Shigeru Ban – WORD Christchurch

Cover of Cardboard CathedralWORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival began last night with two events – a poetry slam, and Pritzker Prize winning architect Shigeru Ban in the Cardboard Cathedral.

As a lover of the smell of books, I smiled at the introduction to this session about Shigeru and the new book on the Cardboard Cathedral:

Most books smell wonderful, this book smells divine.

Word. This session was a conversation between Shigeru Ban and the book’s author – Dr Andrew Barrie Professor of Architecture at the University of Auckland, formerly based in Tokyo. It covered Shigeru’s architectural career, his humanitarian focus, and his work on our own Cardboard Cathedral. He also revealed his rugby playing past, happily using the laser pointer to show which young player was him.

The session had great visuals – photos of Ban’s work, plans, and a fabulous timelapse of the Cardboard Cathedral taking shape.


Shigeru’s mother and his family home both played a role in his love of architecture. His mother is a fashion designer, and as a childe he watched how the carpenters did extensions on his family home. In both cases, he watched how things were made.

Shigeru went to the United States to study architecture and his career blossomed from there.

Shigeru talked about architecture as a job mainly working for priviliged people:

They hire us to visualise their power and money in monumental architecture … Architects are lucky people, always working with people who are very happy.

He was interested in materials early on. In seeking out a replacement for timber, he tried paper tubes and found them to be much stronger than expected.  A lovely visual of a toilet contained within a paper tube structure came onto the screen, and he smilingly admitted you could use the walls for toilet paper if you needed.

He isn’t keen to any claims of being an ecologist or environmentalist, saying simply:

I hate to throw things away.

Architecture after disaster

His humanitarian career started in 1994 with the crisis in Rwanda, when he wrote a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offering his services. When no reply was forthcoming, he went anyway and worked on shelters costing $US50 each.

After earthquakes, he built a church in Kobe (Japan) and worked in China and Italy. He expressed the importance of providing comfortable and beautiful spaces to people who have been damaged physically and psychologically by earthquakes.

Cardboard Cathedral

After Christchurch’s earthquake in February 2011, Shigeru was contacted by Craig Dixon of the ChristChurch Cathedral who had seen the paper church in Kobe. Shigeru agreed to work on the project pro bono, as long as the Cathedral could be used by the public.

Shigeru noted that the Cathedral in the Square is one of the most important monuments for tourism. He used its proportions, analysed its geometry, in his design of the Cardboard Cathedral. The process wasn’t easy, not least finding a site. He kept getting new sites, and having to redesign.

Shigeru Ban is quite an astonishing person – extraordinarily talented, but also kind, modest, and a thinker:

What is temporary? What is permanent? … Even a temporary building can be permanent. It depends on whether people love the building ot not.

Bishop Victoria Matthews and Shigeru Ban
Bishop Victoria Matthews and Shigeru Ban
Andrew Barrie and Shigeru Ban
Author Andrew Barrie and Shigeru Ban

Cardboard Cathedral

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