Who knew paper could be so strong?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

A decade ago, Ban created the Voluntary Architects' Network, a nongovernmental organization to provide the needy with housing. He's worked on many humanitarian projects, from helping Rwandan refugees improve their temporary shelters without cutting down scarce trees, to combining his paper tubes with local resources to build emergency housing for earthquake survivors in Japan, Turkey, and India. After the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, he helped design not only housing but a temporary church using paper-tube columns.

"I always design the temporary building as a permanent building," he says. "The paper church I designed in Kobe ... was meant to be a temporary church, but it is still there after 10 years."

The tubing Ban uses - or "evolved wood," as he's called it - is water-resistant, sturdy, and made of recycled paper. He first used it in the mid-'80s, when faced with a project in which he couldn't afford wood. But the architect has said he doesn't want to be known just for using paper (he's also experienced with glass, bamboo, and more traditional materials like concrete and steel).

His humanitarian work is perhaps generating the most attention. It was one of the things that stood out to the selection committee at the University of Virginia. And it was Ban's work on the church and temporary housing in Japan and Turkey that caught the eye of photographer Colbert while he was traveling.

"He understood and is inspired by creating spaces that are shared in a very democratic way," says Colbert. "It's not just supposed to be for the elite."

Colbert wanted a structure that was unlike a typical museum with its wall-mounted descriptions of each work. Instead, he's tried to stimulate all of the senses, with lights turned low, evocative music, and a provocative building that requires visitors to walk down a wooden path to view the photos suspended between columns on either side. The photographer describes it as a kinetic piece of architecture, because it will change shape as it reaches each stop on its world tour, in part to accommodate more people. (After New York, "Ashes and Snow" travels to the Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles.) Even the steel shipping containers will be rented in each location.

"I'm not religious, but I find that it's spiritual," says Alfreda Mautner, an artist who lives nearby, who was visiting the museum for the second time on a recent afternoon. "I feel everything's connected here."

Ban says he wasn't aiming to give people a religious experience, but that the spacing he's chosen for the inside is much like that of a cathedral. When people go into a church or cathedral, they are often amazed by the space at first, he says, but then as they start to pray they focus more on what they're doing.

Likewise, with the Nomadic Museum, "You may be amazed by this space," he explains, "but ... I was hoping the people can start concentrating [on Colbert's] work, and the image of the space is disappearing and it's becoming the backdrop of his photos."

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