Ban’s Roaming Cathedral

Set up on an aging New York pier, the Nomadic Museum creates a luminous interior space.

On March 5, the iron gate to Manhattan’s Pier 54, on the Hudson River, swung open for the first day of Ashes and Snow, a three-month exhibition featuring photographs and a film by artist Gregory Colbert. While Colbert’s enormous sepia-toned images of elephants, whales, and other species (sometimes engaging with humans)—made on 30-plus expeditions throughout the world—received mixed reviews, there is one point on which nearly everyone agreed: the structure enclosing them is a triumph.

Designed by architect Shigeru Ban, the Nomadic Museum—so called because it will, in an echo of Colbert’s odyssey, travel the world—is a 67-foot-wide, 693-foot-long building constructed almost entirely of reusable and recyclable material, most notably the 148 steel cargo containers that form its two main walls, and 64 35-foot-high cardboard columns, which flank a wood-plank walkway running nearly the full length of the dramatic cathedral-like interior.

The structure—the largest temporary exhibition space in New York history—conveys a powerful aura of simplicity and peace. Yet building it was a nerve-wracking adventure that one participant described as “controlled chaos” and Colbert likened to the fabled impresario Fitzcarraldo’s quest to haul a 300-ton steamship over the mountains of Peru. “It’s a project that was impossible,” project manager William Goins says. “Had we all known before what we know now, we probably would have thought twice about trying to attempt it.”

The story begins five years ago with a letter from Colbert to Ban. “He just said that he wanted to show his work everywhere in the world but didn’t want to exhibit in existing museums,” the architect recalls. “He didn’t have a budget or a sponsor—there was just an idea.” Why Ban? “Gregory cares about the environment, and I started using recyclable materials in 1986, before people were talking about it,” he explains. “We share the same sensitivity for things.” Colbert also responded to the poetry and simplicity of Ban’s work. “I wanted a place that wasn’t based on pure reason—a space of delight,” the artist says, “an inclusive and democratic space, not a rich building for the rich.”

The museum’s form remained speculative until 2002, when Colbert installed the inaugural Ashes and Snow exhibition at the Venice Arsenale, a 125,000-square-foot, sixteenth-century shipbuilding factory. Both he and Ban acknowledge it as their inspiration. “That building is more than three hundred meters long with columns supporting the roof, and the photos were exhibited between the columns, which is what we did,” the architect says. “In the Arsenale there was a warmth,” Colbert adds. “People were meandering, not shuffling from picture to picture.”

The exhibition’s Venetian success enabled Colbert’s Bianimale Foundation, which promotes conservation through art, to find sponsorship and arrange a multicity international tour beginning in New York, where Pier 54—desirable for its location in the West Village and its linear colonnade footprint—was leased from the Hudson River Park Trust.

With everything in place, Ban went to work. His design is simple and smart. Using cargo containers as the main structural element answered a variety of considerations, foremost among them cost: transporting an entire building would have been prohibitively expensive. Ban’s plan calls for the majority of the 20-foot-long containers to be rented at each venue—from New York, Ashes and Snow travels to Los Angeles, the Vatican, and other unconfirmed venues in the United States, Europe, and Asia—with the remainder (roughly one-quarter) used to ship the other components. The containers are strong enough to be stacked in a checkerboard pattern—a standard twist lock secures them at the corners—while still supporting the main roof load, which minimizes forces on the aged pier and increases visual interest. Emotion also plays a part. “Each container has traveled the world and has its own history,” Ban says. “This gives a special feel to the space.”

The cardboard columns (which measure 30 inches in diameter), the one-foot-diameter cylinders that form roof trusses, and the eight buttresses in the museum’s theater area constitute a long-standing Ban signature. “Paper tubes are very easy to recycle,” he says. “And they’re the right weight.” Though the plan is to purchase new columns in Europe and Asia, he says, “Even if we have to transport them overseas, it’s cheap.”

Finally there are the 140 diagonally positioned infill panels that close the gaps between the containers, the end-wall gables, and the roof, all of which are formed from a durable PVC membrane (the panels and 18 individual roof sections feature steel frames). And other than the exhibition-design materials, lighting fixtures, and various other minor systems and components, that is pretty much it.

Of course, no one assumed that assembling a 45,000-square-foot structure in eight weeks would be easy. “We anticipated complications because no one had ever built a structure like this before,” associate architect Dean Maltz says. The complexity of the challenge became clear as the major players—Goins, Maltz, and Dan D’Aquila, a principal with the dock-building firm MVN, which did most of the construction work—began to talk strategy last spring. Because the museum aligned with the edge of the pier to the north and came within ten feet of it on the south, Maltz says, “everything had to be designed to be installed from the inside.” All tasks would have to be performed within the limited space of the pier, so the group decided to assemble the massive roof sections in MVN’s Elizabeth, New Jersey, yard, barge them up the Hudson, and set them in place with a crane. It too would have to float on a barge because the pier’s load capacity was “only 250 pounds per square foot,” Goins explains.

Faced with these and other constraints, the team decided a trial run was needed and built an 80-foot-long prototype at MVN’s yard in Elizabeth. The decision probably saved the project. “We trashed about eighty percent of the execution of the design because of that mock-up,” Goins says.

The biggest headache proved to be the roof, which was designed and fabricated by Summit Structures, a Canadian company, and shipped to MVN for assembly. Each of the 18 roof modules—all but one of them 67 feet across, 40 feet long, and 17 feet high—were to be fitted with 6 flange connections that married up with matching ones attached to the cargo containers. “The problem is, when you’re sailing a roof section 35 feet in the air, in a high wind, with a crane on a barge that’s rocking back and forth, getting six 12-bolt flanges to line up is impossible,” D’Aquila says. Summit had also designed the modules to be picked up by the crane from the apex—a twofold problem according to D’Aquila: “There was no way to disconnect the crane. And you had to come back later and install the ridge that kept the structure waterproof. In the yard we had plenty of room to bring in big lifts and get up the side of the building. In Manhattan the structure was on a pier.” Summit, which had sent representatives to help troubleshoot the prototype, swapped the flanges for simpler pin connectors, and moved the pick points so that the ridge could be preinstalled and the crane unhooked from the ground.

The columns caused problems as well. “When the cardboard got wet, they grew four or five inches in height and heaved the roof up,” D’Aquila recalls. Though the museum’s tubes would be waterproofed, structural engineers from Buro Happold redesigned the connection between the peak of the triangular truss and the roof to be more forgiving. The team also discovered that the infill panels leaked daylight and wind. “We added dog-ears and flaps on the top and the bottom,” Goins says.

The interior still isn’t entirely daylight-free, and some believe it shouldn’t be. Alessandro Arena’s lighting scheme, which dramatically highlights the columns and triangles, and adds dimension to Colbert’s images by throwing sharply etched shadows on the stones covering the floor behind them, contributes substantially to the museum’s power. Yet as Arena says, “The first time I saw daylight reflecting off the water, flickering on the columns, I thought, This is better than my light.”

The start of construction in January unleashed a new wave of challenges. Once MVN’s crew of dock builders stacked the containers (“We tried to arrange the colors as much as possible,” Maltz says), barges loaded with roof sections began gliding up through the ice-filled Hudson. The installation made for high drama. “Although the crane kept [a section] up, if the wind wanted it, it took it, even with five guys on a tag line,” D’Aquila remembers. “We had instances where a module blew over an already installed section and popped a hole in the membrane. If it wasn’t repaired immediately, the whole roof would rip within a day.”

The winds, cold, and snowstorms quickly forced a change in the construction sequence. “Typically the columns would be installed simultaneously with the roof,” Maltz says. “But since the walls are sufficient to carry the entire load, it made sense to put the roof up first, followed by the infill panels, to create as much protection as possible.” Alas, the ferocious river winds shook the panels so violently that the bolts holding them in place vibrated loose, and the dock builders were forced to weld the ones on top.

Other problems emerged on-site. “The columns came in eleven inches too long, and we had no way to cut them,” Goins says. “We created this thing called the Barbecue Pit, which was half a barrel that the columns laid in and spun around against a saw.” There was also a near catastrophe involving the triangular trusses. “We had four or five of them hung, and they started to fall on the guys,” Goins says. An inspection revealed that the wooden plugs in each end of the tubes, which held the hardware that connected them to one another, had been attached with epoxy, and the glue had given way. The crew quickly bolted them in place. “Any time something like that came up, we had to invent a solution on the spot,” Goins says.

“There was a bit of extra time planned in from the beginning,” Maltz says. “Then we ran through that, and we had to go into accelerated time.” But even with two crews working around the clock, Goins says, “when we got down to single digits—nine days, eight days—I wasn’t sure we’d be done in time for the opening.”

In the end the dedication of the dock builders carried the day. “They’re an unpredictable crew,” D’Aquila admits. “If they don’t like what they’re doing, they quit. Throughout the industry we were the butt of jokes when we started to erect this, and our guys didn’t like it.” What turned them around was the art. “When the pictures started coming in, I’d see these tough guys staring in amazement at how beautiful they looked,” D’Aquila remembers. “And whereas at first they wouldn’t have anything to do with the architects or the artist, they actually sought them out and worked well with them.” As Colbert puts it, “They took ownership of the building.”

And so on March 3—two hours after the last piece of heavy machinery was hauled out—the rich and fabulous (as well as the proud dock builders and their families) arrived for an opening preview to marvel at the calm perfection of Ban’s art-filled cathedral. “Shigeru hugged me, he was in tears, he said it was exactly how he wanted it,” Goins says. “But how we did it is nothing like how he imagined it would be done.”

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