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Paper Heavyweight

This time the structure will be mud brick, not paper. Brick construction provides jobs, Ban says, which will not only aid the economy but also include people in the building of their own future. To speed construction, the bricks will be supplemented with sustainable wood from rubber trees, which he had discovered at a lumberyard on a scouting trip the week before.

The size of houses has been fixed by the government at 600 square feet. The community is largely Muslim, and Ban gave considerable thought to arranging the interior to accommodate separate areas for women. To extend the living space, Ban fashioned an extended roof over a courtyard, which would serve as an outdoor room.

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)

"It's nothing special, but I try to improve" on the basics, he says.

Schools and public buildings survived the tsunami, but the village lost its trees. He is looking for donors to fund replanting.

Volunteering is not always easy, as Ban's experience with the U.N. reveals.

His first letter about improving the tents for Rwandan refugees received no reply. Ban picked up the phone and called Geneva. He recalls getting the runaround until officials figured out he wasn't trying to sell anything.

Finally given clearance to go to Rwanda, he found that metal pipes being offered as supports for tent sheeting were being converted to cash. Paper tubes had no monetary value and so were utterly useless for anything but their intended purpose.

The desire for big projects and a social conscience are not inconsistent, but they are apparently rare. The unique aspect of Ban's work, and the reason he will be honored today in Charlottesville, Van Lengen says, is that he has found a way to accomplish the two seemingly disparate kinds of design. She knows of no other architectural practice that can balance an interest in aesthetics and a concern for humanity.

"He has achieved a unique position in architecture today," Van Lengen says, one that may open up new avenues of thought and practice for others. "He does both high-end work and humanitarian work," she says, and "he somehow finds a thread that links them."

Ban is not the least conflicted.

"For me, making a house for the rich or a victim of disaster is the same," he says. "I get the same satisfaction."

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