This review of Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand first appeared in The Architectural Review
The earthquake that hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011 resulted in 185 deaths, and entered New Zealand’s history as one of its worst catastrophes. It was also a tragedy for Japan, with 28 Japanese nationals among the dead, the largest national group after Kiwis.
Most of the Japanese victims were students at an English language school in the Canterbury Television building which collapsed killing 115 people. An Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team from Japan was prominent among the army of local and international rescuers working in the city in the aftermath, spending much of their time at the CTV site, although they were called home early due to the ‘triple disaster’ of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident that struck the Tōhoku region of Japan on 11 March. A New Zealand USAR team soon followed them back to Japan to assist with the rescue and recovery efforts there.
The intertwined experiences of loss, and the memory of Japan and New Zealand coming to each other’s aid, has tied the disasters and the countries together, especially in the minds of Christchurch locals.
The trans-Pacific connections that emerged from the disasters have been reinforced by the completion of Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral. The neo-Gothic Anglican cathedral in Christchurch’s central square was the highest-profile architectural casualty of the February earthquake, and cathedral staff soon began pondering the idea of a building to serve as a temporary cathedral and events venue.
The project sprang to life with a tentative email to Ban’s office asking if he’d heard about the situation in Christchurch and whether he could help. Ban immediately sent through a positive response, apologising that he’d meant to get in touch but the disaster in Tōhoku had occupied his full attention. He offered to carry out the design at no cost. Within a month Ban was in Christchurch, and a few hours later had produced the concept sketches for the project.
The scheme has all the key elements of Ban’s ‘emergency architecture’ − paper tubes, shipping containers and a lightweight skin. His idea was for a simple A-frame structure made largely from prefabricated elements, his logic being that an A-frame is the simplest structure to build. Supporting this gently twisting roof, Ban arranged a series of containers housing chapels, a kitchen, offices, storage and other amenities.
This whirlwind of activity continued; a month later Ban was back in town to present his developed design and launch fundraising efforts. Initial hopes were that the building could be completed quickly, the intention being to open it in time to mark the first anniversary of the quake. However, difficulties in confirming a site, redesigns due to tricky ground conditions and construction delays slowed the project to a crawl, and meant that the building took more than two years to complete.
Despite these hold-ups, Ban’s building is the first major ‘civic’ building completed in the city as part of the rebuilding efforts. Ban’s structure was initially intended to be temporary, but once the cathedral congregation eventually returns to their building in the square, it will become the permanent church of the Anglican parish on whose land it is built.
Ban’s structure is best viewed from the leafy expanse of Latimer Square, but it also stands across the street from the site of the CTV building, where handwritten notes and photographs of those who died still flutter on the temporary fencing. The scene in the surrounding streets is equally grim; most of the rest of the central city remains dusty patches of cleared ground.The shock for those visiting Christchurch is not how much of the centre was destroyed, but how little progress has been made towards rebuilding it.
Ban is the biggest name in global architecture to work in New Zealand for a generation, arguably ever, and the Cardboard Cathedral will probably be established internationally as the most architecturally significant building in the country.
But it is not Ban’s global reputation that will endow the building with local significance. The building’s innovative construction and its impact as a first major sign of new life seem to have captured the collective imagination, and the now permanent structure seems set to become an enduring symbol of Christchurch’s revival.
Even before its completion, it had begun to replace the old neo-Gothic cathedral as a symbol of the city, appearing in national television advertisement among iconic city scenes from around the country. Ban’s project serves as a reminder not only of the way that Japan and New Zealand were united in loss, but also of the potential that may yet be unlocked in the common task of rebuilding.
Architect: Shigeru Ban Architects
Photographer: Bridgit Anderson, Eugene Coleman