House of Card: Shigeru Ban’s Christchurch Cathedral

After 2011′s devastating earthquake which reduced swathes of Christchurch, NZ, to rubble, the city’s new interim cathedral designed by Shigeru Ban finally opened to the public this week. The opening marks a long awaited return for the city’s most loved monument and a critical moment in Christchurch’s urban recovery. We revisit our exclusive interview with Ban, conducted earlier this year as the cardboard cathedral was constructed and published in Blueprint #326


Even in the 21st century, a church remains one of the most powerful symbols of community and continuity with the past, and of spirituality, in the most general sense. Whatever beliefs you may or may not have, it is undeniably moving to stand inside a building that has housed more than a century of prayer, fear and hope for the human condition - an uncluttered space where the details of life are brushed aside and thoughts are focused on the universal. For this reason the destruction of a church is so shocking, for it is the instant removal of that connection, the elimination of something immaterial - that concentration of belief and collective humanity, whose fragility is suddenly and unexpectedly exposed.

This is what happened in Christchurch, New Zealand, on the afternoon of 22 February 2011, when the spire of the cathedral and bells collapsed like a house of cards into a cloud of dust in the central square, as a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit the city killing 181 people. In the quake's aftermath, while many questions were being asked, the shattered cathedral became the image of the disaster, and it was not until late April 2012 that a process of careful (and highly controversial) deconstruction began, to 'lower' the building to allow for treasured items such as the pipe organ and eagle from the lectern to be rescued.

It was announced that a new structure would be planned for the future, at a cost of more than NZ$30m (£16.4m): a huge sum that was opposed by those who understandably argued that pragmatism must come before identity or spirituality. Moreover, new architecture takes considerable time and much red tape (even more so in this instance, as the intense controversy surrounding the cathedral's future has now been taken to the High Court, suspending any further demolition work), leaving a broken image and physical void that undeniably have a mental impact.

Enter Shigeru Ban, who does not have the patience to wait. In conversation with him at his Paris office, the Japanese architect is an elusive mix of pragmatism and poetry, compassion and no-nonsense reality, which manifests itself in a minimalist beauty and humanitarian spirit that in combination are unparalleled in contemporary architecture. He prefers to keep to the facts, the materials, the structural solutions, but his words inevitably stray into philosophy, poetry, even music, and always humanity. 'But you can talk about these things...'

There are images on Ban's website of the 'container temporary housing' that he designed for those left with nothing by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. I asked him how he became involved in this and other natural disasters, in Haiti, Italy, China (Sichuan Province), and New Zealand.

'It was natural for me to be involved, using my own energy, away from governments. After I became an architect I found that architecture is about privileged people, governments, developers - historically it was the same, architects were asked to visualise the power and money that are invisible - and I was disappointed; so I was looking for opportunities to create houses for ordinary people.

'After I became an architect I found that architecture is about privileged people, governments, developers...and I was disappointed; so I was looking for opportunities to create houses for ordinary people'

'In 1994 I saw a film about a refugee camp in Rwanda, and that was the beginning. I developed a prototype shelter [using paper tubing that can be manufactured without waste]. In 2010 I built temporary shelters in Haiti, and I am now working on the project in Christchurch to build a paper church for 700 people, which will open soon... [It was a commission by the Anglican Church, on the initiative of the cathedral's Craig Dixon, who spotted Ban's work in a magazine three months after the quake, and sent an email to the architect - the response was immediate]. But these disasters are man-made too; even in New Zealand the city was warned to do building repairs that they didn't then do. So you cannot say these disasters are only natural.'

It is unusual for an architect, one of the most exclusively visual professions, to be so aware of the immaterial things that hold such importance for people, especially in times of disaster. Music is one of them. Ban has worked with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose organisation MoreTrees provided wood to furnish Ban's temporary housing in Japan, and his temporary concert hall in L'Aquila, a gift from Japan following the Italian earthquake, was unveiled in May 2011. The doors open like an accordion and the structure, in steel, glass, concrete, cardboard and clay sacks, can be taken apart and transported elsewhere, like a Mongolian white-felt yurt.

Ban has a great love of music, 'I envy and respect musicians. I used to play the violin when I was small,' but it is poetry that he sees as having a more precise affinity with the pared-down forms of modernist architecture (he cites the case-study houses of Eames as one influence, rather than Japanese traditions, as people generally assume): 'That was my education [under John Hejduk in New York], to see architecture like a poem: first the structure; then the minimum number of words, like a haiku poem. Using simple schemes in architecture, it is the same.'

There is poetry, too, in his analysis of materials: 'There is no difference between the temporary and the permanent. Concrete can be temporary, if the building is just to make money; and a paper church can be permanent, if people love it. It is whether people love a building or not, this is what makes it permanent. I am interested in using weak materials.

'The durability of a building has nothing to do with the humble materials or the geometry; only the structure matters. You don't have to use strong materials: a concrete building might be destroyed in a natural disaster, more than a paper one; concrete can be weaker than paper. It is a philosophy, yes.

'But it is a philosophy with a practical core: 'These temporary buildings don't have a short lifespan; they are not called temporary because of that, but because it's easy to get permission; it's a faster process.'

Ban devised the temporary paper buildings with structural engineer Gengo Matsui and, though he dismisses 'sustainability' as nothing more than a fashionable term, his work makes ingenious use of discarded materials - or example, the '10-unit system' in which identical L-shaped units are moved around to form chairs, tables and the like.

He relates how he was contacted by Artek and the biggest paper manufacturer in Finland, which makes labels for chemical bottles: 'The paper for the labels has to be protected by plastic, and then this is wasted, this composite material. So they asked me to find a way to use it. So I designed the Artek pavilion in Milan and then I designed the 10-unit system ... it's about using existing materials.'

In 2011, Ban also transformed his cardboard tubes and paper into a luxurious space for the international design world, when he created a Paper Pavilion for Hermès Paris at the Milan Salone. The result had the measured grace and linear beauty of a Bach suite, reinterpreting luxury: 'Even luxury can be designed with humble materials ... that's why Hermès appointed me. Luxury is a quality of the space. What is so important is the light and shadow that creates a wonderful space - even with humble materials.' It is an emphasis not only on the container but, more importantly, on what is contained: the immaterial elements that are made visible, almost tangible, by great architecture.

The poetry of replacing the collapsed stone weight of a cathedral with the seemingly fragile lightness of a 'paper church' speaks for itself (Ban's term translates into 98 cardboard tubes, each 600mm in diameter and 17m-22m long, supported by wooden beams and protected by a roof of translucent polycarbonate sheets); and Ban, like other poets, brushes away further analysis.

But the philosophy is undeniably there: in his comments and actions, as well as the materials and buildings themselves (in which the cardboard subordinates the structural steel elements - the end-wall frames of the paper church - and concrete foundations in a way that is somehow very satisfying to the soul), he removes divisions, between strength and weakness, weight and lightness, all and nothing, poverty and wealth, in a way that surely echoes ancient Eastern thought (though he does not say so) as well as 20th-century modernism.

Though Ban dismisses 'sustainability' as nothing more than a fashionable term, his work makes ingenious use of discarded materials. In his design for the temporary church in Christchurch, which is shaped like a tent - the most primary form of shelter - a triangular wall of 49 locally produced stained-glass panels (each 2m high and containing visual echoes of the cathedral's lost rose window) calls to mind both a house of playing cards, assembled with precision and a lightness of touch, and a geometric hive of honey bees. Moreover, the industrious, selfless work ethic of the latter is also reflected in the construction process of all Ban's temporary structures, which involve teams of volunteers, often architecture students.

Interior Window

Interior window, Christchurch Cathedral, Shigeru Ban, 2013. Courtesy of Iain McGregor, Fairfax NZ

In charge of 'the Cardboard Cathedral', as the practice - and now the world - refers to it, is architect Yoshie Narimatsu, who works in Ban's Tokyo office. Shigeru Ban himself is not charging a fee. He is impatient though: for the considerable aftershocks in 2011 and the funding and other challenges (helped by the collaboration between the Cathedral and nearby St John's Church, its building demolished after the quake and now providing the site for the 'transitional cardboard cathedral'), resulted in repeated delays to the start of construction, postponing the completion date from 2012 to April 2013.

Perhaps to cement its worth in the eyes of Christchurch (the final cost will be around NZ$6m/£3.2m) and, in keeping with Ban's removal of divisions, the structure will also play host to concerts, exhibitions and other secular events. For those closest to the project, it represents 'a symbol of hope', with its 'waves of cardboard columns' tapering to the altar and pointing to the sky.

'The poetry of replacing the collapsed stone weight of the cathedral with the seemingly fragile lightness of a 'paper church' speaks for itself...'

To unfold, and then finally to pack up a paper church, may seem like a flight of the imagination. But perhaps the most poetic and practical aspect of Ban's work (and he does prove that contemporary architecture can be both, in equal measures) is that not only does he use humble materials to create nomadic buildings and furniture (Ban's first paper church, built in Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake, was moved to Taiwan in 2005); but the structures themselves can be recycled: a paper bridge and even a paper church (built in a handful of months for a lifespan of more than 20 years) can in the end become paper pulp, to be transformed again into something else, for some other purpose; like a huge cardboard butterfly - a metamorphosis of lightness and humanity.

As poet and philosopher Paul Valéry wrote: 'One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.' It is rare that poetry and practicality are such comfortable partners; but in Ban's work, a house of card has also wings.

Words by Clare Farrow

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