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Who knew paper could be so strong?

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2005


It sounds like something a kid might dream up: a structure made of shipping containers and paper tubes. But the Nomadic Museum on Pier 54 in Manhattan was designed by a grown-up - one who is being recognized for his contribution to architecture.

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The temporary museum on the Hudson River - built to house a traveling photography exhibition - will be an introduction for many Americans to Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect known for his work with recyclable and reusable materials, particularly paper.

With its cardboard columns and cathedral-like ceiling, the museum offers a hint of Mr. Ban's range. He has created emergency housing for earthquake survivors and was part of a team that was a finalist in the bid to redesign the World Trade Center site. This month he was presented with an award from the University of Virginia - one of many he's earned since starting his firm in 1985.

Besides his use of paper, Ban's legacy may be his ability to make buildings portable, a characteristic that addresses both the needs of those left homeless by natural disasters and an increasingly transient society.

When approached by photographer Gregory Colbert to design the Nomadic Museum, Ban applied a technique he'd used on a smaller scale - one that allows the building to be dismantled and shipped to its next stop using some of the 148 containers that make up its walls.

Along with that efficiency comes a distinguishable aesthetic. "He's someone who really creates spaces that ... feel uplifting. They open you up," says Mr. Colbert, whose exhibition, "Ashes and Snow," on display in New York until June 6, consists of more than 100 photographs of Colbert and others from around the world interacting with animals in natural settings.

Ban's work reflects his desire not to waste anything as well as his concern for balancing expensive projects for wealthy clients against simpler ones for underserved people. Architects are typically expected to concentrate on the needs of clients with deep pockets. Ban says he's not happy unless he's focusing on both ends of the spectrum.

"I try to [keep] my mental balance by working [with] minority people as well as privileged people," he says in a phone interview from Paris. He is working on a satellite branch of the Pompidou Centre, to be built in the town of Metz.

In the next month, he also expects to start construction on 100 new homes in a village in Sri Lanka where fishermen were displaced by the recent tsunami. He's using locally made brick and wood from the country's rubber trees. And he's found a way to make it easier for residents to build the structures themselves: The bricks fit together like Legos, so bricklayers aren't required.

"He has opened up and made public a new avenue for architects," says Karen Van Lengen, dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture and chair of the selection committee for the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture, recently awarded to Ban. "His humanitarian work has been a whole new area for architects to enter into.... He's trying to develop systems that can be used from place to place."