By ERIC FELTEN
Christchurch, New Zealand, where an earthquake last year killed 185 people, is still struggling with how to treat another of its casualties, the city’s Anglican cathedral. Built of stone in the 19th century, the church has been damaged repeatedly by earthquakes over the years, and repeatedly repaired. But with its spire and sections of ceiling and walls collapsed, Christchurch’s Anglican bishop has declared the old pile too expensive to rebuild. Instead it will be “deconstructed” (which isn’t a postmodern linguistic gesture; it’s just that the bishop doesn’t like the awful word “demolished”).
Many locals and preservationists are hoping to stop the wrecking crew, trying to buy time to raise the money and do the structural engineering that might save the Gothic beauty. They rightly ask, what’s the rush?
Especially since, meanwhile, the diocese has decided to toss up a temporary church designed by Japanese “emergency architect” Shigeru Ban. The architect has made a specialty out of temporary structures, using large, coated-cardboard tubes and stackable shipping containers. The roof for the Christchurch sanctuary is to be made of Mr. Ban’s signature tubes, which instantly earned the proposed building a nickname: The Cardboard Cathedral.
Some of the eye-rolling comes from the very idea of putting up a temporary church—shouldn’t sacred buildings strive to express a commitment for the ages, a confidence in the durability of faith? Yes, but even stone crumbles. A temporary church makes a virtue out of expressing the impermanence of this world.
Still, the plans for the temporary cathedral are a shame because they are one of the architect’s least interesting designs. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, Mr. Ban drew up a paper church that, with it’s elliptical footprint, was a lovely modern interpretation of the oval churches built by Bernini in the 17th century. By contrast, his Christchurch design is the sort of plain A-frame used promiscuously in the 1960s and ’70s, a tall shed that could work just as well as a church building or a Polynesian restaurant. Christchurch will soon have a sort of ecclesiastical Trader Vic’s.
But if the temporary chapel isn’t Mr. Ban’s best work, it does have this going for it—it isn’t permanent.
Most architecture is built to last, which is one reason it occasions such bitter fights. Take the controversy over new additions to the small church of Notre Dame du Haut in rural Ronchamp, France, built in the 1950s by the modernist Le Corbusier. When Renzo Piano was hired to add a visitors center and convent to the grounds, prominent international architects mounted an unsuccessful petition against the additions, denouncing the changes an artistic apostasy that “opens avenues to all forms of barbarity.”
How much less fuss there would have been if the new buildings had been temporary. One reason the planning of new structures is so fraught is that we have to live with the potential mistakes for decades to come.
There’s a great history of temporary architecture, the showcases for which have often been world’s fairs, where grand pavilions are built to convey the passions and fashions of the moment. The “White City” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago allowed American architects to present their vision for ideal public spaces. Not that everyone was happy with the experiment: Chicago architect Louis Sullivan rejected the Neoclassicism that dominated, and contributed a building rich with color and ornamentation. He is said to have griped that the rest of the White City set back American architecture by decades.
Forty years later architects were at it again in Chicago. This time, at 1933′s Century of Progress International Exposition, the buildings were a futuristic fantasy of the modern and moderne, with the prefab disposability of the buildings part of the architectural statement. They would be as influential, in their way, as the White City had been a generation before.
If Gustave Eiffel’s iron tower had been proposed as a permanent structure, it probably would never have been built. But as a temporary novelty for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, why not? When it came time to take it down, Paris officials somewhat grudgingly allowed that it had become a part of the city: If the Eiffel Tower “did not exist, one would probably not contemplate building it there, or even perhaps anywhere else,” concluded a city commission in 1906. “But it does exist.” And so it continued to stand.
Perhaps we should encourage more temporary architecture, works that can be experimental because they don’t have to endure (or be endured). Wild new styles could be tried with the confidence that unless they succeed, the buildings will be disassembled, proving as ephemeral as the bad ideas behind them. And if any of these life-size architectural models do capture the public imagination, they can always be set, as it were, in stone.