CEO unfazed by Arts Centre restoration

JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 13:04 03/11/2012
Chief executive officer Christchurch Arts Centre Andre Lovatt
Chief executive officer Christchurch Arts Centre Andre Lovatt

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Seven years and $290 million to restore one of Christchurch's most beloved pieces of heritage architecture would be enough to intimidate any chief executive.

But new Arts Centre boss Andre Lovatt seems unfazed. "Engineers like projects," he says.

Lovatt, 37, is three weeks into his post after being appointed by the Arts Centre Trust in June.

Where once the Arts Centre chief executive role was managing tenants and tourists, Lovatt is tasked with reinforcing and restoring the centre so it survives the next few hundred years - regardless of whether another major earthquake hits.

Discussing the finer details in his first media interview since arriving in Christchurch, one could easily mistake Lovatt for being in the role for years, not weeks.

He is measured, articulate, and well-versed in management speak, such as "going forward" and "we'll get to that level of detail".

While not the excitable type, Lovatt appears genuinely passionate about the task ahead. He has thought of little else since his father emailed him the job advertisement back in April - not only in terms of the restoration, but "re- imagining" what the Arts Centre could be once the repairs are complete.

"There's so much to tell about the Arts Centre that hasn't been told yet. People need to realise what we've got. A successful outcome for me would be a greater appreciation," he says.

Before the earthquakes, the Arts Centre was easily among the top heritage architecture complexes in Christchurch and, arguably, the country.

The original site of the University of Canterbury, and Christchurch Girls' and Boys' High Schools, its early buildings were designed by Canterbury's "founding architect" Benjamin Mountfort.

Post-earthquakes - with so much Christchurch heritage condemned or demolished - the centre assumes even greater importance.

"It is truly a beautiful place," says the man who will save it.

Lovatt grew up in Christchurch and completed his civil engineering training at University of Canterbury. He has spent the last 10 years with engineering and design giant Arup Group (operating revenues in 2011: NZ$1.8b).

With the title of Office Leader at Arup's Singapore operation, he increased staff numbers from 80 to more than 400 and led projects that scream modern and money, including the $6.7b Marina Bay Sands waterfront resort and the $1.8b Singapore Sports Hub, which includes a 55,000-seat sport stadium with a moveable roof.

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By those financial standards, the Arts Centre project might seem like rectifying an agreeable old shed. But the job had another attraction. He could bring his young family home.

Lovatt has returned to Christchurch several times since his parents' Locksley Ave, Dallington, home was damaged beyond repair in September 2010.

Lovatt says he and his wife, Kate, started questioning if they and daughters Noor, 7, and Kiri, 4, were in "the right place".

"Over time I was very conscious the response to that question was no, rather than yes. We've always had a very deep-seated desire to return, and for me [a desire] to return in a meaningful capacity and to contribute [to the rebuild]. The Arts Centre is the perfect opportunity," he says.

Lovatt's curriculum vitae earned him the tick from the Arts Centre Trust Board - "You could really sense his passion for the site, his commitment to come home. His mix of engineering skills and heritage background was the icing on the cake," says chair Jen Crawford.

Lovatt's heritage experience includes a fire safety upgrade to the Theatre Royal in Christchurch, redevelopment of the Swan Brewery in Perth, and the design stage of Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre redevelopment in Singapore, where Britain held Japanese war crime trials after World War II.

Meanwhile, some former Arts Centre cornerstone tenants, perhaps eyeing a potential return to the site, have already given him a tentative nod as well.

Court Theatre Trust chair Felicity Price says, "It was our home for a very long time. I think the Court and Arts Centre were seen as one. With the new chief executive, it looks like we can look forward to a new era."

The Court is operating out of a converted grain store in Addington and hopes to return to the central city in five to six years.

Price says she isn't ruling out a return to the Arts Centre, but the preference is to join the Arts Precinct outlined in the Government's central city blueprint. "We're not closed to any location," she says.

Dux de Lux owner Richard Sinke, who wants to return to the Student Union building once repairs are complete, spoke to Lovatt on the phone and says he appears "much more open to discussions".

Crawford and Lovatt agree this openness was a conscious decision. Lovatt's predecessor Ken Franklin announced his resignation in April citing personal reasons after a four-year tenure peppered with conflict.

The most notable were plans to build a $24.3 million national music conservatorium on a car park on the site, which sparked a public outcry and soured relationships with tenants, including the Court Theatre and Dux de Lux.

The plans eventually fell over after independent commissioners found the conservatorium, designed by Sir Miles Warren, would harm the Arts Centre's heritage values and denied consent.

After the September 2010 earthquake, the Arts Centre re-opened to rumblings that some buildings appeared unsafe. Tensions peaked in March 2011 when Franklin announced he had to evict all tenants, excluding Canterbury Cheesemongers, and lay off more than half the Arts Centre staff due to the damage.

The evictions sparked a legal challenge from seven former tenants - and another war with Sinke.

The Dux de Lux owner commissioned his own engineering reports that found only moderate building damage, then unsuccessfully started an online petition to reinstate his lease. This died away without effect.

To Franklin's credit, however, important work was under way and much of it has been unrecognised. First, after the September 2010 quake, Franklin negotiated new insurance cover for the Arts Centre. It was needed within months because the February 2011 quake did the damage. In August, with Franklin in a care-taking role, the Arts Centre settled its $156m insurance claim with Anzvar, now called ACS Ltd.

Without the insurance cover, the payout would have been closer to $20m, meaning the Arts Centre could have faced a similar situation to Christ Church Cathedral, Lovatt says.

Meanwhile, the Arts Centre was lucky to escape strong-arming from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera). It issued Section 45 "make safe" notices to the Chemistry, Observation and Clock towers, but not a single Section 38 or 39 dangerous building/demolition order.

In the end, the Arts Centre demolished one building - a circa 1960s addition above the former Boys' High School swimming pool (site of an ATM machine, woodwork studio and Fudge Cottage). Its movement during aftershocks was damaging the Category 1 heritage buildings on either side and its removal revealed a magnificent pool verandah.

Lovatt has $156m in hand and about $14m in donations, including significant contributions from the Canterbury Earthquakes Heritage Fund, the Aotearoa Foundation and Fletcher Construction.

An insurance claim with Lumley over the Registry additions and Student Union (Dux de Lux) building may be settled by the end of the year.

So, there's a shortfall and while Lovatt won't reveal all of the details for fear of compromising negotiations with Lumley, a round figure of $50m is probably needed.

This would need "a lot more thought", Lovatt says. He is unlikely to seek funding from the Christchurch City Council or the Government: "We stand on our own feet in every sense. Every dollar is an independent dollar," Lovatt says.

Some ideas to close the gap included international fundraising, growing the current fund through investment, and securing some commercial return through a progressive re-opening of the centre as restoration was completed, Lovatt says. To the delight of many stallholders, Lovatt plans to open part of Market Square for summer.

"We don't want to hold people at the boundary for too long. We want to bring people back to the site as quickly as we can, in a safe way," he says.

The Registry is scheduled for re- opening by the middle of next year, and the Clock Tower, Great Hall and Student Union building will follow in 2015.

The $35m three-year restoration of the Great Hall, one of the oldest and most historically significant buildings, started a year ago. The next five years would see "the lion's share" of the restoration job done.

While Lovatt says the focus now is on the restoration, not tenants, he recognised the opportunity to "re-set" what came before.

"We are talking about this process as re-imagining what the Arts Centre can be," he says. "It will look the same and feel the same. In the minds of some before [the quakes], it wasn't really evolving. I'm keeping a view on the need to continually evolve the experience and continue to surprise people and make it fun."

Deciding the types of tenants was still some way off ("we'll get to that level of detail") but cafes, restaurants and performing arts would be firmly in the mix.

Lovatt says he plans to involve the community in those broad decisions. "What we do here will always be carefully watched and we need to be mindful of the views of others," he says.

But first, the restoration work. Simply put, it involves making the upper levels of the buildings lighter and installing steel bracing to resist earthquakes.

Seismic strengthening that is also visually sensitive is more expensive - and the most historically significant buildings will be prioritised, Lovatt says.

Most of the day-to-day work is preserving the stone, which requires skilled stonemasons and tradesmen. "For people who are used to working with timber and concrete, stone is very different. You can damage it quite quickly," he says.

The most substantial piece of work to be carried out is on the Engineering block, the Court Theatre site. It has not been decided if the Observatory tower, destroyed in the February quake, will be restored.

"It's hard seeing how bad the damage is. The realisation of what needs to be done," Lovatt says. "You want to do things quickly. You want to do things faster. But there are real constraints. We can't do it all at once. We can confidently run two or three major contracts at any one time."

By good luck, most of the land on the site, excluding under the Student Union (Dux de Lux) building is geotechnically sound. An ongoing seismic strengthening programme under Franklin and predecessors also helped prevent further destruction.

Jen Crawford says as far as the Arts Centre Trust is concerned, demolishing the historic buildings on the site was never on the cards.

Crawford says there had been "misconceptions" about management and past Art Centre Trust boards - including that it is publicly owned - which she attributed to public passion for the centre.

The Anderson Lloyd law partner says a "conscious decision" had been made to be more open and "bring the community along with us" in the coming years.

"We believe we've got an opportunity now to open up, tell a story during the restoration phase and where we are headed into the future, [and] explain our decisions along the way," she says.

"I think the city needs that. We have lost a lot of heritage stock. We can save this place."?

- © Fairfax NZ News

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