Culture At Large

New Zealand’s cardboard cathedral and building on sand

David Greusel

Disaster anniversaries form a new category of shared memory. We recently celebrated - though that is clearly not the right word - two years since a tsunami destroyed a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. It has also been two years since an earthquake devastated Christchurch, New Zealand. You don’t hear much about the rebuilding of Christchurch, but you may have heard this: a cathedral nearing completion to replace one flattened by the earthquake is made of cardboard.

Not entirely, but mainly. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who has made a name for himself by designing all manner of structures using large cardboard tubes, was engaged to create a temporary worship space for Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand. The new structure, still under construction more than two years out, features a roof of cardboard tubes supported by walls of stacked shipping containers. Everything about these construction materials cries out “temporary” in a loud voice.

But how temporary? We are already two years past the earthquake. The cardboard roof beams proved to be insufficiently sturdy, so they were braced (internally, so as not to show) with laminated wood beams - the kind used to support the roof of most modern churches. But inside the tubes, so as not to detract from the cardboard aesthetic. And the tubes will be protected from the elements by polycarbonate sheets.

This “temporary” cathedral is expected to cost $4.3 million, not counting more than $800,000 in donated materials. Many churches, mine included, would consider that to be a budget for a real construction project, not a temporary one. But once you hire a starchitect like Shigeru Ban, questions of cost are clearly out of bounds.

What ought a Christian to make of all this? Clearly our God can be worshipped in tents, as the Old Testament tabernacle showed. And in the United States he is worshiped in a lot of “converted” supermarkets. And new cathedrals are darn expensive.

But $5 million for a structure of reinforced cardboard ought to make us take a step back. What is being celebrated in Ban’s “temporary” cathedral? God? Human ingenuity? Cardboard? Or is it only Shigeru Ban himself, world-renowned architect and rescuer of the displaced?

My fear is that the structure, its cost and its famous architect will all result in this temporary structure becoming more or less permanent. “Cardboard Cathedral” has a catchy ring to it, and it could drive needed tourism to Christchurch as it continues to recover from the 2011 earthquake. Who knows how many more millions will be required to shore up and protect what was thought to be a temporary building in the coming decades?

But even more alarming is the message this building sends. Whether he realizes it or not, Ban’s cardboard cathedral echoes a chilling quote from Virginia Woolf. Woolf, writing of the need for progressive education, said of a new college, “It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions.” Although she was writing in 1938, Woolf perfectly anticipated the work of Shigeru Ban. I’m not sure if Ban has read Woolf, but they are kindred spirits in their shared dislike of carved stone and tradition. For lying beneath the good-news buzz about a temporary home for the cathedral is a more disturbing message about how cathedrals ought to be made, along Virginia Woolf’s guidelines.

Jesus warns his followers against building a house on foundations of sand. His warning is understood metaphorically to refer to self-reliance, self-righteousness and self-salvation, all bad ideas. But for the metaphor to be valid, it also has to make sense on its own. Building houses on sand really is a bad idea. And building cardboard cathedrals would, I think, fall into that category.

Everything about these construction materials cries out “temporary” in a loud voice.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, World