The Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most distinguished and celebrated award in architecture, is given to a professional in the field who has contributed substantially to humanity and displayed excellence in built work. Awarded this year to Shigeru Ban, the 56-year-old Japanese architect, the Prize has truly met its objective after a long time. Mr. Ban has built inexpensive, easily transportable and recyclable disaster relief structures across the world for two decades. His ingenious designs have converted cardboard, paper and other relatively inexpensive materials into useful and reliable building components. He has utilised them in challenging situations ranging from earthquake-disaster relief work in Bhuj to refugee structures in Rwanda. Not many architects commit their skills and resources to design for the needy. Their preoccupation has been with creating expensive, glitzy and monumental structures, and major awards, including the Pritzker Prize, thus far have favoured such less socially relevant projects. This recognition of Mr. Ban’s contributions probably marks the beginning of a rethink. In a way it tries to make up for the failure to recognise his illustrious predecessors, such as Hassan Fathy and Laurie Baker, who were prolific in designing delightful buildings for the poor.

This year’s Pritzker Prize raises a key question for Indian architects and policymakers to reflect on: if good design brings in innovation and adds value, why are they not increasingly deployed to serve the public good? Organisations such as the Design Council of the U.K., which advises the government on matters of design, have repeatedly demonstrated that creative solutions can improve the quality of everyday life and deliver public services efficiently. They have also shown that funds invested in design fetch profits and social value. Such savings are critical for fund-starved projects such as low-cost housing. The New York City Department of Housing and Preservation Development has taken up collaborative work with designers to create a better liveable environment in their affordable housing projects. In contrast, State departments in India pay hardly any attention to design. As a result, low-income housing projects impose unliveable environments on the poor, and cities are yet to see well-designed bus stops, easily maintainable public toilets and user-friendly civic buildings. Even the National Design Policy, announced in 2007, has not sufficiently focussed on socially useful products. Architecture has to rediscover its social purpose to stay relevant. Professional education and public policy must enable it to serve those in need than just those who can pay for it.

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