COOPERMADE: Recyclable Refugee Shelters

recyclable refugee shelters

Photo by Charly Triballeau, AFP

If there was one material associated with the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban AR’84, it would certainly be paper. Ban was drawn to The Cooper Union after studying the so-called “paper architecture” of the renowned John Hejduk, Cooper’s first dean of architecture. After graduating from Cooper, Ban’s fascination with the structural possibilities of paper as a recyclable building material continued, and he found an impactful way to explore its potential. 

In 1994, Ban followed the devastating news of genocide during the civil war in Rwanda, and the two million refugees who fled the violence. Moved by their story, Ban decided to design emergency shelters for refugees constructed from paper tubes and waterproof sponge tape that could be made using simple machinery and built on-site to avoid transportation costs. The so-called “paper log house” is built on a foundation of donated beer crates and sandbags, with roofs made of canvas. Like so many examples from Ban’s oeuvre, this low-cost house can be easily dismantled, and the tubes recycled. Ban became a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1995 and founded the NGO Voluntary Architects’ Network in the same year to support disaster relief. 

Most recently Ban developed another paper design solution to address a new breed of housing crisis. Due to COVID, Japan’s 24/7 internet and manga cafes were shuttered in 2020, leaving the people who depended on them for temporary housing without a place to stay. More than 4,000 people in Tokyo alone relied on these establishments to stay off the streets, and so Ban and his team at the Voluntary Architects’ Network created temporary shelters for them in a repurposed martial arts hall in Yokohama. The structures made of paper tubes and cloth draping allowed individual privacy and sufficient social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID, and showed the impact an architect can have when moved to shelter the world. 


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  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

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