The Cardboard Cathedral


Earlier this year my husband and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful holiday in New Zealand. I use the word “lucky” deliberately as this was our third attempt to holiday there. We travelled fairly extensively over the 3
weeks that we were there but obviously, in that time, choices had to be made about where to visit. One place we decided to go to was Christchurch, despite knowing that there was still a lot of devastation in the centre from the earthquakes and aftershocks that it has suffered in recent years. We had seen pictures on TV of the start-up mall, where retailers ran shops out of shipping containers, and we were keen to see this for ourselves. We were not disappointed – this is a vibrant area with a real feeling of “can do” about it.

However, while we were in Christchurch, we heard of another project connected to the earthquake that sounded equally
fascinating. This was the so-called “Cardboard Cathedral”. During the earthquake of 2011, the tower of the original neo-
Gothic Cathedral collapsed and then the aftershocks that followed destroyed the rose window. Today the wrecked
building is boarded up awaiting a decision on whether to completely demolish the building and start again or try to
reconstruct the original church. Either way it will be years into the future until there is an active, functioning
cathedral on the central city site.

As luck or fate would have it, one of the cathedral staff saw an article in a New Zealand design magazine just a week or two after the 2011 earthquake. It was about an “emergency architect” called Shigeru Ban who, after the Kobe earthquake in Japan, had designed a cardboard church to replace one that had been destroyed. Shigeru Ban was contacted, came to visit Christchurch and then offered to design a “cardboard cathedral” for the city. A little over two years later, this stunning building was completed.

The building is officially known as the Transitional Cathedral but it is generally known as the Cardboard Cathedral. It is the only cathedral in the world made substantially of cardboard but it is designed to last for at least 50 years. The  lower walls are made from shipping containers and the rest of it from cardboard and local wood with a strong polycarbonate roof. It is one of the safest buildings (if not the safest building) in New Zealand having been built to 130% of the current standards for buildings in earthquake zones.

When you step inside, you are immediately struck by the elegance of the cardboard tubes soaring up to the ridge of the roof and also by how light it is. Your eye is drawn to the large cross at the front. If you walk down the central aisle and then turn to look back, there is a beautiful, almost full wall of coloured glass. This is a modern window for a very new cathedral but it shows some of the topics that were depicted, but sadly destroyed, in the rose window of the original cathedral.

To visit this cathedral is a stimulating and enriching experience and to hear its story makes you appreciate how
much good there is in the world. We were told on our visit that the architect would not take one penny for his design – it was his gift to Christchurch and Christ’s Church.

Irene Dunn

November 2016
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