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At the architect Philip Johnson’s former estate in New Canaan, Conn., there has long been a Glass House and a Brick House. Now there’s also a Paper House.

The Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log House, to be exact.

An exhibition of this simple, low-cost structure — designed in 1995 to house victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, Japan — opens this week and runs through Dec. 15, as part of activities marking the 75th anniversary of the Glass House, which Johnson completed in 1949. (The Brick House, also completed in 1949, is scheduled to reopen following restoration work on May 2.)

It’s a small house, to be sure — just one room — and it’s made mostly of paper, but it’s more resilient than it looks.

The house, which was assembled by Cooper Union students, is an updated version of the shelter designed for Kobe: The foundation is made of milk crates, rather than reclaimed Japanese beer crates filled with sandbags. The walls are vertical paper tubes — like those used for mailing documents or spooling carpet — held together with foam tape and threaded rods; the roof is made from more paper tubes fastened with plywood connectors.

Those tubes and their surprising strength are a longstanding fascination for Mr. Ban. Since he graduated from the Cooper Union in New York and started his architecture practice in Tokyo in 1985, he has designed paper-tube homes, bridges, churches, offices and exhibition pavilions, temporary and permanent, as well as an enormous arch that covered the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden in 2000.

And, of course, numerous emergency structures: His paper-tube homes have been used in Rwanda, Turkey, India, Haiti, China and New Zealand. More recently, he has worked on shelters for those who lost their homes in the Maui wildfires and the earthquakes on the Noto Peninsula of Japan.

The paper tube, Mr. Ban said, is ideal for building in disaster situations because “it’s lightweight, it’s inexpensive and it’s available almost anywhere in the world.”

The idea for the current project came together last fall, when Mr. Ban’s partner and former classmate Dean Maltz took him to the Glass House for a tour with the property’s executive director, Kirsten Reoch.

“I mentioned to Kirsten, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice, with the Glass House and the Brick House, to have a paper house?’” Mr. Maltz recalled. “And I could just see lightbulbs.”

D.I.Y.-ers who visit with the idea of building their own backyard paper-tube houses should know it’s not as easy as it looks.

The 39 students who assembled the structure, with supervision from Mr. Maltz and Cooper Union instructor Samuel Anderson, were surprised at how challenging it was — even with simple materials and an Ikea-like instruction manual. Meztli Castro Asmussen, 22, who volunteered for the project, said students had to use a CNC machine to cut the plywood connectors, in addition to troubleshooting unexpected problems. Building your own paper-tube house, he added, will “require some technology and tools that may not be accessible, depending on where you are.”

Last month, as Mr. Maltz watched the students working, his thoughts turned to the property’s late owner.

“Would he accept that on this property? I like to think yes,” he mused. “I wish Philip was here to take a look down the hill and see a Paper Log House.”


Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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