Christchurch will always be renowned for its heritage buildings and civic spaces. The consequences of a series of earthquakes cannot take this away, even amidst the damage or deconstruction of many superb buildings.
Earthquakes have hit the city in the past and will hit the city again in the future. We have always been aware of this fact; and accordingly, our important buildings had been strengthened. Buildings of merit that escaped major damage include the Arts Centre, the Canterbury Museum and the marvellous buildings that make up Christ’s College.
While the Arts Centre in particular suffered damage, the buildings remain intact and are repairable – a salutary lesson in awareness, management and good engineering.
In making the case for restoration, it’s crucial to consider the underlying ideas behind how we can rejuvenate our heritage buildings, and provide them with a contemporary and relevant purpose.
Heritage buildings aren’t just artefacts
Buildings have a life, a soul and a function, and we cannot afford to retain buildings that are not serving a purpose or a community simply because of their history.
It’s a reality that buildings cost money to maintain. The recent debate surrounding MacLeans Mansion highlighted this issue – a fine heritage building was at risk of being lost due to not being economically viable to strengthen and restore.
The conversation around restoring the Christchurch Town Hall further emphasised these considerations – should the insurance monies and Council funding be committed to strengthening and refurbishing the building? Are heritage qualities on their own enough?
A building has to be relevant today, and tomorrow. A civic building such as the Christchurch Town Hall has to function in a manner that connects with the city. Holding onto the heritage of this complex requires robust analysis, stakeholder engagement and connection with a wider vision for urban life.
In the case of Christchurch Town Hall, given the structure’s strong architectural, acoustic and civic qualities, the right decision has been reached. But the conversation still needs to play out to examine each building’s full potential.
In making the case for restoration, it's crucial to consider the underlying ideas behind how we can rejuvenate our heritage buildings, and provide them with a contemporary and relevant purpose.
Surface value isn’t enough
Heritage facades are often deemed to be the only important feature of a heritage building. The original Clarendon facade retained at the base of a 17 storey building was thought to have been sufficient to recognise the essential nature of the building.
This approach suggests our heritage is only skin deep, ignoring the essential nature of what a heritage building should be. Several facades are currently being considered as worthy of retention – but to be successful, a strong analysis of architectural and heritage considerations for the entire space and structure needs to be carried out.
An example of facade retention as part of a whole building revitalisation is the Isaac Theatre Royal. Economics and engineering advice influenced the decision to retain the facade only – but while the foyer and theatre behind were deconstructed, they are being rebuilt in the same manner as the original. The outcome will be a heritage theatre that will have better lines of sight, better accessibility and better safety by the inclusion of complying fire egress and smoke extract – in short, a better building for the public.
Rethinking, restoring, regenerating
“Regenerative use” is a popular term for assessing our heritage buildings. Without function, the building becomes merely an artefact.
A powerful example of regenerative use is The Arts Centre rebuild. With the need to vacate all buildings in order to undertake re-strengthening, we’re taking the opportunity to reassess usage of the buildings and embrace new ideas. This can provide a stronger economic viability to the complex while still maintaining the heritage values. Late additions to the buildings are being removed, openings are being created, accessibility is being enhanced and new elements are being inserted; all part of a broad strategy to ensure this important and popular series of buildings are used to their fullest extent.
Regeneration was also one of the factors behind the decision to relocate St Saviours Chapel from the Cathedral Grammar site in the city to Lyttelton, to fulfil the needs of a new community. A twist is that the new site for the relocated church is also in fact the original site where the church was first built – regenerative use is clearly not a new concept.
The iconic building
Occasionally, the state of a landmark building can stimulate a wider philosophical conversation; causing people to pause and consider how they view the past, present and future of their public spaces, and, in essence, their community. The on-going debate surrounding the Anglican Cathedral is testament to the passion and personal significance that a heritage building can generate. Strong arguments have been mounted for all of the options put forward for consideration – ranging from retention and restoration of the original structure in its entirety, to partial restoration and reconstruction, through to creating a new, contemporary cathedral. Within the debate, we’ve seen different ideas and desires being explored – influenced by economics, insurances, politics, secularity and religion, and Christchurch’s heritage and history – that indicate the multiple viewpoints existing within the community and the Diocese.
The way forward
In sum, it is not enough to restore a building simply because of its heritage; it needs to be valuable and functional in modern days too. We strongly believe that our great legacy buildings, the foundations of our city, have a life and spirit that can transcend the decades – provided they’re approached with flexible, adaptive, durable and inventive rethinking to allow them to change with the times, with external forces, with daily demands, and with civic life in Christchurch.