Should city rebuild recreate English past?

LATIMER GARDENS: This neo-Gothic inspired design was created by architect James Carr for an urban village competition.
LATIMER GARDENS: This neo-Gothic inspired design was created by architect James Carr for an urban village competition.

Christchurch used to be called the most English city outside England. Should the rebuild recapture the style of the past or seek fresh design inspiration? How about Maori or international influences?

What does "English" look like, anyway? A meandering tree-lined river, with punts operated by well-dressed young men in blazers and straw boaters - yes, that could be a scene out of Wind in the Willows.

Some of our gardens certainly look English; oaks and elms flourish, and grow bigger and faster than they do in their country of origin.

NATIVE PLANTINGS: Te Kura Kaupapa in Spreydon is framed by native trees.
NATIVE PLANTINGS: Te Kura Kaupapa in Spreydon is framed by native trees.

Many buildings don't look English, nor do our streets. We don't have lots of terraced brick houses (there is one block, Blackheath Place, on Durham St). We don't have thatched cottages.

We do have a few English Arts and Crafts style houses. You won't see anything like an Edwardian villa in England, though. Drive through some Christchurch suburbs and you could almost be in parts of California. That's not surprising, as the Californian Bungalow style of housing took off in New Zealand in the 1920s.

Some buildings do, or did, look English. Christchurch's historic stone buildings, such as the Arts Centre (the former University), Christ's College, Christ Church Cathedral, The Provincial Council chambers, and an assortment of other 19th century buildings were designed in the neo-Gothic style popular in England at the time.

Many of them have now gone. Should we rebuild in a similar style?

Neo-Gothic architecture inspired architect James Carr's design for last year's urban village competition. Carr says original heritage architecture was adapted for local conditions, so it is not just like England.

To me his design looks elegant and harmonious. I also like exciting modern architecture. Of course, that may include elements of the past. I think we should retain and celebrate heritage (what remains or is salvageable). Let's have both. As long as it's well done.

Architect the late Peter Beaven was a big fan of neo- Gothic architecture, but sought to interpret it in a modern way, with "humanist architecture" as an antidote to what he saw as brash, out- of-scale buildings.

Some critics believe new developments should have nothing to do with England. They are especially scathing about "twee" place names ending with "Mews" or "Close".

Where developers pluck names from is a mystery. Sovereign Palms, for example, sounds more like a casino or hotel.

Instead, one critic told me, we should be looking for inspiration to southern California, with its sunny skies and laidback lifestyle, and buildings in pastel shades - which, of course, were influenced by Spanish architecture.

New Zealand cabbage trees are a hit in California, as Christchurch landscape designer Erik Ellis discovered. They are also popular in Britain.

We can surely have both exotic and native plants.

For design, why not look closer to home, at Maori and Polynesian culture?

English settlers enthusiastically chose names in Te Reo: Ranui, Rangi Ruru. Two recent street names that spring to mind on the Port Hills are Kakariki Lane and Ti Kouka Eco Lane. Why not give new subdivisions Maori names?

More Maori placenames in parts of central Christchurch will change its character, and why not? And I heartily endorse Te Waipounamu and Te Ika-a-Maui. They sound so much more exciting than stodgy old North and South Islands.

Maori design extends beyond decoration and names to buildings, the environment, and their function in the community. The traditional pa and the marae have important values we could all benefit from today. I would love to learn more.

Other cultures, too, form a living part of our city. The Chinese Lantern Festival brings a splash of colour. Welcome to the Year of the Horse. The horse is strong and powerful. As a tiger myself, I am looking forward to an exciting year.

Just as vibrant is the Indian Diwali festival later in the year.

We can learn a lot from Japan, where traditional wooden architecture resists earthquakes.

Closely allied to the issue of cultural identity is renewed debate over the flag. I don't mind the present one but let's not choose black for a new one. I like the red stars on a blue background.

Here's a great sounding initiative to help us share in cultural diversity: The Canterbury District Health Board, Greening the Rubble, Lincoln University, Maori groups, and members of Canterbury's 160 ethnic communities are partnering to create "Places of Tranquillity", six quiet garden spaces around the city where people can relax and recuperate.

Organiser Michelle Whitaker says the response has been positive, but the group still needs to find more sites.

Diverse cultures make Christchurch a richer, multi-ethnic city. We have a huge opportunity to learn from these cultures and reinterpret the best design elements to suit our own unique climate and conditions.

The Press