‘Cardboard Cathedral’ rises

Published February 25, 2013

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, thesix-story building earned its nickname because it is being made ofcardboard 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 withabout 131,000 feet of steel that is designed to keep the building solidif the land underneath becomes compromised during a quake.

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

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

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

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

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

While there are clear guidelines and traditions for mourning thehuman 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’simpossible to guess,” he said. “Who would have imagined that largeparts of the central city will continue to be cordoned off from thepublic a full two years after the disaster?”

It is estimated that Christchurch’s central business district may notbe able to be occupied for five to 10 more years. Buildings are stillbeing demolished and debris piles predominate on some blocks.

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

The Cardboard Cathedral will be the temporary home of ChristchurchCathedral while plans move forward for returning to Cathedral Square.”It’s been somewhat controversial in the city,” Dixon said of theTransitional Cathedral. “Because of the love of the building in thesquare, 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 casebetween the diocese, which wanted to deconstruct the building to makeway for a new cathedral, and Great Christchurch Buildings Trust, whichwanted to ensure that the cathedral would be rebuilt using much of theold building. The court ruled that the terms of the legal trustframework governing the property required that there be a cathedral inCathedral Square. The building does not have to replicate the pre-quakeGothic Revival structure.

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

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

Matthews has not been able to enter the deconsecrated cathedral inabout a year but on Feb. 20 she got a remote tour via a small cameradrone sent into the broken building by a local television station. Theremote-controlled miniature helicopter filmed the interior, andtransmitted the footage to an iPad. A two-minute video is here.

A full report from 3Newsincludes comments from Matthews during the drone exercise. The stationsaid a survey of Christchurch residents it conducted showed that 38percent favor demolition, 30 percent want the building restored and 27percent favor Mayor Bob Parker’s call for the ruins to be encased inglass. The latter proposal would allow worshipers and visitors to beback 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 whathappened here, connects us to the past, can still in a sense be amemorial to that event but equally can offer something new,” Parkersaid, who added that his main goal is to get the issue settled becausethe cathedral’s current state “reminds us of a lot of pain, a lot ofnegativity” and has become “pigeon central” as birds have taken toroosting in the ruins.

In early December, the diocese’s Church Property Trustees filed a memorandumwith the court outlining an approximate timetable and decision-makingprocess on the new permanent cathedral. It suggests that the trusteeswill make “the final decision ? on the future of the cathedral building”by the end of February. Trustees saidthey will consider the options of retaining as much as possible of theold cathedral and building a replica, partial deconstruction leading to anew building that mixes old and new around the same footprint orextensive demolition leading to a building that has more new elementsthan old.

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

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

As part of the planning process for a new cathedral, Matthews and asmall study group visited cathedrals and churches in California, Europeand the United Kingdom. The group blogged about its experiences here and included discussion questions for members of the diocese to consider.

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

And they consider the relationship between the building and the widercommunity, and who in the city thought that the building was theircathedral. “Was it only the rich and famous? Is it only the poor andout? Is it the middle class? Is it only people who are interested in thearts?” she said.

Meanwhile, Matthews said, the decision to build a transitionalbuilding is “incredibly practical” because of the rebuilding challengesfacing the central business district. In addition, only one churchremained in that area and it is not big enough for cathedral services orthose times when the community needed to gather for what Matthewscalled “civic service.”

Other damaged buildings were too near the old cathedral to allow forany immediate building there, but still, she said, the cathedralcongregation 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 numberof reasons. The square was a makeshift triage center for people injuredby the February 2011 quake. It is also across the street from what hadbeen the Canterbury Television building, which collapsed during thequake, 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 otherstructures planned for the site, including offices, a chapel and acommercial building. Matthews called that arrangement “the best part ofall” because it will bring together “the most evangelical, conservativecongregation parish in the diocese” with the “liberal Catholic”cathedral congregation. When the cathedral members return to CathedralSquare, 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 anewsletter to churches in late 2012. “We still find ourselves in quiteextraordinary times and while progress is being made, these repair worksare 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 guidelinesfor both repairing and rebuilding damaged church buildings and for newbuildings. 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 ofrebuilding “is to lead in the short term in innovative ways, usingtechnology and design, [while] at the same time acting in the long termto secure an enduring outcome.”

“The church has the opportunity to respond to the earthquake infresh, positive, and unexpected ways in order to achieve visibility andnewly relevant connections with the community,” they said. “Importantly,alongside this, the expected response of rebuilding substantiallandmark spaces for worship and supporting the community needs to alsooccur.”

Beyond specific building repairs, the diocese is also considering itsfuture structure. In late September 2012, the diocese appointed thatStructural Review Group “to prayerfully consider, review and recommendthe future shape of the Diocese of Christchurch giving glory to God and asure foundation for the future.”

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

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

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

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


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