I believe in restoration. I think preserving historical buildings that helped shape a place is important, for us now and for future generations to be able to learn from, to find out where they came from and how these places came to be.
Christchurch Cathedral is one of these buildings. Built between 1864 and 1904, it goes right back to the first days of the city, when the Canterbury Association planned to build a colony around a cathedral similar to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England. The cathedral sits at the very centre, the heart of Christchurch, in its own square, the spire towering over the tourists and locals wandering below, a majestic stone reminder of the past and of the origins of this city.
But disaster has struck. On February 22, 2011, the spire and much of the bell tower fell down in a major earthquake. In June 2011 further damage was done when another major tremor hit, and the steel structure that was stabilizing the West wall collapsed against it and the beautiful rose window, destroying both.
And now Christchurch Cathedral is in ruins. Or is it?
If you go look at it, it does not appear to be in bad shape at all. I mean, ok, the front end looks a bit disastrous, but the rest seems pretty intact.
But of course, I’m no structural engineer.
So is it possible that Christchurch Cathedral could be restored to its former glory? And should it be?
I’m not actually sure I’m qualified to write about this, as it’s a very complex issue with many different sides and opinions, and I’m quite sure I haven’t heard them all and don’t fully understand all the angles. But I’m going to do my best to try to tell you what it’s all about.
Let’s start with a timeline.
- September 4, 2010 A magnitude 7.1 earthquake hits Christchurch.
The cathedral is one of many buildings that are damaged, and is closed for more than two weeks while its structural stability is evaluated.
- February 22, 2011 A magnitude 6.3 earthquake hits Christchurch.
The cathedral’s spire topples along with half the bell tower, and there is damage to the roof and supporting pillars. Thankfully, no one was killed inside the cathedral.
- June 13, 2011 A magnitude 6.4 earthquake hits Christchurch.
The West wall’s steel stabilizing structure pushes against it, destroying both the wall and the rose window.
- November 9, 2011 Christchurch Cathedral is deconsecrated.
- March 2, 2012 Bishop Victoria Matthews announces that the cathedral will be demolished.
- March 20, 2012 Demolition begins.
The stained glass is removed from nine windows and most of the remains of the tower are cleared.
- April 2012 The Restore Christchurch Cathedral group is formed.
Petitions to stop the demolition are begun by them and a group of engineers from the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering.
- November 15, 2012 An application for judicial review of the demolition is granted by the High Court.
This stops demolition. However, the judge later rules that the church has the right to demolish the cathedral. The decision is appealed by the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust (GCBT).
- May 2013 After a consultation, the church presents three options for consideration (more below).
- July 2013 The appeal by the GCBT is rejected.
The Church Property Trust (CPT) is free to demolish the cathedral once other outstanding issues are resolved.
- August 2013 The issue is taken to the Supreme Court.
However, in December 2013, the Supreme Court rejects the GCBT’s bid to preserve the cathedral.
- May 30, 2014 The stay of demolition is lifted by the High Court.
- August 2014 The GCBT launches a campaign showing images of the cathedral taken in June 2014.
It shows that the building is not, in fact, in ruins. The campaign hopes to gain support of the general public by showing the building from a different perspective than the ruined one that most people usually see.
So where do we stand now?
In May 2013 the Church Property Trust presented three main options (see photos and artists’ renderings of all three here):
1. Complete restoration
This was the first time that the Diocese had actually admitted that restoration was still an option. Completion of this work would bring the structure up to 100% of the building code requirements for a new building (structures being repaired after the earthquakes aim to be brought up to 67% of code). However, they estimated the cost of initial stabilisation and complete restoration to be between $104 million and $221 million, and taking 6-22 years.
The GCBT, along with an independent panel of engineers, has put the cost of the same work at $67 million, taking only 7 years. This does not include base isolation work (a common earthquake-proofing construction method used in other buildings), which has been deemed unnecessary by the engineers.
Many of the engineers are working pro bono, and have offered to continue to do so if restoration is to go ahead. Other tradespeople have also offered to work pro bono, or at cost.
The Diocese has had $40 million in insurance payouts. The GCBT has offered to raise the remaining $27 million.
2. A traditional looking replica built of timber
The cost of this is estimated at $85 million to $181 million, taking 5-22 years, but doesn’t seem to be under serious consideration by either the Diocese or the GCBT as its value in terms of cultural heritage would be questionable anyway.
3. Demolition and construction of a contemporary building
The Church Property Trust estimates the cost of this to be $56 million to $74 million, taking 4 to 9 years. From the start this has been the preferred option of the Diocese and of the Bishop, saying that as the cheapest option it will put the least amount of financial pressure on the Anglican community, many of whom are already under monetary hardship after the earthquakes. It’s also the quickest option, giving the people a new place of worship that can be used to ‘inspire and uplift’.
The CPT also says that the engineers’ report of the GCBT neglected to address all of the safety concerns of stabilisation and restoration of the building.
Opinions in the community are quite divided.
Some really want complete restoration, and can’t understand why we wouldn’t. With so many of Christchurch’s historic buildings now gone, people feel that we should take the opportunity to save this one. Not to mention the fact that a new building likely can’t be built for the $67 million it will cost to restore the original.
Others want a new cathedral built on a new site, and the old one to be turned into a monument or museum of some kind.
One person pointed out that many such structures change and over hundreds of years are demolished, then reconstructed, and even this one has already changed a lot in its relatively short lifespan. It’s been said that it’s time to let go of the old building and look towards the future.
There are considerations of the fact that this is not the only cathedral in the diocese that was damaged, and that money should be also spent on repairing other structures that have been disused since the earthquakes.
One man I met told me quite firmly that if they restore Christchurch Cathedral, he will never set foot in it again. “Those are really big bricks…” While up until this point my own instinct had been pro-restoration, this made me reconsider. If the people who use the cathedral won’t go in it, then it’s not serving its purpose. What good is it to have this beautiful old building if it’s not being used by the community it was originally built for?
It was later pointed out to me by my neighbour that this man may never have even set foot inside the cathedral. The fact that he said he won’t in the future doesn’t mean he was actually a regular member of the congregation! However, that could mean that others, who were regular users, might feel the same. The fear and emotion felt during and after the earthquakes still remain quite fresh in people’s minds, especially because there have been regular aftershocks in the years since. Many of the public are understandably reluctant to enter a building they might consider to be strongly at risk of collapse in another earthquake.
I was also told that there were problems with the original building; that the sight lines were never very good and this is a chance to improve upon such issues, which could be one reason for the Bishop being so adamant that constructing a new building is the right way to go.
As I said, I know there are a lot more angles to consider, but it’s not my home or my heritage and I was not here to experience the earthquakes and all of the emotional and economic toll they have taken on people. I can’t possibly understand it all, but these are the facts as I know them. If you have anything to add or correct, please do so in the comments!
If you want to do further reading on the subject, here are a few links to get you started.
What do you think? Should the Christchurch Cathedral be demolished and a new one built in its place? Or should we be making the effort to preserve this important piece of Kiwi heritage?