Guest Post: Rebuilding Christchurch following 22/2

March 6th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

A guest post by :

I’m no architect, but I know a bit about art and culture and was born and bred in . I grafted my young children here from Kapiti so they too could be ‘Cantabs’ under this sprawling big sky. I adore and have made considerable sacrifices to remain here, and  was a parliamentary candidate for Christchurch Central in the late nineties. The confused demolition of the classic Sydenham Heritage Church (1878) a southern gateway to inner Christchurch (on Colombo & Brougham Streets) has pained me on top of all the other complex emotions of 22/2.

Heritage takes perhaps 100 years to set. Simply bowling Christchurch over and starting again will dislocate us from cultural anchoring points intrinsic to our being and history. Retention and restoration are important to healing and recovery –seeing familiarity restored, like an amputee receiving an artificial limb. Who would not restore the toppled statues of Godley and Scott?  Why then, not iconic buildings? While there is an exciting opportunity to rebuild with fresh vision, we must retain the core of what Christchurch is, architecturally.

Cultural iconography has to be a selected snap shot of time (for us mid-nineteenth century neo-gothic Victorian) otherwise cities are an unfocussed mash of everything and nothing. 
Tourists come to take pictures of the Arts Centre and the Christ Church cathedral, not the Forsyth Barr building.  We have trams, Avon punts, Christ’s College –all icons of identity and heritage.  Restoration is vital.

Perhaps our best exemplar is Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the iconic “Church of Our Lady” at the center of their city obliterated in WWII.  This building was lovingly restored from almost nothing, as the architectural heart of Dresden. This was an obvious – and no doubt expensive – piece of cultural healing and identification; holding on to an element of the past to anchor the future.  Human beings do not do well in cultural vacuums. We need reference points.

Many of our old buildings survived: the Jubilee Clock Tower on Victoria Street, much of the Arts Centre, the Museum, many of our old churches (St Albans Union at Merivale; St Mary’s a few blocks down; the Catholic Basilica on Barbadoes St– perhaps out most attractive building) and many did not. Restoration is achievable, but so is fusion. As with Kirkaldie & Stains’ fascade in Lambton Quay, Wellington. Restoration along with faked facades behind which safe modern buildings are constructed, might be a symbiosis pleasing to most: Christ Church cathedral and the Chalice – traditional and contemporary side-by-side, like grandparent and grandchild supporting each other. Eradicate the one, and the other is lessoned, a lesson to us all.

It is not simply an issue of safety.  Older buildings can be strengthened and made safe. My alma mater the red brick Christchurch Boys’ High School was largely unaffected in the quake due to strengthening.

It need not be an argument between traditionalist and progressive. Fusion is the key.  We should restore, strengthen as much of our heritage as we can preserve, and in the grey areas, retain facades at street level with modern buildings behind.

Change, however, is inevitable, and perhaps it is time to review emphases in different parts of the city.  My own thoughts are: that the eastern suburbs (Parklands, Bexley) could be thinned by natural attrition (no one should be forced away) and perhaps this area of Christchurch refocused as recreational serving city-wide sports needs with centralized hockey, cricket, rugby and soccer fields and mountain biking (already an emphasis at Bottle Lake).  Large grassed fields slotted in amongst retained housing would be well served by the existing ring roads to these areas, such as QEII Drive. It would also lesson traffic congestion around Hagley Park and Harper & Deans Avenues. The obvious beach, and attractive wetlands, already lends itself as an enhanced recreational and leisure focus nestled naturally amongst less residential intensity.  This reduces risk to human life in the event of more earthquakes, floods or tsunami.

Rather than rebuild, I would thin the CBD out (especially Cathedral Square) with small parks to set tall buildings back astride grassed areas with fountains and people friendly contexts.  New York has done this very successfully. This creates more natural space and light, for cafes, tourism, open air events like the Buskers’ festival (why jam these into Cathedral Square and the Arts Centre?).

I would extend the CBD into Sydenham-Addington with central government-subsidized commercial rentals to help re-establish small businesses lost in the CBD, and to grow new enterprises.  This area is already bisected by the railway line and rail station. Shouldn’t this be a natural hub for the city?  The trams could easily extend into this part of town traversing the new parks named after significant Canterbury events or personages, enhancing our sense of heritage as done with Latimer & Cranmer Squares reflecting our Anglican heritage. These new parks might be named: “4 Sept,” “22 Feb,”  “Crusader,” or perhaps after historic battlefields where the 1st and 20th Canterbury Battalions played decisive roles: “Suvla Bay,” “Messines,” etc. (as the French have done in Paris with “Bir Hacheim” metro station).  Our CBD would then be defined between Rolleston Ave (which I would extend across the river by the hospital into Antigua Street, renamed Rolleston Ave South), Brougham St, Fitzgerald Ave and Bealey Ave.

I would push Deans Ave south to Hazeldean St and into Lincoln Rd to create a second ‘Moorhouse’ lateral into the expanded Addington-Sydenham CBD.  This area is already flanked by Hagley Park, and is zoned commercial with little residential. It has an existing major west-east arterial motorway creating a rapid egress from the city to the south as well as the railway.  These suburbs are also traditionally lower socio-economic. What better a commemoration of the than to re-create this part of Christchurch as a new economic boon sector reflective of Merivale and Fendalton their counterparts on the other side of the Park.

There are huge opportunities.  The challenge is not to become bogged down in reactionary arguments (the Moore sheep sculpture on the Port Hills; the Chalice; the Millennium Bridge; or inter-suburban parochialism). Rather, to have a wide creative response that fuses a breadth of aesthetic opinion and culture reflective of Christchurch’s diversity while retaining our intrinsic raison d’être – the architectural vision of our city’s Victorian founders


John Stringer is an ex-Anglican pastor of the Christchurch Dioceses under license to the Bishop. He is an international author who lost everything at Mt Pleasant on 22/2 (house, business, car and job) and now lives in rental accommodation in St Albans with his wife Laurie.

Demolished after 144 years. St Albans Methodist Sunday School (behind the late nineteenth-century church) at Merivale, corner Papanui Rd and Rugby St, 1902 rebuilt after the 1868 fire. Damaged 4 Sept 2010 and 22 Feb. 2011 and finally demolished Jan. 2012.  Photos: John Stringer.

Dresden’s Frauenkirche basilica before and after restoration (the black blocks in the left image are original). Photos: public domain.

21 Responses to “Guest Post: Rebuilding Christchurch following 22/2”

  1. joana (1,983 comments) says:

    Many CHCH people are fed up or packing..So many jobs have gone to foreigners, ex Aussie cops and the like..Read the comments under the Press article re Key saying people will return from Australia to get an idea of how people are feeling..The rebuild is a fading mirage. The only thing growing in CHCH is cynicism.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  2. 103PapPap (135 comments) says:

    First, Dresden’s Frauenkirche wasn’t rebuilt on seismically active ground. Makes a big difference.

    Second, the fundamental tenet of western society is the right to buy, own and dispose of property. This means that the property owner has (nearly) all the rights. So bystanders, no matter how interested they are, have no say in what a property owner does.

    There are provisions with local government to define rules under which buildings may be constructed and modified, but these are generally flexible. Just look at the plans for the new 13 story BNZ building in the square, which is the first step required to turn the square into a wind tunnel.

    I think the problem here is the Mayor. Bob has got the locals all excited about ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘letting the people have a say’. Unfortunately for Bob, the people don’t own the properties.

    The best solution for the cathedral is one that the owners want, not what the public want.

    Incidentally, I think you will find that the punts and the tram are fairly recent additions to Christchurch. Certainly neither were here when I arrived in Christchurch in 1984.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  3. David in Chch (595 comments) says:

    I am ostensibly from Chch, although I managed to take leave from my job and am currently in China. I don’t miss the aftershocks, and am still in the midst of insurance wrangles. I thought I should make those comments before addressing this and other issues that have arisen.

    The question of the Cathedral will always split the city. Do we rebuild it as exactly as possible in the current location, a la Dresden? Or do we leave the ruins as a memorial and rebuild on an adjacent site, as they did in Berlin? Frankly, I find the Berlin cathedral a sober and fitting memorial. It is fitting.

    I think that 130PapPap’s comments are relevant. The city is in a seismically active zone. It is on soft ground that amplifies the ground shaking. So these are aspects that need to be kept in mind when discussing any rebuilding.

    And while yes, heritage is important, it need not _all_ be kept or rescued, or rebuilt exactly as it was. On this the city is and will be divided.

    Finally, 130PapPap’s comments about the ownership is also relevant. Most of us Chch residents (or at least I was when the plans were made) were highly supportive of the new city plan, but it seems that many of the commercial owners (most of whom likely did not live in the city) made lots of noise about being able to build what they want. I point out that if BNZ is building a 13 story building, then a lot of people will simply not go there. I know too many people who are afraid of taller buildings. The costly engineering that that will be required would not have been economically wise, I would have thought, especially for a bank. It means they have lots of money to throw around, which is nice, but I would think it wiser to use it differently.

    I am the co-owner of what is now an empty lot adjacent to the High Street precinct. I had an apartment, my home, there. I do not know if we will rebuild or not. I do not know if I want to rebuild or not. Right now, I am feeling that the commercial owners have lost sight of what the city is and what the residents want the city to be. The support for the city plan was overwhelming, but the current property owners are not going in that direction, and I suspect that the heart of the city is slowly moving west, away from what was the CBD, and may never return.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  4. wreck1080 (5,010 comments) says:

    they want artists to redesign christchurch, not technical architects and engineers.

    Sure, the architects and engineers can do the calcs to make it happen, but, the artists need to do the design. That would be cool.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  5. Joseph Carpenter (215 comments) says:

    The fact is that it is technically possible to rebuild the Christ Church cathedral and to rebuild it so that it seismically safe and with the external appearance at least unchanged (the interior will have to have a steel structural support and bracing system with reinforced concrete walls lining the inside of the masonry walls – however this can be concealed/made to appear part of the envelope). The problem is not technical, the problem is financial.

    The church only had insurance for a direct replacement rebuild (like for like) and even that cover was probably too low, not for a modern reconstruction. The figures being mooted are $100 million for a full rebuild to modern seismic standards which seems realistic (at least with considerable salvage from the former building, else that figure would be too low) with a shortfall of at least $50 million from the church funds. This is the problem for the church (and other property owners) you simply can’t magic up money you don’t have. If John Stringer and others are so concerned to preserve the “heritage” then they need to put their money where their big mouths are – in this case form a syndicate with only 1000 other wealthy patrons and stand personal guarantor for a $50,000 share of a $50 million loan for quick draw down to allow certainty for a rebuild while they raise the full money from others and/or gift it themselves over time. If they’re that concerned they need to get moving right now, Or are they seriously asking for O.P.M. to actually do all the work for a non-taxpaying religious organization while they enjoy the warm glow?

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  6. Joseph Carpenter (215 comments) says:

    The other option is of course to build a fantastic new design NZ cathedral within the budget and build up a “new heritage” (designed to last for centuries), and one that isn’t merely a second rate knock-off of a church in England.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  7. jonno1 (106 comments) says:

    Definition of the ideal home:

    A house designed by an engineer, overlooking one designed by an architect.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  8. Pauleastbay (5,035 comments) says:

    Joseph Carpenter

    At least you are a realist, there is no money, so when you have no money you don’t buy stuff.

    Personally, I am not fond of Christchurch but many are and obviously it home for many, what I think is really becoming sad over this whole thing is some people, the ones making all the noise , are defining their ‘home” by some old buildings. Surely your town is about the people and the future.

    If the Anglican Church had the dough to rebuild, good on them but for some elected knob to talk about public ownership and the spending of public money is nothing but a crime, its just too tragic for words .

    Also some clarification in regards to these old buildings, alot of them where nothing but dives occupied by junkies and whorehouses, but as soon as the got dropped they were all of a sudden very significant.

    Earthquakes happen all over the world, Napier rebuilt better, San Francisco rebuilt better, I believe Japan has re built? already.

    Churches are just tribute to the vanity of men, the faith of the people is much more important that a pile of rock and glass

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  9. davidp (3,864 comments) says:

    David in Chch>Most of us Chch residents (or at least I was when the plans were made) were highly supportive of the new city plan, but it seems that many of the commercial owners (most of whom likely did not live in the city) made lots of noise about being able to build what they want.

    Commercial building owners are not a charity. They’re not going to (and shouldn’t be required to) donate a large proportion of the value of their properties to the city. Many of them can’t do so… you can’t replace a $10million building with a $2million building if you have a $10million mortgage. If Christchurch residents want the new city plan, complete with light rail, then they’re going to need to pay much higher rates to buy up real estate so they can re-build according to the plan.

    Christchurch CBD probably doesn’t have much of a future. Businesses have either folded or moved out to the suburbs and there isn’t much reason for them to move back in to the center. Residents are taking their insurance payments and running. The city needs a pragmatic plan to restore commercial activity in the center as soon as possible. Instead government (at every level) seems to lack any sense of urgency. And the council have an impractical plan for light rail and commercially-non-viable buildings.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  10. Shunda barunda (4,189 comments) says:

    People have got to get real and try to grasp the reality of the situation in Christchurch (and NZ in general).

    The city will experience aftershocks for at least the next 20 years, some of which could be very large. The probability of the Alpine fault going within our lifetimes is also very high (along with a much larger aftershock sequence) and this will likely cause Christchurch similar levels of damage.

    I love old buildings and heritage, but for goodness sake, we don’t have a lot of options here! The ground in this country shakes like hell relatively frequently, it is entirely possible the the past 50 years were unusually ‘quiet’ and we are now returning to a more typical level of earthquake frequency.

    Any rebuild or decision on old heritage buildings needs to reflect this reality, there are ways we can connect with out past that don’t include dangerous buildings or ridiculously expensive repairs that will likely still fail in the next big shake.

    We didn’t learn the lessons in the past, and it is time to accept we made mistakes and be determined not to make them again.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  11. iMP (2,665 comments) says:

    I for one want to live in a safe new Chch, like Japan has, with exciting new architecture that won’t fall on us, while keeping salvageable pieces of our heritage and past which is part of our character. Fukushima and other Japanese cities actually stood up well to their bigger than Chch quake, it was the tsunami that did them in. Wee need stronger. better.. buildings like the Japanese, who share the Pacific Rim with us.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  12. pq (728 comments) says:

    Farrar, and others,
    we are beaten into the ground, there is no new Christchurch and our livelihoods and homes are dust,
    you can have a flower show but we are beaten, we are beaten.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  13. Alan Wilkinson (2,435 comments) says:

    I’m a long way away from Chch now though my family is not. Seems to me an opportunity is being lost because the bureaucracies are busy trying to work out what they should be forcing everyone else to do and everyone else is either still trying to get their insurance money or trying to influence what the bureaucracies are going to tell them to do.

    From this distance it seems a classic case of gross over-centralisation. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

    Why can’t everyone just concentrate on their own business instead? Professional engineers work out what standards they should set and what those would achieve. Inevitably there must be choices and consequences accepted by owners and occupiers. Local government work out how transport, services and public spaces will be placed and operate. Central government look after welfare, EQC and other relevant bureaucracies, compensation for irreparable property, ensure an efficient insurance market and generally try to make bureaucracy help rather than hinder as far as possible. Then let owners and entrepreneurs create, cooperate and compete to solve real problems for real people as they always do.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  14. David in Chch (595 comments) says:

    Well, davidp, I didn’t claim that the commercial owners were charities. What I said was that a lot of them made noises about the city plan not allowing them to build what they want, and my point would be that most of us _living_ in the city don’t want what they would build. They talk about not wanting height restrictions, when those restrictions actually make sense, both in engineering and economic ways. Anything over 8 stories needs massive extra engineering to be strong enough, and there are likely a few companies that may want to do that so that they can show how rich they are. But very few people will want to work or live in those buildings. It is just that those commercial owners don’t live in Christchurch and so don’t realise it.

    Ultimately, however, we do have to be realistic about the future of the city, as others above have noted. I tried to strike a balanced tone in my posting. I think it does not make sense to try to rebuild the Cathedral as it was – not engineering sense and not economic sense. It only makes sense as a form of nostalgia for the city we had. We need to build the city we want for the rest of the century and beyond.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  15. MT_Tinman (4,389 comments) says:

    Christchurch is, and will continue to be, a thriving city and like all cities it will continue to change to meet requirements of the day.

    The “City Plan” drawn up by the few ignores that, is in fact a knee-jerk reaction to the last 12 – 18 months with a few unworldly dreams added.

    Mr Stringer’s suggestions likewise recognise the current, not the future.

    Christchurch broke! The older façades, all of 100 years old, broke most and while Mr Stringer is correct in that many tourists liked taking photographs of Armagh St., Gloucester St. Cathedral Square, even Manchester St. there is far more to Chch than a few almost old buildings.

    After all most of those tourists had seen European castles many hundreds of years old, Asian temples thousands of years old. Even the Seppos could look back beyond 1776. Being old in NZ terms is brand new in real terms.

    Christchurch has it’s magnificent scenery, fantastic vistas from the heights of Banks Peninsula, it’s gardens and parks, it’s beaches and rivers, it’s golf courses, it’s museums and, of course, it’s people – as friendly, welcoming and colourful as any in the world.

    The future of Christchurch is not the old architecture, it is the new.

    There will of course be exceptions. Mr Stringer mentions a few – Boys High, Christ College, The Arts Centre (formerly Canterbury University) but not necessarily the Catholic nor the Anglican Cathedrals, both of which are seriously broken and will need a complete rebuild, a very expensive rebuild that may yield much changed buildings reflecting modern architecture.

    The new Christchurch will reflect the times, hopefully ignoring the ill-informed, short-sighted height restrictions that will see several current buildings dominate the skyline while the new dwarfs cower amid the imagined terror of the City Fathers.

    Christchurch needs to look to what will be required 20, 50, 100 years hence, to build upwards, using modern methods to create stable buildings for the next earthquake 100 years hence.

    Mr Stringer, first and foremost though Christchurch needs to live, to accept that some things that happen can not be prevented but that those things are infrequent.

    Mr Stringer I live on the flood plain of the Waimakariri, 250 metres outside of the Brooklands Red Zone. The sign on my door reads;
    “In event of Tsunami sit comfortably on the floor, place head between legs and kiss your ass goodbye”

    I, like Christchurch, must accept that the sign is in jest and life (not just existence) will continue.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  16. Anthony (880 comments) says:

    Wellington lost a lot of its old buildings in the 1980s partly in a drive to make the city safer. I think Wellington is a much more vibrant, attractive place nowadays than the city of dirty old, grey buildings that I remember it was in the 1970s!

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  17. mavxp (504 comments) says:

    The Reichstag in Berlin is a better example of what to do with the Cathedral.

    An old heritage building restored with modern roof: A fantastic piece of architecture that is both iconic and powerfully symbolic.

    There are other great examples out there where modern has been married well to old. It is far more honest as a structure, and looks back equally as it looks forward.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  18. iMP (2,665 comments) says:

    Tinman, you have no heart.

    Rather than all new, no old, isn’t it both/and? Why then have museums?….

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  19. MT_Tinman (4,389 comments) says:

    iMP, you may be correct but at least I don’t have the scarecrow’s complaint.

    There will still be some “old” buildings in Christchurch although at 100 years they are in fact brand new.

    To continue to grow to suit the increasing needs of a thriving city Christchurch needs to look forward, not backward.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  20. xy (301 comments) says:

    I’m in Christchurch, and in the camp of ‘it’s very sad, but tear it down’.

    It’s going to be a long and bitter argument.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  21. barry (1,233 comments) says:

    The Anglican Church has a big problem – it has a mentality of trying to make everyone happy (to whit the Grand Covenant idea)–

    so – they wont completely deconstruct to cathedral – keeps those happy that want so sort of idol left.
    but they will mostly remove it – keeps those happy that want a dangerous building pulled down
    and they support the crazy idea of a beach and a movie screen – keeps those happy who want something in the square to worship.

    But whats going to happen to the 2 or 3 metre high ruin…..
    grafitti on the remaining walls, used as a toilet by the homeless – and as a shelter.
    A place to make drug deals and to deposit unwanted rubbish.
    And the biggest waste – what used to be some of the most valuable land in Christchurch abandoned to drugs, homelss and rubbish.

    Why doesnt the property committee get some guts and pull the thing completely down and sell the land (maybe to use to build a proper place for the homeless of they think thats a proper use of the money) and build a forward looking cathedral on some of the many properties that they havein Chch.

    The current situation actually pleases no one – least of all the the memebrs of the anglican dioces and makes the leadership look like bumbling idiots.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote