Shigeru Ban's Nomadic Museum | icon 023 | May 2005

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photo: Gregory Colbert
words Tim McKeough

A nomadic museum designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has materialised on the west side of Manhattan.

The structure, on a pier over the Hudson River, is made of shipping containers with a roof supported by the architect’s trademark paper tubes.

The building was designed to showcase the work of Canadian-born artist Gregory Colbert, who travels the world filming and photographing humans communing with animals. The museum will also traverse the globe, and will be disassembled and reassembled every time it moves.

In this incarnation the museum uses 148 shipping containers for walls. The interior of the space features two parallel rows of columns – coated paper tubes – topped with roof trusses. The columns are reminiscent of the Venice Arsenale, where Colbert’s exhibition Ashes and Snow first debuted in 2002.

“It was a big pressure for me because I wanted to design something equally as good as the Arsenale,” says Ban. “I have been to the Arsenale many times, and I know how strong the space is.”

But the nomadic museum also presented unique challenges. “If we have to move the building from city to city, it is going to be very expensive, and they cannot afford that. So I had to think about a more efficient and economic way of moving the building, which is about 45,000 square feet.”

The solution involved using prefabricated containers for much of the structure, an idea the architect has been exploring for years in projects such as his Furniture Houses, which use prefabricated cabinets, closets and bookshelves as structural elements. “It’s nothing new,” Ban says. “It’s just the further development of my previous projects.”

However, the use of shipping containers does provide one particularly helpful function. At the conclusion of the New York exhibition on June 6, the various components of the museum will be packed into a few dozen containers to be transported to their next venue in Los Angeles. The remainder of the containers will be left behind, and rented replacements will take their place at the new location.

The configuration of the structure will also change from time to time, as Ban adapts the design to fit the size and shape of different sites.

As long as the museum remains in the US, the paper tubes will be shipped along with the rest of the building components. However, when the museum departs for other countries (expected to include France, China and the Vatican State), the tubes will be recycled, as it’s less expensive to buy new ones than it is to ship them. “It’s a transportable museum where we don’t have to transport the building material.”

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