The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has offered a refreshing antidote to design-world slickness and ego in recent years. Soft-spoken, unfashionably mustachioed and generally disheveled, he’s built his substantial reputation in the most unusual of ways: designing a series of diaphanous, often fragile-looking buildings and traveling without the armada of publicists who sail alongside the world’s best-known architects.
Working with recycled or workaday materials and helping to push sustainable design toward architecture’s cutting edge, he’s produced temporary but elegant shelters for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and a paper church in earthquake-stricken Kobe. He was picked last year by the Centre Pompidou in Paris to design a branch of the museum in eastern France that will feature an undulating, translucent roof. And with Rafael Vinoly and Frederic Schwarz, he designed a latticed, largely open-air scheme for the World Trade Center site that placed second to Daniel Libeskind’s master plan.
At the same time, Ban, who is 47 and studied at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in the early 1980s, hasn’t been immune to the lure of the glitzy commission. Along with some of the biggest names in architecture, he signed on to a pair of high-end residential projects -- the Houses at Sagaponac on Long Island and the Commune at the Great Wall a few miles north of Beijing -- that feature expansive single-family homes lined up like trophies on a shelf. Taking those jobs doesn’t suggest that Ban has sold out -- only that, contrary to early indications, he’s entirely human, as open to financial and promotional temptation as any of his peers.
Though it is also temporary, his latest building -- and largest project to date in the United States -- belongs more to the second category than the first. While it’s hardly a vanity project for Ban, it is arguably little more than that for his collaborator, photographer Gregory Colbert. Designed to house a series of Colbert’s black-and-white photographs of models posing alongside exotic animals, Ban’s so-called Nomadic Museum in Manhattan, which opened last Friday, sits atop Pier 54 on the Hudson River, which happens to be the spot where the survivors of the Titanic were delivered in 1912 and the Lusitania sailed three years later. (The pier is now part of the state-run Hudson River Park.) Open through June 6 in New York, the museum will be reassembled at the end of the year for a three-month stay at the Santa Monica Pier.
The museum, which cost roughly $3.5 million, is 67 feet wide and 672 feet long. Jutting out into the Hudson, it’s made of 148 steel shipping containers, arranged in a simple rectangular composition and topped by a gabled roof. Inside, it resembles an abstracted temple, with a walkway made of salvaged wooden planks, once used to line construction scaffolds, running down the center like a spine. Colbert’s large-scale photographs, printed on handmade Japanese paper, hang unframed from steel cables on either side of that walkway, suspended over beds of white stones. The main architectural gesture is a long colonnade made of paper tubes, about 35 feet high and coated with waterproof sealant, that runs along the walkway toward the back wall, where a film on Colbert narrated by Laurence Fishburne plays in a continuous loop. The superb lighting design, which throws the colonnade into dramatic relief, is by Alessandro Arena.
Colbert’s photographs, collected here under the title “Ashes and Snow,” feature mostly children and young women striking somber poses alongside elephants, cheetahs, leopards, zebras, seals and a few whales. One image shows a young girl in profile, her eyes closed and a meerkat curled up on her head. All the human models have their eyes closed, suggesting gentle humility and deep thoughts.
It’s enough to make you wonder if Ban had his eyes closed when he took the commission. To be fair, he doesn’t get a chance to see his buildings, temporary or otherwise, erected in the United States very often, and as a result he probably wasn’t about to rule anything out when Colbert -- along, not incidentally, with Rolex, the project’s corporate sponsor, and Colbert’s Bianimale Foundation -- came calling a couple of years ago.
Here was an opportunity to join the small group of contemporary architects, including the Southern California-based Jennifer Siegal and New York’s LOT-EK, who have been exploring the possibilities of turning old shipping containers into surprisingly sleek and modern compositions. (Because the shipping industry has moved to a new standard size for these containers, there are lots of the old ones available.)
The timing seemed good too: Opening just as “The Gates” were coming down in Central Park, the museum could be Ban’s quietly sophisticated answer to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s much-hyped exploration of the relationship between art, architecture and the natural world.
But playing second fiddle to a group of precious photographs isn’t an enviable role for any architect, even one as subtle as Ban. And so while the paper-tube colonnade, matched with the purity of the white stones and the primary colors of the shipping containers, makes for an attractively stripped-down composition, on the whole the museum suggests little of the modest, vulnerable beauty that marks Ban’s best designs.
It looks more like a straightforward and underwhelming work for hire -- unless photographs of unusual animals in exaggerated poses are your thing, in which case you’ll want to mark your calendar for Dec. 4, the day it opens in Santa Monica.