Shigeru Ban Architects

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban designed the paper-based house of worship, for Christchurch.

The 2011 Christchurch earthquake lasted only a few seconds, but struck with such ferocity (and on the heels of another building-rattling quake) that it sowed unimaginable damage throughout the city. Crumbling structures marked the land in the wake of the disaster, which killed 185, and subsequently had to be dismantled by work crews swinging heavy machinery.

Faced with gaping pockmarks where buildings once stood, the city pondered the same question any quake-ravaged region faces: How best to rebuild? For the overseers of one structure – the stricken Christchurch Cathedral – the answer turned out to be cardboard: huge, heavy rolls of paper pulp stacked into a makeshift but fully functioning house of prayer.

And it's not too hard on the eyes, either. For the design of the so-called "Transitional Cathedral" in Latimer Square, a central park that sustained much visible-from-the-air damage, Christchurch tapped Shigeru Ban, an ecological architect known for his creative uses of recycled paper. Ban's firm drew up models for a cathedral that will stand for years while church leaders build a solider structure. This weekend it will finally open for worship, allowing as many as 700 Anglicans to praise the lord inside its stained glass-marbled interior.

Cardboard might seem like an odd building material, but in the wake of a disaster it can be ideal. The material is omnipresent throughout the world, and thus quickly obtainable; it's inexpensive (though it's getting less cheap by the year); it's recyclable and eco-friendly; and it handles well in the event of another earthquake. "The strength of the building has nothing to do with the strength of the material," Ban says on the Cardboard Cathedral's website. "Even concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes very easily. But paper buildings cannot be destroyed by earthquakes."

What about more mundane natural degraders, like rain? That won't be a problem, the church's managers maintain:

When the 'Cardboard Cathedral' project was announced, many were concerned that the structure would 'go soggy in the rain.' Quite the contrary. The over 90 enormous 600mm diameter, 20 metre tubes are protected by a polycarbonate roof above, and very solid concrete floor below. Sturdy LVL (laminated veneer lumber) inserted beams, lend further substantial support to these tubes. The Cardboard Cathedral will also be one of the safest buildings in the city. It is being built to last 50 plus years and to 100% of the earthquake code. Definitely safe, not soggy.

Ban has erected cardboard shelters for disaster victims in Turkey, Japan, China's Sichuan Provice, and in Rwanda for those caught up in the genocide. The Christchurch cathedral is symbolic of his style with its minimalistic yet attractive design. Here it is under construction:

Almost open for business:

Contrast the A-frame design of the New Zealand structure with the Takatori Catholic Church that Ban built for free in Kobe after the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. Called the "Paper Dome," the church stood for a decade before it was shipped to Taiwan to shelter needier worshipers:

Christchurch images by Shigeru Ban Architects; photo of Kobe church by Bujdosó Attila on Wikipedia. H/t Dezeen

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