Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch, New Zealand by Shigeru Ban
Protection from the elements is one of architecture’s key raisons d'être and architects have been finding ingenious solutions for overcoming our weather patterns and temperatures since time began. Protection from natural disasters, however, is proving to be far more in demand of late as we see the ever more frequent and extreme effects of global warming.
In 2011, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck the Canterbury region on New Zealand’s South Island. Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city at the time was badly affected and one of its most prized landmarks, the ChristChurch Cathedral, was significantly damaged. What now stands in its stead is a new cathedral designed to withstand future earthquakes. What makes this structure remarkable is that it is not built out of regular construction materials, but largely out of cardboard.
Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban designed the new temporary cathedral pro bono with architecture firm Warren and Mahoney. Ban is no stranger to working with unusual materials, having built his 2015 Venice biennale installation from empty make-up cases. The material he turns to most, however, is hollow but strong cardboard tubes. Having first experimented with paper structures in 1986, Ban is now characterised as a ‘disaster architect’ after dedicating a large part of his career to designing cardboard disaster relief structures all over the world.
Cardboard may seem flimsy, lightweight, or impractical for a building material but the industrial cardboard tubes Ban uses are strong and coated in a waterproof and flame-retardant film. Cardboard is low cost, recyclable, low-tech, replaceable and available in most countries, making it ideal for disaster-affected areas. Using wood for building emergency shelters can often lead to rapid deforestation of the local area and, as seen during the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994, more expensive alternative construction materials quickly become lucrative and can be sold off by the refugees. Using paper tubing helps save money, prevent theft, conserve local trees, and has been used in refugee camps in Turkey, India, Japan, Rwanda and Nepal.
The A-frame shaped cardboard cathedral is 24 m tall and made largely of pre-fabricated elements including timber, steel, and 98 cardboard tubes 60 cm in diameter. The vertical tubes that form the roof are reinforced with laminated wooden beams, encased with transparent polycarbonate sheets, and set two-inches apart for light to filter through to the interior. They rest on eight steel shipping containers that house individual chapels, a kitchen, offices and storage areas providing a stable base. Not the most likely of materials for a chapel, the shipping containers are practical nevertheless and play a big role in ensuring the building is 130% of the current earthquake standard.
The main window is formed of 49 tessellating triangular pieces of stained glass incorporating images from the original cathedral’s rose window, the only clear link between the two buildings. The fractured, disjointed images brought together to make something new echoes the state of the cathedral and the town as it tries to make sense of the destruction.
Internally, the space is light and simple. The floor is polished concrete and the pews are simple individual chairs made from locally sourced wood to seat 700 people. Cardboard has also been used for the choir stalls, table legs and the enormous cross hanging above the altar.
Whilst designed as a transitional cathedral to last 50 years until a more permanent cathedral is constructed, each material can be replaced and the building’s lifespan prolonged. It was the first non-commercial structure to be built in the city after the earthquake and is still the world’s only cardboard cathedral. The structure is also an important community space for concerts, exhibitions and civic and community events. Whilst the heated debate continues over the controversial decision to either restore or rebuild the original cathedral, the cardboard cathedral stands as a symbol of progress, resilience, and creativity
Images: © Stephen Goodenough
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