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The Pritzker Architecture Prize is sometimes compared to the Nobel Prize. It often goes to a star architect with a long list of glamorous commissions around the globe. This year's winner is a little different. Shigeru Ban has designed museums, homes and concert halls. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, Ban is best known for a more humble kind of work.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Shigeru Ban may be the only architect in the world who makes buildings out of paper - cardboard paper tubes to be precise.

SHIGERU BAN: I found out it's very inexpensive. It's made of recycled paper. We can make any length, any diameter, any thickness.

ROSE: Ban actually tested the strength of cardboard tubes and says he was surprised by what he discovered. He's used them to build temporary housing for disaster victims in Japan, Haiti, China and elsewhere. Picture a log cabin, except the tubes are arranged vertically instead of horizontally. Ban says paper tubes are cheap and plentiful. And unlike traditional building materials, the price doesn't jump after an earthquake or flood.

BAN: After disaster, the building material is going to be more expensive but the paper tube is not building material. We can get this material easily anywhere.

ROSE: The tubes are also lightweight, so you don't need heavy machinery to work with them. Ban started using paper tubes in the 1980s. He had just graduated from architecture school and he was looking for a cheap substitute for wood. So he started reusing the cardboard tubes that were left over from rolls of paper in his office.

TOM PRITZKER: The thing that I love about Shigeru is it's any materials that he spots. I think he lives his life looking at materials differently than the way you and I do.

ROSE: Tom Pritzker is the chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

PRITZKER: And I think Shigeru looks at materials and says, hey, I can recycle that. I can use that in a way that's really needed.

ROSE: Shigeru Ban was born in Tokyo. He studied architecture in the U.S. before moving back to Japan to start his practice. At the time, Ban says he found the profession's focus on rich clients disappointing.

BAN: Our client is normally the people who has money or the power, because money and power is invisible. They hire us to visualize their power and money by monumental architecture. I'm not saying I don't want to make a monument. But also, I thought we can use our experience and knowledge for the people who lost their houses by natural disaster.

ROSE: Temporary housing is supposed to be cheap and easy to build but it's not always designed with the needs of residents in mind. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne says Ban's work shows it can do both.

CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE: And there's a sense that when people need the basic necessities of life, that architecture is a kind luxury. But I think his work makes a very different argument. I think it suggest that he's not only creating housing in these areas. He's also often creating churches or community centers where people can come together and come together in a place that's well-designed, that gives them some sense of dignity amid all of the chaos that is surrounding them.

ROSE: Some of Shigeru Ban's temporary buildings have become permanent, like the paper church he built after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. The cardboard tubes are arranged in an elliptical shape. On one side, the tubes form a continuous wall. One the other, they're more widely spaced, like columns. The building was so revered that it was moved to Taiwan, where it's still in use as a community center.

BAN: Even the building made of paper, if people loves it, it's become permanent.

ROSE: Ban says the opposite can also be true, that a permanent building can become temporary if it's destroyed by a disaster or a developer.

BAN: So even building made in concrete can be very temporary. It's not something the architect can decide how long buildings last.

ROSE: Ban has designed permanent buildings, too, like the Pompidou Center in Metz in northeast France and elegant, minimalist homes like the condominium building in Manhattan where we spoke. He has other high-profile commissions underway in Europe and the U.S., including an art museum in Aspen, Colorado that will open later this year. Still, Ban's resume is shorter than that of many past Pritzker winners. But he sees the prize as an encouragement both for his work with private clients and in disaster areas.

BAN: When I was student, everybody was interested in being star architect, working for a developer to make a big building but it's changing.

ROSE: When Shigeru Ban gives lectures now, he says, the audiences are full of students who want to learn from him. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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