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cardboard cathedral

Last weekend the media featured the announcement of the possibility of a temporary, cardboard replacement for the earthquake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.

The Anglican cathedral would be built with locally produced cardboard tubes erected in an A-shape, with shipping containers used as foundations. The hope is to have it up by the anniversary of this year’s February quake.

There has been much discussion about the appropriateness of the cost, $4 million. There has been discussion about the manner in which the diocese was made aware of this plan, the location for it, and of whether it would be multi-denominational and multi-use.

What interests me, however, is the design. In the image (above) the layout replicates the medieval configuration in which a congregation is more audience than the gathering of faithful who are full and active participants in the liturgy. The layout in which all are seated in pews facing in the same direction can represent and encourage a passive, spectator-like approach to liturgy.

Contemporary, renewed, reformed liturgy stresses God’s family gathered around the family table, the altar, as equals. We are the church. And the church building is there to keep the rain off the church. A cardboard church building, with a rectangular footprint, can still house a configuration of sacred space that portrays and promotes our equal, full, active participation.

Anglicans here have, until now, generally inherited much-loved nineteenth century neo-gothic, medieval-like buildings. Attempts at re-ordering such buildings for contemporary worship have often only had limited success. Often there was little more than the pulling out of the side-board-size altar from the East wall. [A contemporary altar is lower, smaller, and more square than the nineteenth century counterparts.]

Roman Catholics in New Zealand, because of complex historical dynamics, had more chance to build new church buildings after Vatican II. Some of their reordering of inherited buildings are exemplary (eg. Holy Spirit Cathedral, Palmerston North). Some of the best understanding of sacred space is provided by Wellington Buddhist architect, Hugh Tennent. I would be interested in readers pointing to recent Anglican buildings or excellent re-orderings. (The earthquake-destroyed, semi-circular St Margaret’s College chapel around a semi-circular altar is one that springs to my mind).

Generally, I think, our energy here was invested in reforming texts (with a passion for inclusive language and using Te Reo and other languages). Little energy has been expended in how to use these texts in a re-thought manner, and even less in the way architecture embodies and affects us. Hence, even the most recent Anglican buildings I know of are little different in interior layout from the nineteenth century examples. The new Prayer Book texts are regularly “enacted” in a manner that is little different to whatever inherited manner clergy passed on from generation to generation without much reflection (excepting perhaps the direction the presider is facing).

If, for example, the priest used a prize-giving-like collection of chalices, did certain gestures, knelt at this point, placed a burse vertically at that point of the service – all facing away from the congregation, regularly this is continued, only now facing the congregation and only with different words.

In Christchurch diocese, with so many church buildings destroyed and the hopes of new buildings on the horizon, we are being offered an exciting possibility to create buildings that architecturally actualize a renewed understanding of being church and of sacred space. With the cardboard cathedral as the first new sacred space in our city there is a unique opportunity to lead the way in which church interiors may look in the third millennium.

image source

Update 10 Sep 2011: I have been told that, should the cardboard cathedral proceed, there is no commitment to any particular interior layout.

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16 thoughts on “cardboard cathedral”

  1. Well said Bosco. This is probably a once only opportunity to rethink how to be cathedral in the life of a city. The design ought to take into account the life of the community that gathers in and around it as you point out for one aspect of its life. I think it’s also important to step back from claiming the space as Anglican or even Christian and wonder about how to be open to the Spirit present in the whole community before any rebuilding programme is undertaken as I pointed out in a recent post. http://www.spiritedcrone.com/?sid=101

    1. Thanks, Sande. Of course I had read your piece 🙂 Lateral thinking like yours is much needed in all aspects for the future of Christchurch. It is, of course, Anglican property – so this is a decision for the Anglican Church. What has not yet been publicised is the process through which decisions will be made. Once that is public, I’m sure you can feed your insights into that process.

  2. Miss J up above in the US

    Personally, I love the look of the old stone Gothic houses of worship, but also I love participatory liturgy. Yes, the space does have an impact on the worship within, but it would be a wonderful thing to figure out how to have the beauty of tradition without allowing the congregation to be passive members of an audience, but instead active worshippers.

    1. This makes total sense to me personally. I have a passion especially for the great gothic cathedrals & medieval monasteries. No question. What I am writing here is not a disparagement of those glorious buildings. This is about our thinking when we build new spaces. What I have too often seen is the planning of the building’s exterior and only then how it will be filled. What I am advocating is – let’s work out how we want to lay out contemporary worship spaces and then look to cover these spaces with an attractive (breath-taking) cover to keep the rain off the church (the people). I acknowledge that in the case of a cardboard building there may be restrictions on the shape of the cover – but even with a rectangular footprint I think we can more imaginatively layout the interior.

  3. I love the way you identify how the architecture of the building shapes the way we worship; I much more appreciate architecture that supports the full involvement of all participants, upholding the priesthood of all believers. It’s hard to have full involvement of everyone if the architecture has us all in a line focused solely on the chancel.

    1. Of course, Anita! But even in the mostly-glorious Christchurch weather it does rain from time to time, and now and then it even gets a bit chilly. Some even remember snow…

  4. Sadly some of the least inspiring (and participation encouraging) buildings I’ve seen have been contemporary churches. I suspect that as usual that we will find the greatest insights in our ancient past, a la Richard Giles in ‘Re-Pitching the Tent’.
    On the plus side, building a cathedral out of cardboard rolls might make a great children’s holiday programme activity!

    1. As I intimated in the post and comments, Brian, you are right. St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, is one of the few that spring to mind as positive. I think you are possibly also hinting at the shift towards a more passive, audience-style “worship” being seen? The cost of this particular children’s holiday programme is certainly being discussed… Blessings

  5. Mount Savior Monastery (upstate NY, USA) has an octagon-shaped chapel (with 4 small naves in the form of a cross) with the altar in the middle. It sits low on a small rise with a steeple in the center. The chapel was built many decades ago. Mr. TheraP always viewed it as looking (from the outside) like a Buddhist temple.

    I’m not giving their website because there are also some videos on you tube which might give you a better sense of the interior in particular. (The windows are high up and relatively small – which also, I think, adds to the sense of the the church = the people!)

    We lived near there for many years. It was, to my mind, the best worship space! It’s small, of course, being a monastery, but it’s more in line with what you’re describing – for exactly the reasons you’ve given. I’m sure the Japanese architect could do a second attempt: Just say “Buddhist Temple”. 😉

    1. Thanks so much for that picture, Chase. Clearly this is the same person who designed the image at the top of this post. The article that goes with your link I think means “ellipse” when it talks about “eclipse”. You are right to wonder why the 19th century is being replicated in Christchurch when it obviously wasn’t in Kobe.

  6. If the main entrance to the Cathedral faces west or south, it will bring only negative influences. Spiritual biuilding should have eastern and northern entrances, to receive the full influence of the Sun. Hopefully it will not have the ugly war memorials of th eold cathedral.

    1. Evan makes an interesting contribution to this discussion. First, need to welcome and incorporate a range of religious traditions in this building that holds such a prominent place in Christchurch. And second the importance of letting go of the Anglican connection to war in worship spaces. The time is past for this if it was ever appropriate.

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