Cardboard cathedral: Soaring, modest, inspiring

Celebrating the cardboard cathedral

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 11:51 10/08/2013

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The cardboard cathedral opened to the public for the first time this week. CHARLIE GATES thinks Christchurch should celebrate this remarkable new building.

You turn the corner from Worcester St and there it is.

Nestled among the trees of Latimer Square sits an intriguing building. It draws you across the square with its brightly coloured triangular window. The sloping sides shine white in the sun.

It looks very new and it looks like it came from somewhere else. Perhaps another planet but certainly not Canterbury.

The cardboard cathedral opened to the public this week and immediately started to attract a steady stream of curious visitors.

It is Christchurch's first building by a well-known international architect.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban came up with the deceptively simple concept design, which was then delivered in association with Christchurch firm Warren and Mahoney.

The simple form of the cathedral is similar to an old- fashioned ridge tent.

But this apparent simplicity belies a hidden complexity.

The building is narrow at the back and wide at the front, so the angle of the roof splays out as it moves towards the front of the building. This subtle narrowing creates an embracing gesture that draws you towards the altar at the back of the building.

As you approach the cardboard cathedral, the large "trinity window" with its brightly coloured triangular panels, floats above the main entrance.

Below it is a narrow, mail-slot- shaped "welcome space" with glass sliding doors across the front. In another welcoming gesture, these can retract completely behind panels on either side, allowing the front to be wide open on hot summer days.

The welcome space has a deliberately low ceiling so that when you walk into the nave it feels dramatically tall and light- filled. The nave is beautifully proportioned, simple and minimalist with white walls and light pouring between the soaring cardboard tubes.

The proportions of the space feel right, perhaps because Ban based them on the nave of the cathedral in the square. In fact, the cardboard cathedral would fit perfectly inside the shattered nave of the old building.

But there are a few quibbles and awkward junctures. For example, when people arrive at the main doors, they have to slide them open and sidle awkwardly past a column that stands in the way.

This is perhaps a symptom of the incredibly tight budget. Not many cathedrals in the world get built for just over $5 million. In fact, this may be the only one.

Ban originally intended the cardboard tubes to hold the building up. But engineers tested the cardboard tubes and found they would bow dramatically in high winds. Cardboard couldn't be used for the structure, so timber beams were inserted into the tubes to create the structural frame.

This relegated the cardboard from the principal structure of the building to mere cladding.

Also, the shipping containers that run down either side of the nave to provide offices, toilets and even a small chapel are not what they appear.

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They are also just cladding. Steel bracing hidden inside provides the real structure.

This is where the building feels a little unconvincing and perhaps a little phony.

It is not a cardboard cathedral. It just uses that material as a novel gimmick. The crucifix above the altar is made of cardboard, however, along with the choir stalls and the moveable pulpit.

The cathedral uses the imagery of ad hoc post-quake Christchurch as window dressing rather than a functional part of the building's structure.

But, in the face of such a unique and generous building, these are mere quibbles. This remarkable new building is something for Christchurch to celebrate.

The cardboard cathedral is clever yet accessible, soaring yet modest and inspiring yet pragmatic.

With all the noise and debate surrounding the Anglican church it is easy to lose sight of a simple fact - Christchurch has an exciting new building. And it is a building that you would not find in any other city in the world.

When the debate has cooled, I think this building will become part of this strange city's iconography and part of our extraordinary story.

- The Press

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