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Paper Heavyweight

Architect Shigeru Ban Shelters the Homeless Using an Unlikely Material

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C01


Shigeru Ban is a maverick among modern architects. Others build with steel, glass and titanium; he made his mark with recycled cardboard tubes.

Ban has used them to construct a simple refugee tent, a luxurious weekend retreat and a soaring exhibition pavilion.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's signature paper tubes make up the support columns and roof of the Nomadic Museum on the Hudson River. (Cary Conover For The Washington Post)

A canopy of brown paper tubes arced briefly over the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden. A colonnade of 64 cardboard pillars supports the gabled roof of the Nomadic Museum, an installation of shipping containers and photography that is open to visitors through June 6 at Pier 54 on the Hudson River.

Images of these unlikely structures -- they are elegant, economical, environmentally attuned and quite solid -- have cemented Ban's global reputation as "the paper architect."

"I hate to be called that," he says with a grimace.

In fact, the Japanese architect builds with bamboo, wood, metal and glass as well. But his unconventional work with paper is central to his latest achievement.

Today, Ban will receive the 40th annual Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In the imposing Dome Room in the Rotunda designed by Jefferson, the 48-year-old Tokyo architect will join the ranks of such notables as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1966), I.M. Pei (1976) and Frank Gehry (1994). Each pushed the conventions of his era with steel and glass skyscrapers, monumental museums or waves of titanium.

Ban's signature contribution is humanitarian: refugee housing constructed with paper tubes.

After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, Ban responded with ingenious designs for temporary houses and a community center, all with cardboard tubes. His "Paper Log House" design was adapted successfully in Turkey and India after earthquakes struck those countries in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Pictures of Rwandan refugees struggling to survive with little more than plastic sheeting sparked another Ban design: a framework of cardboard tubes to turn sheeting into tents. He persuaded the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to supply the tubes to the refugees. Ban continued as a consultant to the UNHCR until 1999. On his own, he established the Voluntary Architects' Network, a nongovernmental organization focusing on shelter needs in poor countries.

"Using the humblest materials and the simplest forms this designer has found a way to give dignity and hope to people in need," Karen Van Lengen, dean of architecture and chief of the Jefferson medal committee, says in remarks prepared for today's ceremony.

For his part, Ban says: "I always thought architecture had to be respected. We have the power and the skill."

Ban worries about waste.

"Mottainai," he said suddenly, grabbing a reporter's notebook to write the word. The Japanese expression means something is too good to waste. It is as close as he would come in an hour of conversation to explaining what motivates his work.

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