Video & Feature: ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ rises in Christchurch, NZ

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 22, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] Two years after a magnitude-6.3 earthquake decimated Christchurch, New Zealand, and its suburbs on Feb. 22, 2011, the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch helped the community remember the 185 people who died and look to the future.

The building under construction that has been dubbed the Cardboard Cathedral was the backdrop to the ecumenical civic memorial service in Latimer Square.

A possible glimpse of the future of the city and the diocese, the six-story building earned its nickname because it is being made of cardboard tubes about 23.5 inches wide and as long as 75.5 feet, timber, steel and plastic. It sits on a concrete pad or raft embedded with about 131,000 feet of steel that is designed to keep the building solid if the land underneath becomes compromised during a quake.

At night, the light from inside the Diocese of Christchurch’s Transitional Cathedral will make the building appear to glow through the polycarbonate roof from the gaps between the cardboard tubes. Photo/Christchurch Cathedral

At night, the light from inside the Diocese of Christchurch’s Transitional Cathedral will make the building appear to glow through the polycarbonate roof from the gaps between the cardboard tubes. Photo/Christchurch Cathedral

The building is expected to cost about US$4.34 million. By the time construction is complete, more than 17 suppliers and contractors will have donated an additional US$832,000 worth of time, labor and materials to its construction. Plans call for the building to be ready for Easter.

The officially named Transitional Cathedral is meant to be a temporary building, but in this case “temporary means” it is designed to be used for 20 years or more. The cathedral was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who is known for such buildings and, especially, for developing effective, low-cost disaster-relief shelters. He and his firm are donating their time to the project, the largest he has designed. The cathedral will seat 700 and be used for civic events as well as worship.

“It will be an iconic structure in its own right,” the Rev. Craig Dixon, cathedral marketing and development manager, told ENS during an interview on the site in early November 2012. “I think it’s going to be hugely important for the city just in terms of helping the city get back on its feet.”

Work is progressing toward an Easter completion of the Diocese of Christchurch’s Transitional Cathedral on Latimer Square in central Christchurch. Workers are placing the cardboard tubes that will serve as the structure’s roof beams. Photo/Transitional Cathedral site webcam

The cathedral also may become symbolic of the South Island diocese’s multi-year journey towards recovery that includes rebuilding churches and restructuring the shape of the diocese itself, even as the city and surrounding suburbs are reshaping themselves. For instance, nearly 7,000 homes in the Canterbury Region have been or will be demolished and “whole suburbs are being wiped off the map,” according to The Press newspaper. Another report says 18,500 homes need repairs but only 20 percent have been fixed or had their loss covered with an insurance settlement. Some people are still living in garages and converted buses.

“For most of us the earthquake has stopped being a human tragedy and now persists at the level of a civic problem,” newspaper columnist Philip Matthews wrote on the second anniversary.

While there are clear guidelines and traditions for mourning the human tragedy, he wrote, there are none for “mourning for the lost city, or fearing for its future, or even feeling hopeful.”

“How long will the rebuild take? What shape will the city be in? It’s impossible to guess,” he said. “Who would have imagined that large parts of the central city will continue to be cordoned off from the public a full two years after the disaster?”

It is estimated that Christchurch’s central business district may not be able to be occupied for five to 10 more years. Buildings are still being demolished and debris piles predominate on some blocks.

When the quake struck at 12:51 p.m. local time, the city of Christchurch and its suburbs were still recovering from a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that had begun when a magnitude-7.1 quake struck on Sept. 4, 2010, followed by a magnitude-4.9 temblor on Dec. 26, 2010. The February 2011 quake fatally crippled the diocese’s cathedral in the heart of the city. Further damage to the city and the cathedral occurred from a series of aftershocks on June 23, 2011, and then a magnitude-5.8 quake hit 16 miles east of the city on Dec. 23, 2012. A city official discusses the damage caused by that latter quake here. In all, there have been 11,000 earthquakes of a magnitude 2 or more since the September 2010 quake. And a magnitude-3.8 quake rattled the city early in the morning of the commemoration activities.

The Cardboard Cathedral will be the temporary home of Christchurch Cathedral while plans move forward for returning to Cathedral Square. “It’s been somewhat controversial in the city,” Dixon said of the Transitional Cathedral. “Because of the love of the building in the square, people feel the focus should be on that and not on this.”

Rebuilding the 130-year-old cathedral in the heart of the city has been the subject of a court case between the diocese, which wanted to deconstruct the building to make way for a new cathedral, and Great Christchurch Buildings Trust, which wanted to ensure that the cathedral would be rebuilt using much of the old building. The court ruled that the terms of the legal trust framework governing the property required that there be a cathedral in Cathedral Square. The building does not have to replicate the pre-quake Gothic Revival structure.

However, the legal battle has at least temporarily halted the diocese’s plan to demolish the cathedral to between 6.5 to 10 feet and make the area a prayer garden in the interim. The delay, Christchurch Bishop Victoria Matthews said Feb. 20, makes it “gutting and upsetting to see that due to the ongoing legal process we are unable to retrieve treasured items from inside the cathedral and make it safe.”

“What is occurring now is an act of violence against a building and the stories and history that it contains of Canterbury and of the Christian faith,” she said, adding that the building is “wasting away [in] a slow death.”

Matthews has not been able to enter the deconsecrated cathedral in about a year but on Feb. 20 she got a remote tour via a small camera drone sent into the broken building by a local television station. The remote-controlled miniature helicopter filmed the interior, and transmitted the footage to an iPad.

A full report from 3News includes comments from Matthews during the drone exercise. The station said a survey of Christchurch residents it conducted showed that 38 percent favor demolition, 30 percent want the building restored and 27 percent favor Mayor Bob Parker’s call for the ruins to be encased in glass. The latter proposal would allow worshipers and visitors to be back inside, according to the mayor, who said the cost would be far less than building a new cathedral.

“We do need to keep something, a symbol that shows the story of what happened here, connects us to the past, can still in a sense be a memorial to that event but equally can offer something new,” Parker said, who added that his main goal is to get the issue settled because the cathedral’s current state “reminds us of a lot of pain, a lot of negativity” and has become “pigeon central” as birds have taken to roosting in the ruins.

In early December, the diocese’s Church Property Trustees filed a memorandum with the court outlining an approximate timetable and decision-making process on the new permanent cathedral. It suggests that the trustees will make “the final decision … on the future of the cathedral building” by the end of February. Trustees said they will consider the options of retaining as much as possible of the old cathedral and building a replica, partial deconstruction leading to a new building that mixes old and new around the same footprint or extensive demolition leading to a building that has more new elements than old.

In its ruling, the court noted that “the cathedral began life as the spiritual and geographical heart” of what would eventually became the city of Christchurch. That status, and the cathedral’s role in the civic as well as religious life of the city, means there have been fiercely held opinions about a future building on Cathedral Square.

Matthews said during an ENS interview in late October, just before the court ruled, that there was an ongoing debate between two “educated opinions” about how the reconstruction should be handled. She said she and others felt that the preservation-restoration proposals would endanger the workers who would be involved.

As part of the planning process for a new cathedral, Matthews and a small study group visited cathedrals and churches in California, Europe and the United Kingdom.

Matthews said the group looked at the 15 buildings in terms of beauty, awe and wonder. In each building the members pondered “how much were we caught up into the mystery and glory of God.”

And they consider the relationship between the building and the wider community, and who in the city thought that the building was their cathedral. “Was it only the rich and famous? Is it only the poor and out? Is it the middle class? Is it only people who are interested in the arts?” she said.

Meanwhile, Matthews said, the decision to build a transitional building is “incredibly practical” because of the rebuilding challenges facing the central business district. In addition, only one church remained in that area and it is not big enough for cathedral services or those times when the community needed to gather for what Matthews called “civic service.”

Other damaged buildings were too near the old cathedral to allow for any immediate building there, but still, she said, the cathedral congregation needed to stay together.

The decision to build the Transitional Cathedral in Latimer Square, about three blocks east of Cathedral Square, is significant for a number of reasons. The square was a makeshift triage center for people injured by the February 2011 quake. It is also across the street from what had been the Canterbury Television building, which collapsed during the quake, killing 115 people. And the square was home to the Anglican St. John’s Church, which was irreparably damaged by the quakes.

The two congregations will share the church building and some other structures planned for the site, including offices, a chapel and a commercial building. Matthews called that arrangement “the best part of all” because it will bring together “the most evangelical, conservative congregation parish in the diocese” with the “liberal Catholic” cathedral congregation. When the cathedral members return to Cathedral Square, St. John’s will take over the Cardboard Cathedral.

The cathedral saga is not the least of the challenges facing the diocese; 31 parishes are shown on the most-recent list of major repair work needed. There are 70 parishes in the diocese.

“I realize it has been a tough and frustrating year for many of you,” Liz Clarke, property manager of the Church Property Trustees, said in a newsletter to churches in late 2012. “We still find ourselves in quite extraordinary times and while progress is being made, these repair works are going to go on for some time yet.”

She noted that numerous aftershocks have resulted in multiple insurance claims on some buildings.

In late September 2012, the diocese published design guidelines for both repairing and rebuilding damaged church buildings and for new buildings. The 84-page document considers the issues of sacred space, community engagement, transcendence and intimacy, sustainability, biculturalism and envisioning a future.

The developers of the guidelines say that the opportunity of rebuilding “is to lead in the short term in innovative ways, using technology and design, [while] at the same time acting in the long term to secure an enduring outcome.”

“The church has the opportunity to respond to the earthquake in fresh, positive, and unexpected ways in order to achieve visibility and newly relevant connections with the community,” they said. “Importantly, alongside this, the expected response of rebuilding substantial landmark spaces for worship and supporting the community needs to also occur.”

Beyond specific building repairs, the diocese is also considering its future structure. In late September 2012, the diocese appointed that Structural Review Group “to prayerfully consider, review and recommend the future shape of the Diocese of Christchurch giving glory to God and a sure foundation for the future.”

The group is considering, among other information, maps of existing and new subdivisions, and of population movements; demographic trends; parish boundaries, finances and attendance figures; current costs of supporting clergy; and building stock, including those prone to earthquake damage. The members are also considering how their findings fit with a strategic plan, adopted in March 2009, that envisioned the diocese through the end of 2012.

This month, the members are visiting every “ministry unit” in Christchurch and surrounding commuter towns, with the aim of presenting a draft report to the annual diocesan synod in April.

“Our prayer is that as we work and consult together, the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit will be upon us all,” the members said recently.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (5)

  1. Fr Gaylord Hitchcock says:

    What a wonderful, creative response to this disaster! And how theologically significant! It temporarily unites two highly diverse congregations (who, one dares to say, may not be all that diverse a decade hence.) It says something about our having here “no lasting city.” And it gives time to plan and erect a truly appropriate cathedral church some years down the road. Truly the “cardboard cathedral” will be a house of prayer for all people in a city rising again. Praise be to God!

    1. Rev James de Costobadie says:

      To Fr Gaylord Hitchcock,
      Without wanting to disappoint, a small correction is that there are no plans for the 2 congregations of Latimer Square and the Cathedral to worship together during the next 10 years (this was just an understandable error of reporting). Nonetheless,the fact that we are able to share the same land (St John’s intend to put up its own buildings on the other half of the site) and work together in this way is a witness of mutual love and sensible co-operation despite our historical theological divisions. We rejoice in what God is doing in this city and the opportunities for the gospel He is bringing. Rev James de Costobadie.

  2. Rev & Mrs. Derek Nicholls says:

    What a wonderful end result to your plans for the next ten years. The design of the temporary Cathedral is imaginative and will attract many old and new worshippers. As you celebrate your first Easter Day in your new spiritual home we wish the bishop, clergy and laity God.s abundant grace and the assurance that you will be our personal prayers and those of St. James the Apostle Anglican Church here in Regina , Saskatchewan, and our Diocese of Qu’Appelle in the Anglican Church of Canada. God bless you all.
    Fr. Derek & Margaret Nicholls.

  3. Robert Cotton says:

    I have nothing but praise for the way that the diocese and bishop are approaching this important task of re-building. They are managing to hold together in a creative way three important factors: service to the community, a pragmatic approach to current needs for ministyr and mission, and values rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ensuring that heritage is made accessible and supportive for people today is not easy. The sort of heritage that the cathedral is can become a symbol of nervous clinging on to past glories. But both the cardboard cathedral and the proposal for a new cathedral on the old location are clearly based on a confidence that what we do today can be as glorious as what our forebears did. I will re-visit Christchurch when the cardboard cathedral is completed, and, more importantly, thousands across the world will delight in the erection of a new cathedral in the centre of this great city, which is suitable to serving the needs of the 21st century and beyond. This is a chance for Christchurch to be a beacon of hope to all those who have their lives disrupted by natural disasters. Come on, Christchurch: make us proud of your confidence, resilience and hope.

  4. Rev. Jane Jones says:

    What an inspiration for parishes everywhere – to come through such trauma, regroup and rethink and be able to resolve things to at least a majority’s approval! A place of prayer, a memorial, a joint place of worship and plans for future transition and growth – how wonderful. You are in our thoughts and prayers as you continue on your journey….meanwhile, we continue our attempts to replace the 40+ year old carpeting without insurrection …thank you and blessings always.

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