Guest Post: Rebuilding Christchurch following 22/2

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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 Christchurch 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.

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