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Paper Heavyweight

He was giving the reporter a tour of the 45,000-square-foot Nomadic Museum on a frigid day last month. Jet-lagged after a flight from Tokyo, he nevertheless was eager to explain his Nomadic design.

The project was commissioned five years ago by New York artist Gregory Colbert, who wanted a structure that could travel with an exhibition of his luminous large-scale photographs called "Ashes and Snow." Ban came up with a plan using 148 cargo containers as outer walls, and with the help of his longtime friend and collaborator, New York architect Dean Maltz, built the museum in five weeks. The interior is defined by artful lighting and the procession of 35-foot-tall paper tubes.

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)

"I hate to use these for people," Ban said of the steel containers. After the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, he had taken a cheap flight to Istanbul to see what could be done and found villagers housed in cargo containers. His paper log houses got them out of those suffocating metal boxes.

Ban views paper tubes as a kind of engineered wood with fantastic qualities. They are cheap, recyclable, reusable, biodegradable, nontoxic, widely available and, he believes, aesthetically appealing.

He developed methods of strengthening the tubes and waterproofing them. Those at the Nomadic Museum were made for the fabrication of concrete pillars. They were topped off to size at the pier. Remnants gathered by the construction trailer looked like thicker versions of the tubes inside rolls of gift wrap.

Not surprisingly, building authorities have been slow to convert. The most astonishing of Ban's paper buildings, a 3,100-square-meter Japanese Pavilion for the 2000 Hanover Expo in Germany, had to be modified substantially from its original design, even after passing rigorous tests.

"He likes to challenge people's prejudices," Maltz says.

But the reputation as a master of paper has been both "a blessing and a curse," Maltz acknowledges. "When you go after projects, people say: 'Oh, I don't know. He does temporary buildings. He does paper.' "

Born in Tokyo in 1957, Ban left as a youth to study architecture under John Hejduk, the legendary dean of New York's Cooper Union School of Architecture. Magazine articles had introduced him to Hejduk's ideas, which included a search for "architectonic poetics," or poetry in three dimensions. Because Cooper Union would not accept foreign students, Ban first attended the Southern California Institute of Architecture. He transferred, absorbed ideas about structure and graduated in 1984. (Ban jokes now that Hejduk, who died in 2000, was a "paper architect," too. "Not all his designs got built," he points out.)

Ban returned to Tokyo and apprenticed with Arata Isozaki. He set up his own studio in 1985 and now teaches. He has designed a variety of projects, mostly in Japan. Simple but extraordinary houses for private clients are as poetic as their names. The Curtain Wall House is enclosed not by an exterior facade but by a billowing, two-story white curtain. The Naked House relies on a high-tech, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't membrane for privacy.

He has won a commission to expand the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University by 2007, which will give him greater visibility in this country. His biggest project to date is the $40 million Pompidou museum in Metz, France, which is in the early stages of development. Renderings show a huge, mesh-like canopy of translucent fiberglass, which swoops over and around linear galleries.

New York has been disappointingly elusive for Ban. Among the Think team of architects who lost out to Daniel Libeskind in the final round of competition for the World Trade Center site, Ban says he also came in second for the design of a cultural center there. But a house in the high-profile -- and luxuriously avant-garde -- development of Sagaponac, in New York's Hamptons, is nearing completion.

"Architects like us are busy making the monuments," he says. "I always get tired working for the privileged people. We're helping them to show their power and wealth by making them visible."

Ban opened a worn sketchbook, coal black like his clothes, to show his newest concern: Sri Lanka. A neat pencil sketch outlines a square building, which will replace 100 dwellings in a fishing village devastated by the December tsunami.

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