The Transitional Church made of cardboard in Christchurch

6 November 2013 — We tend to think of the artefacts of sustainable design as, well, long-lasting: things that will be around for a long time, thereby amortising their resource costs over that extended period. But maybe this can also be a blinkered view of what sustainability is or should be.

We have seen how the pop-up phenomenon can bring social and economic life to otherwise underutilised spaces at low cost, filling niche demands and providing space for start-ups or temporary-only needs and uses. Can the same ideas be applied – thinking triple bottom line now – to whole buildings and precincts and communities?

These were broad themes tackled in the second annual Festival of Transitional Architecture held in Christchurch, New Zealand, a couple of weekends ago, prompted by what to do with the soul (and economy) destroying wasteland sites that still characterise a large portion of the city’s centre some two years on from its devastating earthquake.

Importantly, these ideas were also able to be explored in the context of a series of temporary constructions on-the-ground, now. “Gap-fillers”, the locals are calling them.

Not all are innovative or inspiring. Here and there are found object and faux-found object mini-parks and rest areas and veggie plots that, alas, tend to look forlorn and trivial in the large gravelled expanses of cleared lots (though a “sound-park” of building detritus converted into musical instruments able to be played by children, or adults, is a great exception).

But, at the same time, there is a whole other more robust dimension of creative, cheerful and inhabited things being done with shipping containers, crates and pallets, heavy-duty plastic sheeting, cardboard and polycarbon that lift one’s being – socially, economically and spiritually.

The Transitional (“cardboard”) Cathedral

The Transitional Cathedral opened just a couple of months ago after various unexpected construction hitches. But from all appearances it’s well-worth the wait and well-regarded by the locals still reeling from extensive debates about the possibility of their beloved but unstable city-centre stone cathedral being totally demolished.

So along came architect Shigeru Ban from Japan donating pro bono his skills in using cardboard tubes to quickly build emergency replacement buildings in disaster-struck areas.

Architecturally, the 700-seat interior space is a delight, with its soaring roof higher at one end than the other, lifting the soul and reflecting the building’s vocation – and it is acoustically admirable as well.

Outside, its lustrous polycarbon roof reflects the sky, and inside admits natural lighting through the gaps between the cardboard tube “trusses”. The base of re-worked shipping containers is used for storage rooms, and a kitchenette, offices and a smaller chapel gives a solid grounding. The pulpit, interior opening wall of the small chapel, and various other furniture items are also made of cardboard.

It is meant to last until a more permanent replacement or re-construction of the central cathedral is complete. One suspects, though, that any attempts to demolish it may well raise similar anguish – an interesting sustainability quandary that will be fascinating to see how it is resolved.

Re-Start Mall

With most city centre shops demolished or otherwise closed for building repair, retailing – and the social and economic life it brings – is being drained now into the suburban malls, generating a concurrent real concern that it may never be able to be re-established.

Enter the “Re-Start” mall – a collection of some 60 shipping containers punched full of holes for doors and display windows and café serveries and ATMs, stacked-up to two high, and embellished with intense colours, signs, awnings and lattices for shade. Located on an edge of the city centre near the (also temporary) bus station, they are occupied by a considered selection of high-street retailers, cafes and services.

Sculpture, a performance stage, public seating and planting complete the scene. I was there on the weekend and it was well-attended – people doing what people do all over: wandering, looking, listening, shopping and eating. And now they have some quick and cheerful (architect-designed) spaces in which to do it all (check it out on YouTube).

How long it is to last is not clear. Leases are currently for six months, but one suspects the nature of the whole design and enterprise means it will be easy to simply either extend its life or close it down when more permanent venues are re-established.

Or, from all appearances, the containers could simply be moved on to carry out similar uses in other locations if needs be. Indeed shipping containers can give a reassuring solidity in a location where after-shocks are still prevalent.

They are also being used to support tenuous damaged heritage facades. The architect for the Re-Start mall, Anton Tritt from the Buchan group, has apparently already designed a house using a container. And the port suburb of Lyttelton, also hit by the quake, has a re-constructed pub made from two containers sporting port-hole windows and joined by various cost-effective light-weight external extensions.

The pallet pavilion

Not as classy as the other examples, the “pallet pavilion” though reflects yet another creative response to an identifiable socio-economic need.

On a vacant corner where the city centre meets the suburbs, community voluntary action and commercial donations have created a semi-enclosed open-air space for up to 130 people for meetings, events, for hire, or just drop-in for a coffee or snack from a food van.

The floor and walls are made from some 3000 wooden pallets, on loan from CHEP, sitting on re-used concrete floor beams from a demolition (and which will eventually be re-used elsewhere it is intended). Furnishings are made from plastic crates, also donated by CHEP.

The pallets bear the names of sponsors and support planter boxes, and when the need for the pavilion is finished will go back to their original uses. Originally constructed for one summer only, a crowd-funding appeal has recently raised some $NZ80,000 in just a few weeks to keep it operating (with night-time security, lighting, management, etc) for a further year.

All are reminders that sustainability is not just simply about longevity. Rather, and particularly regarding the triple-bottom line sort, sustainability is necessarily also something multi-dimensional, responsive to need, immediate and adaptable.

Greg Paine is a Sydney based urban planner