Cardboard cathedral looks built to last

RIC STEVENS
Last updated 08:31 25/01/2013
Cardboard cathedral
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ

FIRST FRAME: Work starts on the cardboard cathedral overlooking Latimer Square.

Ric Stevens
RIC STEVENS: The Press's deputy editor

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OPINION: The daily commute takes me past the ever-so-slowly emerging form of architect Shigeru Ban's "cardboard cathedral" on Madras St.

To call it a cardboard cathedral is a misnomer. A fair amount of timber and steel seems to be going into the structure and, sitting on its new concrete base, it looks a lot more substantial and - dare I say it? - permanent than the name suggests.

Indeed, although the structure is officially a "transitional" building while the fate of the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in the Square is decided, it will meet 100 per cent of the building code, so will be as strong as anything in the city.

The 90 enormous cardboard tubes will sit between the two steel A-frame end walls, and will be supported by laminated wooden beams. The 700-seat cathedral will stand 23 metres, roughly the height of a six-storey building. The whole lot will be protected by a weathertight polycarbonate roof.

We are thus assured by church authorities that the whole thing "will not go soggy in the rain", and a smart-looking website dedicated to the project informs us that it is designed to last for 50 years.

This should not surprise us. Ban's cardboard-tube Takatori Catholic Church, built in Kobe, Japan, after an earthquake levelled the original structure in 1995, stood for 10 years. Then it was dismantled, packed up and shipped off to Taiwan to serve as a replacement church for one destroyed by an earthquake there.

For a temporary structure, it seems to be taking a long time to build.

The diggers moved on to the site in July, but a court challenge subsequently questioned the use of insurance money from the Christ Church Cathedral in the Square to build on the Madras St site. Justice Chisholm said it was difficult to see how the "site-specific" cathedral trust could use the money for the cardboard project.

Church authorities have sought clarification from the judge and in the meantime have decided to honour the contract with Naylor Love for the $5.3 million Madras St build.

We are assured that the recent halt to work on the site was the result of a Christmas break, and can expect to see the cardboard cathedral finished in April.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bob Parker's colourful concept for a glass-encased ruin on the main cathedral site in the Square and a more, well, traditional drawing by architect Don Donnithorne has helped keep alive debate about the main cathedral's future at a time when it seems the Anglican diocesan authorities would rather not talk about it.

While the legal bickering continues and in the absence of any apparent progress in the Square, the old cathedral is looking sadder by the week. The inevitable erosion to the structure caused by the elements is becoming more obvious.

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At least at the temporary structure, something is happening. It is a sign of renewal and life which can gladden the hearts even of those of us who are, shall we say, somewhat religiously challenged.

My prediction is that we will grow fond of the cardboard cathedral - maybe too fond to let it go when its job is done.

The concept drawings show it to be a thing of some beauty and the coloured main window deliberately pays homage to elements of the beloved and much-lamented rose window of the original cathedral.

Even if triangles aren't your thing, and you dislike the form, it is possible for such feelings to mellow in time.

Consider the Chalice. Neil Dawson's towering sculpture was once described by the late architect, Peter Beaven, as being "like the vent to an underground toilet". Other critics weren't quite so kind.

The feeling didn't last. The 2001 Twin Towers attack on New York came days after the Chalice's completion and when Christchurch people began spontaneously laying flowers beneath it in tribute, it became clear it had struck a heart- twanging chord. Right now, it is arguably the prettiest thing left in the Square.

Hard as it sometimes seems while we're still living in this vast demolition site, this is an important time for Christchurch and Canterbury, and how we view it in the future is by no means certain.

We all look forward to a fully reopened, rebuilt city, but that is not to say that we won't look back on this time with some fondness or nostalgia for the community spirit, courage and resilience that people have shown in times of trial.

We will want to hang on to emblems of all that. It is easy to imagine, for example, that when it comes time to dismantle the Re:Start pop-up mall in Cashel St, some people might well wish to preserve parts or all of it, even in another location, to celebrate the ingenuity and determination that allowed retailers and shoppers to re-enter the city centre in 2011.

That is unlikely, because shopping is driven by commercial imperatives, and governed by town planning. A cardboard church, however . . . not so much.

Long after the arguments over the fate of the old cathedral are settled, and a new spire soars (one hopes) over the Square, don't be surprised to find a triangular construction of steel, wood and paper tubing preserved, perhaps in perpetuity, on the edge of the city green frame.

Maybe people will go there to ponder the time when Christchurch built in cardboard and showed its mettle.

Ric Stevens is The Press's deputy editor.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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