Designing For Disaster- Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral


On Tuesday 22 February 2011, Christchurch was hit by an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, tragically causing 185 deaths and tens of thousands damaged dwellings, leaving many residents homeless.

Over a quarter of the commercial buildings in the Christchurch CBD were levelled due to irreparable damage.

In July 2012 the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan was released, envisioning a low-rise CBD framed by corridors of open space.

The plan featured 12 anchor projects, including a rebuilt City Mall and a new arts precinct. The rebuilding process was managed by the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU).

The earthquake devastated the 131-year-old Christ Church Cathedral, and was one of the buildings to be demolished, as it was deemed too dangerous and expensive to rebuild, with estimated $50 million restoration and rebuilding costs.

In its place the Anglican Diocese wanted to “deconstruct” the cathedral as a modern building, however the decision was met with controversy and legal challenges.

However, after spending around $3.5 million on the new Transitional Cathedral, many have hailed the new building as one of the most important buildings to be built in New Zealand in recent years, now internationally recognised as the “Cardboard Cathedral”.
Rebuilding and Construction

The Cardboard Cathedral was created by Shigeru Ban, Pritzker Prize winner renowned for his work in disaster zones, including Rwanda in 1994, Kobe after the 1995 quake, Turkey in 1999 and Haiti in 2010.

Ban forged a reputation as an "emergency architect" who uses readily available materials to quickly erect buildings in disaster affected areas, particularly areas hit by earthquakes.

The cathedral was the most ambitious piece of "emergency architecture" attempted by Mr Ban, as it is his largest cardboard project to date, with the cathedral’s capacity at 700 people.

The foundation is a deep concrete slab, onto which eight shipping containers sit, four to a side, forming the walls of the A-frame structure.

The containers anchor the roof, which is comprised of ninety-six 600 millimetre diameter cardboard tubes coated with waterproof polyurethane and flame retardants. Two-inch gaps between tubes allow shafts of natural light to filter into the sanctuary.

The outside of the roof is covered by translucent corrugated polycarbonate panels to shelter the cardboard cathedral from the elements.

The project was not without setbacks. It was originally slated for completion in November 2012 and the budget has reportedly increased from $4.1 million to around $6.3 million by its release in August 2013. A significant dent, especially when factoring Ban provided his design services pro-bono, on the basis that the project would serve as a community space and house of worship.

The front façade feature a giant equilateral geometric formation, which uses excerpts from the original cathedral’s circular Rose Window in its new Trinity Window.

The use of irregularly dispersed red, yellow, green and blue triangles may be a possible nod to Ma-ori tukutuku patterning, as a reference to New Zealand’s heritage beyond the Anglican church.
Sustainable Practices

The cathedral has elements of wood, steel and poly-carbonate and is built to 130 per cent of the current earthquake standard. It is designed to last for 50 years with the Anglican Church planning to use it as a cathedral for at least a decade while it builds a permanent replacement for the late 19th-century building lost in the quake.

Ban's cardboard tubes have been strengthened as a cautionary measure against another quake. The relatively inexpensive tubes then will be protected from the elements by polycarbonate sheeting.

In an interview with AFP in 2012, Mr Ban said cardboard was a surprisingly strong building material and described projects such as the cathedral as part of the "social responsibility" of being an architect.

Church officials wanted Ban’s signature cardboard tubes, which The New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “his main dance move”, but those manufactured in New Zealand were smaller than required to support the structure. Ban decided it was more important to use local materials than to import larger cardboard tubes from Australia, so the tubes are reinforced internally by locally sourced, laminated wood beams.

Although the decisions of the Christchurch Cathedral’s fate is still in the hands of the Anglican Church, its location is to be within the “Green Frame” of the CCDU’s Recovery Plan, with natural green spaces in Christchurch’s square. The sustainable church project reflects the eco-friendly values of the intended area, as well as inspiring neighbouring businesses.

Sam Crofskey, an entrepreneurial young restaurateur re-opened his popular C-One café, which was completely destroyed in the earthquake, inside a former 1930s post-office. A movie theater and an art gallery has set up shop in a floor above him. Crofskey has installed solar panels on the roof for the restaurant’s hot water, a beehive for honey, and a tiny vineyard to produce 55 bottles of boutique pinot noir. “We’re trying to show that you can go in now and do something,” he said.

Additionally, Re:START is a temporary shopping centre and public space built of brightly coloured and creatively arranged shipping containers. Other architects and designers have created clever interventions called “Gap Fillers”, such as an outdoor performing venue shaped by stacked-up, blue-painted freight pallets.

The architecture effects of the Cardboard Cathedral’s construction and presence in Christchruch reflects a statement made by professor of architecture at Auckland University, Andrew Barrie. He noted how it shows how such structures can be a model of what is possible in post-disaster environments, “It was one of the first things that Christchurch could point to and say ‘we are rebuilding’.”

Although Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral is undoubtedly an architectural achievement, Barrie’s statement reminds us that Christchurch is still “rebuilding” and not yet “recovered”. Unfortunately victims of Christchurch’s earthquake still suffer and the Cardboard Cathedral is still receiving donations at

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