are made of plywood, and we used polycarbonate as insulation.
Architect Shigeru Ban is famous for his paper buildings. What is the advantage of using this material?
It is cheap, and more importantly, it uses materials that are available anywhere in the world. It is also structurally sound, so you do not have to worry about safety issues. Shigeru Ban has already used paper tubing for rebuilding after earthquakes in: India, Turkey and Kobe.
How did exactly construct the buildings?
Form the beginning of August for around 40 days, students from Japan and from Southwest Jiaotong University, as well as elementary school students volunteered for the construction. When we arrived at the site, there were no materials, no tools or anything. So we started by getting together the things we needed, which was much harder than expected! For example in Japan, if you order 100 pieces of 12-millimetre plywood, that is what will be delivered. But in China, you would get 100 boards varying in thickness from 10 millimetres to 14 millimetres. So you have to check the thickness of each and every board as you work. You could never imagine having these kinds of difficulties in Japan!
What did you think about the project as you were working on it?
In Japan and China, architecture students have practical design assignments. But when actually putting up a building, they encounter many things that are not covered in the classroom. For example, how to put a frame together or how to screw on plywood. It’s been a good experience for them.
A unique one too! How did the locals react when the school was completed?
The children were really happy, and everyone was smiling! The students were genuinely happy and also filled with a sense of accomplishment and it was evident they learned something from the project. Once the buildings were complete, people came together saying, “Arigato” and “Xie Xie” (Thank you) and crying.
People tend to think that architecture is only about building skyscrapers and homes. And sometimes, architects let that kind of attitude go to their heads. Architects have to think about what they can do for society. The answer to that is doing something for people who need help. That’s an obligation. We will remember this very experience probably into our old age.
We bet the participating Chinese and Japanese students will become fabulous architects! Mind that this project is now seeking donations (site unfortunately in Japanese only) to continue the good work. Good luck!