In Christchurch, New Zealand, one of the world’s most unprepossessing contemporary churches manages to be among the most spectacular and celebrated. Colloquially called the “Cardboard Cathedral”—officially, Transitional Cathedral—the potentially temporary structure was designed by Shigeru Ban (b. 1957), the 2014 Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect. Mr. Ban—who combined his native training with graduate work at New York’s Cooper Union, where he was strongly influenced by his professor John Hejduk’s revisionist views of modernism—has been celebrated for his use of unusual materials in creating buildings that can be rapidly constructed following disasters. He has also designed more conventional projects: the Japanese Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, and a couple of museums (Centre Pompidou-Metz in France and the Aspen Art Museum in the U.S.).
The Christchurch project, which Mr. Ban worked on pro bono, came about after the 2011 earthquake severely damaged Anglican Christchurch Cathedral (1864-1904), rendering it unusable for liturgical purposes—a partial ruin, subject to disagreements about whether to restore and rebuild or start from scratch. The new structure is a few blocks away, on the site of another church destroyed by the earthquake. A court decision—insurance money couldn’t pay the costs of a temporary building—made private fundraising necessary (about $5 million, including overruns). Dedicated in August 2013, its modest exterior hides a majestic interior. Is it a large A-frame house, oddly misplaced in mid-city? But the church also appears descended from the hall churches of the late Middle Ages, whose radical design shift created wide-open spaces, less encumbered by the massive basilica columns that impeded sight lines, with interiors more useful as preaching churches, a development especially important with the growth of Protestantism in the 16th century.
Architecture’s tenet “truth to material” spans fields as disparate as the Arts and Crafts movement and brutalism, but Mr. Ban’s church suggests new by-ways of this principle.