Cardboard cathedral: Plans that look good on paper

Christchurch Cathedral was destroyed in February's earthquake. Can a temporary cardboard alternative take its place?

Making a castle from a big cardboard box is the first step for many amateur builders. Generally, cardboard architecture is left behind by the time we turn eight – few would imagine it being used to make a "real" building, let alone a cathedral.

But this is exactly what's happening in Christchurch, New Zealand, where plans have been made to build a cardboard cathedral, after their century-old building was destroyed in February's earthquake.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has been working pro bono, drawing up a blueprint which, if approved, could be completed by February next year – in time for the one-year anniversary of the quake. Shigeru told The Daily Telegraph that he hoped: "A cardboard structure will stay in the minds of people for ever."

The structure would consist of 64 cardboard tubes, each weighing 1,012lb, which will form a triangular prism. Each tube will have a diameter of almost a metre and be up to 22 metres in length. The cardboard is treated to make sure it's fireproof and weatherproof, so it won't go soggy in the rain.

The construction could be completed in a mere three months and with the estimated cost just over £2m, the attraction is obvious. And with material costs and deadlines being the two biggest obstacles to successful building projects, could cardboard be the solution?

British architect Brian Vermeulen, who also used cardboard in his work, describes Shigeru's design as "wonderful", before wistfully asking "Why doesn't the C of E invest in something like this?" His own practice, Cottrell and Vermeulen, completed Europe's first permanent cardboard structure in 2001 – an activity space at Westborough Primary School in Essex. Made primarily from cardboard panels and tubes, traces of barcodes and drinks cartons can be seen on the recycled walls.

Vermeulen says that the insulative properties of cardboard are a great asset, with "good acoustics" and they "can be recycled up to nine times". The classroom has a life expectancy of 20 years, before presumably it's turned to pulp once more. Although he imagines cardboard has good earthquake resistance, Vermeulen blames "cautious risk-resistant clients and insurance brokers" as a barrier to its more frequent use.

Insurance, however, wasn't a concern for artist Sumer Erek, who experimented with the idea of a paper house. Using discarded free newspapers, he built a five-metre high abode in Gillett Square, Hackney, London in 2008. Using almost 150,000 papers, the artist spent five days packing them into a wooden frame, to draw attention to waste paper.

Of course, what better way to furnish your paper house than with paper furniture? Danish design company Push designed its disposable paper office suite. One of its designers Robert Buss has described it as "furniture made from information for the information age", a concept that is evidently taken literally with pieces called Security Documents Chair and Bank Statements Shelving.

Amsterdam design company Nothing took this a step further, commissioning an entire office interior made of cardboard. With meeting rooms, storage space and cubicles, the office used designer Joost van Bleiswijk's "no glue, no screw" technique to remarkable effect. Coffee stains, however, are unfortunately permanent. Australian firm Stutchbury and Pape combined the benefits of cardboard with the convenience of flat-packs, to design a house which comes in kit form as a temporary housing solution. Once built, its "house of the future" resembles Ban's cathedral – a triangular-shaped tent. Again, the purchase price is far lower than your average home, at around £23,000. Just try not to lose the Allen key.

But we have to go back to Shigeru Ban for more demonstrations of cardboard's potential.

Ban was behind the Shared Ground Zone enclosure in the Millennium Dome which, with true "here's one we made earlier" spirit, was made predominantly out of card donated by Blue Peter viewers.

He had an even bigger showcase soon after, when he co-designed the "Japan Pavilion" at the Hanover Architecture expo, a 72-metre structure made from tubes, which was completely recycled following the exhibition.

He even built a temporary cardboard building, with paper dome, for the Takatori Church in Japan, after it was similarly destroyed in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The church has now been moved to tsunami-ravaged Sendai.

With any luck, Shigeru's latest cathedral will be happily hosting ceremonies by next spring, and if he's got anything to do with it, it won't be long before cardboard buildings are unfolding across the globe.

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