Future Chch: Mini-Melbourne or maxi-Ashburton?

PHILLIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 16:00 31/05/2014
Justice and Emergency Services precinct
FINISHED BY 2017: An artist's impression of the Justice and Emergency Services precinct.

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The Rebuild

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Will the new Christchurch be a mini-Melbourne or a maxi-Ashburton? Architect Peter Marshall of Warren and Mahoney tells PHILIP MATTHEWS about his vision for the city.

Architecture has become the art of the possible in post-quake Christchurch. Should we be surprised?

A new emphasis on the practical and the pragmatic, on engineering solutions over big aesthetic statements, was noted by Australian writer Peter Robb when he visited Christchurch on the third anniversary of the 2011 earthquake. In a controversial essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, Robb wrote that talking to the architects from the Christchurch office of Warren and Mahoney was more like talking to engineers than artists.

Again, no surprise. As Warren and Mahoney managing director Peter Marshall explains, every dollar that must be spent below ground is a dollar than cannot be spent above ground. Times have changed.

Take the Transitional Cathedral, on which Warren and Mahoney collaborated with Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. "Even though it's a relatively lightweight structure, the footings and the amount of reinforcing that went in probably added another 5 per cent to the overall cost, another 15-20 per cent to the structural cost," Marshall says. "That's money that you didn't need pre-earthquake. As an architect, I've got to take that off my facade."

It would be simplistic to call this a battle between the engineers and the artists, with both reined in by budgets, but a comparison with Napier in 1931 could tell us something. Napier was famously reborn as the art deco city. What architectural style is dominant now and how will it shape Christchurch?

Architects talk about "neo- modernism" as a current style, a return to the straight lines and simplicity of modernist architecture after the frivolity and excess of post- modernism.

In Christchurch terms, a classic Warren and Mahoney office building from the 1960s, like the demolished AMI (formerly SIMU) on Latimer Square, was modernist. The Telecom building which still stands behind the old Post Office, designed in the early 1990s by Griffiths Moffat and Partners, was post-modernist. Look at its caramel colours and show-off columns and be thankful Christchurch did not have its big earthquake in 1992.

And now, neo-modernism?

"You could call it that," Marshall says. "I'm hesitant to put a title on it. A walk down Victoria St or Durham St gives you a sense of it or the Stranges building on High St."

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Buildings will be visually lighter, more transparent. Glass is used more. What Marshall calls "a great tradition of concrete work in Christchurch" is superseded by steel construction: "Cost and speed become the drivers."

Commercial buildings are often designed inside out. Start with how people intend to work in a space. You like natural light from floor-to- ceiling glass but temper it with louvres or grills.

"Christchurch is not a Napier. Napier was almost about pattern- making. There is a broader set of parameters now.

"There is more science and technology behind it. There are some very sophisticated clients and tenants who have done a lot of work up and down New Zealand. They are bringing a lot of the current learnings, as we all are."

***

It can be hard to imagine the shining city at the end of all this if you still feel stuck in the mire of the rebuild, watching old buildings come down and waiting for new ones to go up. But Marshall is one of those charged with thinking about the finished product, not just as the head of a big architectural firm but also as a key contributor to the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) that famously produced a blueprint in less than 100 days in 2012.

Pretend you last saw Christchurch around the middle of 2010 and will return in a decade from now. Will you recognise the place? Will it feel like Christchurch, whatever your definition of that might have been?

"It will be a very modern city," he says. "There will be moments of the existing heritage buildings and older buildings. People rightly decry some of the loss but we cannot lose sight of everything we still have. The Arts Centre, the Canterbury Museum, Christ's College, the Isaac Theatre Royal facade. On and on it goes.

"It's hard this transition we're going through, of losing what we had. There is open blank space and the remnants of old buildings. It's just this time. But come back in a decade. It can only be really good for the city. I'm a firm believer in that."

Perhaps architects must be optimistic by definition. They build for futures. They help to create futures.

They sit behind banks of computer screens in four quiet rooms on two floors of a brand new building on Southwark St, just south of central Christchurch.

Warren and Mahoney moved here five weeks ago after three years in nomadic mode. The 2011 earthquake pushed the firm out of its Victoria St premises. For a time it was based in the Brevet Club at the Air Force Museum before drifting further out to William Pickering Drive.

A familiar Christchurch story. Staff liked the safety and the car- parking and the sense that nothing was going to fall down. But then the itch returns to be central: "We quickly realised the fundamental reasons why cities exist."

When Marshall joined the firm back in 1985, it was still led by founding architects Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney, who were instrumental in shaping the look of post-war Christchurch. The firm was once described as "one genius (Warren) towing along 50 other people". Since Warren's retirement in 1994, a sense of strong personality has been replaced by a more structured, anonymous corporate style.

Marshall became managing director in 2008 and is one of 10 directors and a 7 per cent shareholder. A quiet man with a dry sense of humour, he has been the firm's spokesman since the quakes, a role he seems reluctant about. Principal architect Richard McGowan has emerged as another key thinker and his opinion piece, "What Will the New Christchurch Look Like"?, on the firm's website, is a useful guide to the style of the city.

McGowan asks the alarming question, "Will Christchurch be a mini-Melbourne or a maxi- Ashburton?"

The light, flexible and damage- resistant design we see has seismic environments in mind. But there is also an economic dimension. McGowan writes that buildings have generally been commissioned in times of prosperity, such as the end of the 20th century, "the post-war wool boom or the flashy 1980s". The historical layers of Christchurch match these eras.

The challenge is that one of the biggest building programmes in New Zealand's history is happening "in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, in a period of austerity". This influences the look of buildings as well as the cost of labour and materials, favouring designs "that are quick to build and construction methods that promote speed".

There is a warning in McGowan's conclusion. "We must understand that the city's aspiration for quality and its ability to pay for it remains a fundamental concern" and "as architects, we see this disconnect as critical - an invisible gap between what is expected and what is possible, which in some instances may not be able to be bridged".

The original Warren and Mahoney firm grew during one of those periods of prosperity - the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The Christchurch Town Hall, which opened in 1972, was both the culmination of that phase and the commission that helped the firm jump from regional to national.

Now there are offices in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Sydney. The rebuild has pushed numbers in Christchurch from 50 to 70 but in the long term, the focus is on Auckland and Australasia.

A "one office" philosophy is another way of saying that work space is increasingly virtual. Christchurch's Justice and Emergency Services Precinct was "documented" in Auckland while a team based in Queenstown does the Arts Centre restoration.

"But you still need guys on the ground. That's why we had to build up our team here."

As managing director, Marshall specialises in forecasting and juggling: "For us, the development and rebuild of Christchurch is running in parallel with really strong growth in Auckland. It's keeping those two in balance. The rebuild is probably a decade for us, then it will plateau off."

Run through the list. There is the 40,000 square-metre Justice and Emergency Services Precinct with Warren and Mahoney as lead architect. That should open in 2017.

There is the Christchurch Bus Exchange, set for 2015. There are restorations of the Isaac Theatre Royal, the Arts Centre and the Christchurch Town Hall. The massive Awly building on Durham St should be done by 2016.

There is preliminary work for the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) on costings for the Metro Sports Facility. The pre-quake Oxford Apartments could be restrengthened depending on "an insurance dialogue", which is a very Christchurch euphemism. The firm is also "talking to some people about housing in the east frame".

It is also the architect for the Anglican Diocese but the church's finances make that a limited role.

"We have done drawings for a development for St Johns, next to the Transitional Cathedral. Again that's come into some funding issues so it's on hold."

As for the original cathedral, "even within the practice, there are healthy debates". If the church does press on with a new build, it probably won't look like the controversial Warren and Mahoney design released to the public last year: "More work will be needed to be done, I think."

***

The Transitional Cathedral has become a rebuild symbol internationally, partly because of the reputation of Shigeru Ban and partly because of the spirit of hope or renewal it embodies. But where are the other great buildings?

Be wary of icons. Only months after the 2011 earthquake, Warren and Mahoney released a document of "10 thoughts" for Christchurch that could be seen as early thinking about its possible role in the post-quake city. One of those thoughts was that "icons are not the answer".

Three years on, Marshall is still wary of the buzzword "iconic" but thinks that "a city the size of Christchurch does need one or two buildings that stand up for themselves, that say to the city and the world that we are the second-biggest city in New Zealand".

Nothing announced so far will be that building. He expects that the Convention Centre and the new library will be buildings of "some gravitas, some presence, some permanence".

The library is in the hands of Architectus and Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen, but Warren and Mahoney was in one of the consortiums pitching for the Convention Centre and "some initial thoughts have been put together".

But the centre of town is still largely imaginary. In the absence of activity, law firms and nightlife has clustered on Victoria St.

"What's happening on Victoria St will definitely have an impact. We understood that even when we were doing the blueprint. We talked about whether to place restrictions and the consensus seemed to be that it was a bridge too far, that we were putting too many impositions on the market and the city.

"My take is that there's going to be a churn. Everyone's bedding down. Between now and the end of the year, you'll find most decisions have been made for people and leases are in place."

In another four, five or six years, the "lease churn" will start and those firms will move closer in. He speaks from experience: Southwark St is a temporary home while Warren and Mahoney thinks about something permanent in the centre.

Which is where? The centre of town is heading west, which started before the earthquakes when the Christchurch City Council left Tuam St for Hereford St. The river becomes more important. The blueprint's boundaries of Hagley Park and Manchester St only formalised the trend.

"The trick is always how you visualise a city."

The map he has with him is the map of the Christchurch blueprint with its anchor projects and green frames. It was released almost two full years ago and seems from this distance to have marked a turning point between the grassroots optimism of the "share an idea" expo and the painfully slow rebuild that has left many less inspired.

"I can see why people feel that," he says. "We don't have the same sense."

Yes, Antony Gough putting his Terrace development on pause sent "an unfortunate signal" and it is true that decision-making on some anchor projects is taking longer than Marshall would like. He would have hoped for announcements, plans and timelines for the Metro Sports Facility, the Convention Centre and the library by now, to provide some certainty.

"In the market, there will be more announcements to be made on buildings on the west side of the river."

By the end of the year, a few good news moments should pull Christchurch out of its gloom. But how much will the finished city resemble the blueprint that was boldly announced in 2012?

Well, it was always understood that it was "a framework, an idea" by which Christchurch could reinvent itself. The fundamentals remain in place but over time the "green frame" bordering the redrawn central city has been renamed the "east frame". The difference matters, as suddenly it seems to be a housing development.

"I'm not surprised that there is reassessment of the east frame," Marshall says. "It won't be that lovely large green swathe. There will be more development. They are also reconsidering how to move forward with the south frame in terms of land ownership, purchasing and building. But fundamentally I'm sure they will keep that east-west link through there."

He agrees that the east frame was originally sold to the public as a Hagley Park of the east, but if you look carefully at the documents, the underlying tone was always that "if the city demanded it and growth was there, we can utilise that space".

Now picture that hypothetical visitor returning after a decade, heading to what was once the centre: Cathedral Square. The frame happens to the east, retail to the south, something cultural to the north and law and commerce to the west. What is here, in the middle?

"I can't see the cathedral being restored but whether it's pulled down and recreated or whether it's a new one, I don't mind. The important thing is that it's done properly and done well, because in that location you can't afford to do anything but."

The Square has been tricky in other ways. Warren and Mahoney's office building to replace the partially deconstructed BNZ at the south end is "on a holding pattern".

Cristo Ltd owns that site "and it got too hard for them," Marshall says.

"That is a classic example of investors suddenly having to learn how to be developers. There is a very big difference. A few people have been able to make the transition work but most haven't."

Contrast that with Richard Diver on Victoria St: "He was always a developer and he understands the levers you have to pull to make something happen".

For Marshall, the excitement of the new trumps nostalgia. And remember how 2013 and then 2014 were going to be the year of the rebuild? Revise that date.

"At the start of 2015, there will be a different sense of where Christchurch is at. The city will change and people will not recognise the Square when it is complete. It will be so different from what it was."

- The Press

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