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Divine inspiration: The cardboard cathedral in Christchurch


When the gothic spire of Christchurch Cathedral toppled during the earthquake of 2011,  the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was one of the first to submit a plan for its replacement. Inventive and eco-friendly, Ban said that if chosen he wanted his building to do one thing above all else: “Stay in the minds of people forever.”

His vision, now fully realised, opened to worshippers on Sunday – and it would be hard to argue that he hasn’t fulfilled his own brief. For his is the only cathedral in the world to be constructed almost entirely from cardboard. The temporary structure, a triangular prism, is fashioned from 98 interlocking cardboard tubes and has drawn praise from architects and public alike.

“For a simple project with a small budget (3.6 million New Zealand dollars) it is pretty impressive, especially when you consider the circumstances in which it was built,” says Douglas Murphy, architecture critic and author. Although it may sound a little, well, flimsy, the 700-seat cathedral is slated to stand for 50 years – and is typical of Ban’s style. He and cardboard have a long history. He rose to prominence in the 1990s with a house constructed entirely from the material. Since then, he has completed numerous disaster relief projects using cardboard. As Murphy points out, it has many advantages as a building material. “You can build with cardboard relatively cheaply and without creating any waste products – in fact, the cardboard used is often recycled. To Ban, creating a waste-free building is perhaps more important than the building’s long-term sustainability.”

But Ban is not the only architect who favours this approach. Australian firm Stutchbury and Pape have garnered plaudits for their flat-pack cardboard house. British firm Cottrell and Vermeulen built Europe’s first permanent cardboard structure all the way back in 2001: a “recycled” play space, complete with drink carton walls, at Westborough Primary School in Essex.