Christchurch’s cardboard cathedral – architecture’s MVP

Image: The cardboard cathedral was hastily erected to fill a deep spiritual need following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand

In software development, an MVP is the most focussed value proposition. It stands for ‘minimum viable product’, and represents the most minimal feature set for the software where it adds most value. It’s like the essence of the product – the concentrated version. What’s the bare minimum it needs to do to be useful? What does a rake need to do to be called a rake? What does a kettle have to do to be called a kettle? Now where’s the added value – there are lots of rakes and kettles on the market, so what would the MVP be for a new type of rake or kettle to enter the market and be so useful – add so much value that people buy it? Unmatched leaf catchment? Faster boiling?

That’s the MVP. Usually in app development it’s the launch version – the point at which the app will be competitive enough to enter the market.

We use this term when meeting clients.

We’re minimalists, working in digital and often get brought in to untangle bloated websites and reimagine them as lean, elegant, focussed propositions. We worked with reknowned ultra-minimal architect, John Pawson, on his website, probably the first time the client has pushed for less on screen than we have!

So we tend to ask our clients about their business – what does the MVP of their website look like. What is the least it can do that adds most value. How to we cut to the essence of the business?

Travelling in New Zealand, it struck me that the cardboard – or ‘transitional’ – cathedral in Christchurch is an MVP…of a cathedral.

After the catastrophic earthquake of 2011, many of the buildings were lost or damaged, including the original Cathedral.

At a time when the city was reeling and people turned to spiritual support and community for reassurance they were without a place to feel safe and together.

So they needed a new Cathedral – and quickly. In software terms they needed to ‘launch fast’.

The transitional Cathedral opened in August 2013. 2 short years after the disaster. It was designed by architect Shigeru Ban and seats around 700 people.

For the design and construction of a key city building, this is a phenomenal timescale.

The construction of the building is beautiful. Simple, functional materials like cardboard and metal. Designed with rapid assembly in mind, low cost, low environmental impact and a relatively limited life expectancy.

Christchurch is still waiting for a new ‘proper’ cathedral. No-doubt something earnestly meaningful, an achingly conceptual beacon of hope and solidity for the future. But it’s a long process. Politics over the construction contracts and architectural appointments have drawn things out – graffiti in the city centre bemoans ‘bureaucratic constipation’. Even now, in 2017, the city is still in ruin in many places. Protracted indecision seems to be leaving a stain on the skyline. And all that time, the understudy – the substitute – has been the rock of the community.

In fact the most vibrant places are the thrown-together pop-up communities. The container city, built from shipping containers, and the Cathedral are in the spirit of meeting an urgent need. Even if still a bit rough around the edges.

Getting it out beats getting it right, to use another software development mantra.

So these architectural MVPs work – are they not enough to be the final form? Can’t the cardboard Cathedral just be the Cathedral?

I think it’s interesting to think about architecture in this way – more of a software approach, where you work with simpler materials and deliver the minimal functions at first until a new need is required. It would be interesting to see the effects on manufacture costs and the environment if more projects were approached in a lightweight, incremental way.

Sometimes we are making a holding page for a client and by the time it’s viable for them as a business, it’s become a website to all intents and purposes. It articulates their core message, allows people to get in touch…it works. So we have wrung out the most valuable aspects of the business already, meaning further expense and time is not spent, when the holding page is totally fit for purpose.

Maybe this is the case in Christchurch? Maybe they’ve cracked it with the holding page? I suppose the Cathedral could have been a little cosier, a little less exposed to elements, and the facilities could have been better integrated. So I can see why there’s a demand for ‘Cathedral 2.0'…but at what cost?

Sometimes we’re too focussed on progress for the sake of progress, moving to the next stage, the bigger and better, the kudos of the finished product – the final announcement. It’s ready, come and see!

In Christchurch’s case I feel the transitional Cathedral coins the spirit of the city so perfectly – built from the ashes to meet that urgent community need, it's thrown together because it had to be, there’s a poetry to it. It’s a product of circumstance. Seat of your pants creativity, thinking under pressure. Get it out. Make it quick. Make it cheap. Make it beautiful. It’s a triumph. Its a hero. It would almost be a pity to upgrade to the over-polished, overthought, late-to-the-party bureaucratic version 2.0. The transitional one is so authentic, so honest and real. It’s not vain, it’s not self important. It’s functional. And still beautiful.

But let’s not prejudge – v2.0 may be a valid and valuable improvement. I just think the main thing is that if you’ve got something, in architecture or software & digital, doing a job, meeting a need and adding value, it’s important to really consider the benefits and value in further development.

Is version 2.0 worth it? The rough and ready one might be enough.