Shigeru Ban – Building temporary shelters for Ukrainian refugees with Paper tubes, fabric and safety pins

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban builds partition systems with paper and fabric to guarantee refugees a human right to privacy

The issue: the largest migration wave since World War 

As of May 2022, more than five million people have left Ukraine fleeing the war. This is creating the largest migration wave in Europe since World War Two. Since the start of the conflict, more than three million people migrated to neighboring Poland.

Nearly one million are currently in Romania, followed by the Russian federation and Hungary with half a million. This is mostly women and children: men cannot leave the country. More than seven million internally displaced people add up to the number of people who are currently without a safe home. 

The work of Shigeru Ban: privacy matters

When a situation of emergency occurs, finding a space where people and communities can reorganize after fleeing their homes, even just temporarily, can get chaotic. In most cases; gymnasiums; dismissed supermarkets; schools and other big indoor areas get quickly filled up with people trying to find a protected place to sleep.

This is also happening in the context of the war in Ukraine. Most of the talk in the media is either about numbers (how many refugees) or about higher geopolitical confabulations. In the midst of this are the people. With their very down-to-hearth everyday problems. One of these is the issue of privacy. For the time they spend in temporary shelters; displaced citizens are forced to share one big space with many other people and families they often don’t even know.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban builds paper partition systems to solve this problem, since the 1990s. When he saw some pictures of the situation at the Ukrainian-Polish border, he thought he could help. «Privacy is a basic human right. I saw my solution of paper partitions which I developed for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as appropriate»

Lampoon reporting: Paper Partition System (PPS)

For the partitions themselves, says the architect, «I created the structures with recycled paper tubes. They are easy to install by anyone – Instructions are included». It’s about being circular and use what would become a waste to find smart ways around daily issues. The goal is to provide privacy and dignity for refugee families, as well as orderliness for shelter administrators.

A minimum level of division among the families is crucial now more than ever, to also maintain good sanitary conditions. The structures Ban created are a simple solution for a larger problem. They are made with paper tubes and fabric. There are two different diameters of tubes: one for posts and one for beams. The tubes that make up the structure are the same as those used to roll up and store fabric or paper but in longer lengths. 

When in place, the units vary between two by two metres or two point three by two point three; depending on the size of beds that have to fit in. Each one can be made in five minutes by three people. Beds are made out of thick cupboard. This is a novelty: they were previously used only in Asia, where people commonly sleep on the floor.

In terms of the constructions, there is still negative bias around using paper for structural elements: « I always have to fight with the prejudice of the people who think that the paper is very weak, when in fact it is not: paper is industrial material»

On the field: the impact so far 

The New European Bauhaus has jumped in to provide strategical help on the ground. The first installations were built in Chełm and Wrocław, both in Poland. One is inside a previous Tesco grocery store. Chełm is the first strain stop from after crossing the border coming from centrak and northern Ukarine: the system was deployed in a vacant supermarket.

The population there is of sixty-four thousand residents. On average, six thousand people are currently arriving from Ukraine every day: a considerable amount, difficult to handle. Three hundred partition units were built inside the Tesco shop, hosting around six hundred and twenty refugees. There is a potential to build at least six hundred more: beds for two thousand and five hundred people.

There is still room to act, to reach the numbers of people who need them. In Wrocław, also a city of western Poland, partitions helped transform a rail depot into a shelter. Besides Ukraine (for internally displaced persons) and Poland (for emergency shelters) the system is already in place in Czechia, France, and Slovakia as well.

Lampoon, Shigeru Ban's Paper Partition System across temporary shelters in Europe housing Ukrainians
Shigeru Ban’s Paper Partition System across temporary shelters in Europe housing Ukrainians

Fire safety: setbacks 

One of the main issues, causing minor setbacks, comes from the inherent combustible nature of paper as a material. In Poland a fire chief first raised safety concerns. They had to dismantle fifty units, and authority threatened to shut the whole site down. Even though they did not follow through, avoiding this became a priority.

As a result, the architects must now test and certify the paper tubes for fire resistance. It is not always easy, because regulation often vary from country to country. They are now doing it as a default, in order not to have more problems with local bureaucrats as the project develops.

The main headache is that Ban’s PPS cannot be fully considered furniture, nor do they fit in the category of walls: traditional furniture does not have to meet any restrictions. This is a type of issue that often comes up with innovation: something that did not exist before can be hard to categorize. 

Funding: showing results before asking

Even in terms of funding, Ban has what became a standard procedure: «I always start with my own money». It is difficult to ask for money when all you can offer are stories, ideas and projects. Instead, after the first results are delivered, funds also start coming in, little by little. Mostly in the form of private donations.

This time around, Ban also managed to have «all the major costs for production are donated»: Ikea donated the materials in Slovakia; Corex, a Belgium company with a plant in Poland stopped their own production to produce the paper tubes we need free of charge. A variety of private companies donated the carton. 

The workflow: going local

The Voluntary Architectures Network, which operates Ban’s PPS project, has almost no full-time employees. Rather, Ban came up with a concept (PPS) and applies it to different situations of emergency. Every time, he builds a team from scratch, made of local professionals and volunteers: 

«whenever a disaster happens abroad, I contact the universities, schools of architecture, professors from the area and they immediately accept to collaborate». The system relies on the power of a community sharing the same ideas and goals, to come together and act quickly.

When something like this happens, from a war to a natural disaster, «people tend to meet, come together and discuss solutions quickly – this is what also happened with the New European Bauhaus: without this organization this would not happen as fast as it should». Locals are directly involved and at the same time more knowledgeable about peculiarities of the sites.

Future developments: the timeframe issue

Many European cities and communities now have to find solutions very quickly to accommodate the people fleeing Ukraine. Some cities, for instance in Belgium, are considering building new, semi-temporary villages from scratch. However, most of the Ukrainian people now escaping from the war might want to go back once the emergency is settled.

Especially considering that the male population – fathers, sons, husbands, brothers – are not allowed to leave the country. Semi-permanent hacks may not be the right fit: «from the news I read most of the people would like to go back home as soon as possible».

When the conflict is over, houses will have to be rebuilt: more PPS inside rather than outside the country may be of help as a way through. This happened in Japan, where people had to stay in temporary shelters, Ban recalls, «after the heart quake and tsunami, as the government was building temporary housing»

Voluntary Architects Network: the history behind PPS

It all started in 1994, during the Ruanda genocide: «I saw on a magazine that the refugees were suffering these very poor shelter conditions». Shelters were built by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and carried environmental issues with them as well.

«I found out that normally the UN provides the plastic sheets and refugees have to cut the trees to make a frame for the shelter. In Ruanda they had a big deforestation problem by cutting the trees». The UN started providing aluminum pipes to try and solve the problem, but aluminum is quite expensive, so they run out of money and went back cutting trees.

Ban thus proposed his Paper Partition System, which was successfully implemented. The year after, in 1995, he started making temporary houses for Vietnamese refugees and also built a temporary church. That same year Ban founded the Voluntary Architects Network, as to scale the project.

In previous projects he recalls «almost making a city, with streets, public spaces for people to gather, small clinic» out of little more than some recycled paper: «almost a small city under the same roof».

Shigeru Ban 

Japanese architect. Among others, in 2014, Shigeru Ban won the Pritzker Prize. In 1995, he founded the Voluntary Architects Network with the aim of organizing post-disaster aid in the field of construction

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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item collections in limited edition
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Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
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