So Christchurch is getting a cardboard cathedral. Fair enough. People need a place to pray, even if it is made of paper. And it famously doesn’t rain much in New Zealand, does it? It’ll be fine.
Snide New Zealand weather jibes aside, there’s obviously a good, big reason for Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to take some insurance money (although he’s working for free) to make people somewhere to go after the series of earthquakes that left 181 people dead last year and flattened most of St John’s Church, a structure whose former nobility and long history, once destroyed, served as a visual shorthand for news agencies covering the catastrophe.
While Ban-san’s rifling through his recycling to pick out the loo rolls and pizza boxes to turn into load-bearing walls, beams and rafters and the people of Christchurch and pen-less flock of St John’s wait patiently until the year’s end, when the structure’s due for completion, it gives the rest of us time to consider the merits of semi-temporary cardboard. While we’d never wish a clean architectural slate on anywhere if it meant disaster, I’d be surprised if the lure of the temporary doesn’t light a touch paper for architects, town-planners and daydreamers with commanding views of their city and designs on changing them.
What would you do, New Yorkers, Mancunians, Paulistas, Cape Towners? In London big bits of Oxford Street have been blown-up – maybe blown-down’s a better way of putting it – dug-up, hoarded-around and craned-over in the name of redevelopment. Big glass and steel shops will be built – boring places full of boring things designed for the retail desperados of Oxford Street to debt themselves up to their nuts. We should make these cathedrals of commerce out of cardboard, so that, in 30 years’ time – the upper life limit of shoebox construction – they can be blown-down, recycled and something fresh put up.
What would it be like to have a skyline that changed every few years, three times a generation? Probably like living in the Lego box of a restless child, in both a good and a bad way. As architecture, interiors and the space in and between man-made places affect the way we think, imagine the very different views we’d share of history, potentially unsentimental opinions on ivy-covered walls, green-topped copper roofs, worn stone steps and Listed and blue plaque-worthy places.
If nascent parliaments and optimistic public housing, not to mention shopping centres and Shards, could take risks and conduct real-life experiments enabled by cheap, readily available building materials, wouldn’t it be eye-clearing and energising? Imagine Olympic venues built free of the fear of becoming white elephants; warehouses that needn’t become yuppified into big, cold apartments; deconsecrated churches that needn’t become gastropubs or ghoulish executive flats.
While you’re squinting at the skyline with your imaginary pencil and eraser, Shigeru Ban’s doing a mighty fine service to the congregation of St John’s. Buildings are like the Bible – while the old stories are the best, a cheap, cardboard church might make us all take note of our own short leaseholds.