A concept model of Ban’s scheme for the Cardboard Cathedral. 

A year after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake left Christchurch’s central business district in shambles, Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral is ready to start construction.

Dividing his time between offices in Tokyo, Paris, and New York, Ban has a stellar track record for helping when natural disasters strike. This time, his pro-bono contribution is a temporary replacement for the New Zealand city’s main Anglican house of worship, a 19th-century stone edifice damaged beyond repair and located within a cordoned-off “red zone.” Slated to rise on a site near the restricted area, Ban’s 8,611-square-foot building will be made of paper tubes and metal shipping containers—two of the architect’s favorite building materials.

The building was scheduled to be finished in time for the quake’s first anniversary, but the groundbreaking will now occur at the end of April, according to Ban. The church is funding the roughly $3.3 million project.

A distinctive A-frame structure, the church is Ban’s first triangular, paper-tube building. “This is the most fundamental shape for shelter because it forms the walls and roof at the same time,” explains Ban. Clad from top to bottom with double sheets of transparent polycarbonate, the building is composed of 120, 69-foot-long tubes anchored to eight cargo crates. Thanks to small gaps between tubes, natural light filters down to the nave from above.

Inspired by the geometry of the original cathedral, Ban’s church is trapezoidal in plan and triangular in section. Borrowing the dimensions of the original church’s fa'ade, the wide, isosceles end holds a stained glass window above and the main entrance below. As the plan narrows, the section grows steadily taller, culminating where the building soars to 79 feet near the altar. Edging the 700-seat sanctuary, a band of 8.5-foot-tall metal containers hold a variety of subsidiary functions such as a kitchen, storage, and auxiliary seating.

Staged on a concrete base, the containers are attached to the paper tubes with steel joints. Pin joints connect the tubes at the top, forming the triangle’s apex while enabling its angle to become increasingly acute. Normally, Ban uses 32-inch tubes for the main structures of his cardboard buildings. This time, however, he chose 24-inch tubes made by a Christchurch fabricator. Inside the tubes, tiny timber trusses provide structural strength. “I could have shipped bigger tubes from Australia,” says Ban, “but it was more important to me to use local materials.”

Ban used New Zealand products not only to reduce construction time, but also to help lift the spirits of those who visit the building. Intended as both a secular and religious venue, the cathedral will likely become a popular event space and tourist destination during its anticipated 10-year tenure. If people like it, the Cardboard Cathedral, like many of Ban’s paper-tube structures—ten of his 30-some paper-tube buildings still exist—could remain in use long after the red zone is revived.

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