Cardboard Cathedral: A Beacon of Hope for Christchurch by ‘Paper Architect’ Shigeru Ban

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Samuel Nguma

Samuel Nguma is an Editor for Archute. He enjoys taking long walks and reading short stories. He is an ardent lover of architecture which he studied at the University of Nairobi.
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On February 22, 2011, a powerful 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck New Zealand's Christchurch, resulting in 185 fatalities and causing widespread destruction of buildings. The earthquake caused irreversible damage to a high-profile neo-Gothic Anglican Cathedral in the city. As the city of Christchurch began to recover, a need emerged for a temporary venue for worship and events. Renowned architect and 2014 Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban was approached to lend his expertise. Despite being delayed in Japan due to the Tōhoku earthquake, Ban offered his services for free, arriving in Christchurch within a month of the disaster and quickly providing concept sketches for the new temporary structure.

The Cardboard Cathedral is an embodiment of Ban's famed 'emergency architecture'. It is a lightweight structure that consists of 8 steel shipping containers, 98 equally sized paper tubes and a semi-transparent polycarbonate roof. The pre-fabricated elements are brought together in an A-frame structure with the design logic that A-frames are the easiest structures to build. The cathedral became the first civic building to be completed after the rebuilding efforts began and is deemed to be the safest and most earthquake-resistant building in Christchurch. Although the building, with a life span of around 50 years, was intended to be temporary; full ownership will be handed to the Anglican parish once the congregation moves to the original site of the 1864 Anglican Cathedral.

The strength of the building has nothing to do with the strength of the material. Even concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes very easily, but paper buildings cannot.

Initially, there was hope that the cathedral would be done quickly enough to mark the first anniversary of the Christchurch disaster. Unfortunately, a concoction of problems: delays in confirming a site, site redesigns due to tricky ground conditions and delays in construction; meant that the building took a little over two years to complete. But the wait was worth it, with the Cardboard Cathedral being an important first brush-stroke in the restoration of what is still a grim Christchurch.

As a piece of architecture, the Cardboard Cathedral stands tall amongst its peers of religious typologies. Shigeru Ban Architects managed to successfully consider the required human scale that instigates a sense of awe which is important for religious buildings. Placing shipping containers that housed ancillary programs like offices, kitchen and storage; around the buildings perimeter meant that the whole structure was propped up and its verticality could be emphasised. And with a rhythmic sequence of paper tubes that were each coated with waterproof polyurethane and fire retardants - the occupants attention is directed heavenwards where a slit of lights pierces and glorifies the space.

For more remarkable church designs, immerse yourself in the timeless elegance of Church Of The Light By Tadao Ando, a sacred space that exudes serenity and spiritual grace.

Project Information

Architect: Shigeru Ban Architects
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Status: Completed, 2013
Photographs: Bridgit Anderson, Flickr user Jocelyn Kinghorn, Shigeru Ban Architects

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About the author

Samuel Nguma

Samuel Nguma is an Editor for Archute. He enjoys taking long walks and reading short stories. He is an ardent lover of architecture which he studied at the University of Nairobi.
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