Inside The Cardboard Chapel That Replaced An Earthquake-Ruined New Zealand Church

Inside The Cardboard Chapel That Replaced An Earthquake-Ruined New Zealand Church

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011 killed more than 200 people and damaged thousands of buildings, including the city’s oldest church, a grand stone copy of a gothic cathedral in Oxford. This week, two years after it fell, its replacement is open to the public. And it’s unlike anything ever built in Christchurch — or the world.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Christchurch officials invited Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to come up with a temporary solution to the city’s lack of a cathedral. Ban specialises in paper structures built with hollow (but strong) cardboard tubes. He’s built dozens of traditional buildings using this technique, and even more temporary ones in disaster zones. Over the past three decades, he’s frequently delayed his longer-term commissions to help out with emergency housing at crisis sites all over the world, staging large-scale emergency shelters in Japan and building durable cardboard homes in Haiti.

Ban’s Paper House, in Japan.

Unlike those relief projects, though, Christchurch officials were looking for something much longer term: A building that would function for five decades, long enough to let them construct a permanent stone replacement. It would need to be large and comfortable enough to house an audience of 700 people on a weekly basis, but cheap and light enough to demolish easily once the time came. It would need to be a half-building, a strange hybrid of temporary design details and semi-permanent functionality.

Yesterday, after two years of design and construction, Ban’s church opened to the public. The a-frame roof is made out of 98 huge cardboard columns, anchored atop a foundation of shipping containers that provide a stable base. The main decorative flourishes are the triangular coloured-glass windows, each veneered with bits of imagery from the original cathedral’s stained glass windows. The tubes themselves are coated in polyurethane and flame retardants to keep away mould and fire, and are designed to last decades beyond even 2063, which is when Christchurch aims to have its permanent cathedral up and running.

Image by Jocelyn Kinghorn.

Which presents an interesting problem for both the church and the architect, and puts the new building in an odd kind of purgatory. As you might expect, some members of the congregation aren’t enthused about the unusual structure (“it’s very temporary,” one worshipper told a New Zealand paper), and meanwhile, church officials can’t agree on a new design for their eventual permanent replacement. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of “temporary” structures becoming permanent over the decades, and Ban hopes that time and use will convince the church to keep the building past its 50-year expiration date. “Even a building made of cardboard can be permanent if people love it,” he said during the construction process.

It’s an unusual situation. The public’s ideas about architecture usually take a back seat to the will of the client, and it usually doesn’t matter much anyways — time heals all wounds, especially when it comes to public opinion. In this case, the congregants and the church will decide whether to demolish Ban’s work within a few decades. And realistically, few of the people involved in the decision today will still be alive, which puts the decision in the hands of the next generation of Christchurch faithful. For now, though, it’s enough that the city has a functioning cathedral, one unlike any other. Check out more images on Ban’s site here.

Images by Shigeru Ban Architects.

Images by Jocelyn Kinghorn.