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Quick Take: Shigeru Ban's Cardboard Cathedral

By Naomi R. Pollock, AIA
September 20, 2013
Photo © Bridgit Anderson

On September 1, 2013, the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, had its Civic Opening. Measuring 8,611-square-feet, it is the latest and the largest paper tube structure designed by the Japanese architect and the world’s go-to guy for emergency buildings, Shigeru Ban. Located within the city’s decimated central business district, Ban’s building is a temporary replacement for Christchurch’s Anglican cathedral, a Gothic style structure built in the 19th century but damaged beyond repair by the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that shook the city in February 2011.

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Inspired by the original building, the Cardboard Cathedral is trapezoidal in plan and triangular in section. As the plan narrows, the section soars to its high point of 79 feet near the altar, abstractly evoking the Gothic spirit. Leaning in and up, the architecture’s defining elements are the 98 paper tubes that form the A-shaped roof and sidewalls enclosing the 700-seat nave. Stackable for easy storage, a custom version of Ban’s L-Unit chair rendered in locally available lumber forms the pews. Thanks to polycarbonate sheets shielding the exterior, the interior is filled with soft daylight that filters down between the tubes. While a paper tube crucifix adorns the opaque end wall, a stained glass window wall crowns the entrance opposite it. Echoing the original church’s rose window, Ban’s version is composed of triangular, primary-colored panes. Each one is etched with a fragmented image borrowed from the historic window.

Though intended for use until the church erects its new permanent home, a process that could take as long as 50 years, the Cardboard Cathedral is sturdy enough that it could stand a lot longer. Favoring local materials, the main building blocks are the 24-inch diameter paper tubes manufactured in New Zealand. For added stability, each one is filled with LVL laminated wood inserts, also procured in country. While pin joints accommodate the church’s dynamic geometry and connect the tubes to each other at the top, the tube bottoms are affixed to the 20-foot-long, pre-fabricated shipping containers creating the sides of the building. Doubling as storage and other subsidiary functions, the metal crates are anchored to a concrete base, insuring the church’s viability even in the event of another quake.

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