Professor warns of a 'shabby' future

PAUL FOCAMP
Last updated 12:36 12/07/2014
jonathan mane-wheoki
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki

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An architectural historian who began a love affair with Christchurch in the 1960s has deep concerns about the rebuild. He talks to PAUL FOCAMP.

The visitor relaxes on an Armagh St park bench and gestures to a section of Avon River where, decades ago, Ngai Tahu disembarked and set up camp for the summer.

His gaze sweeps past statues of Queen Victoria and Captain James Cook and rests on the "grandeur" of the Town Hall and its restaurant that extended over the river - a "magical" place to spend an evening, he recalls.

University of Auckland Professor of Fine Arts Jonathan Mane-Wheoki loves sitting on that bench in Victoria Square and has done so many times even though he is now based in Auckland and Wellington.

Te Papa's Head of Arts and Visual Culture and architectural historian bonded with Christchurch when he first arrived in the 1960s.

"I fell in love with the Canterbury landscape, the unique character, the colonial Victorian provincialism, the natural environment, the space, the light, the atmosphere.

"I loved the richness of the architectural heritage, the gardens and the landscape of Christchurch, the traces of Ngai Tuahuriri [hapu of Ngai Tahu] in the land. For me it had all the wonder of a foreign country."

The student became an art history lecturer and architectural historian at the University of Canterbury delighting in and regaling thousands with the variety of heritage buildings the genteel city presented.

He left for a job with Te Papa in 2004 but still visited Christchurch two to three times a year and his most recent nostalgic visit coincided with his appointment as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

In 2011 Mane-Wheoki was "devastated" by the Canterbury earthquakes and the greater destruction wrought by demolition teams on Christchurch's heritage.

"Bloody cowboys went in and bulldozed a whole lot of stuff that shouldn't have gone such as the Bell's Arcade [in city mall]."

Designed by Victorian architect William Barnett Armson, it was demolished to hasten the arrival of the container mall - "a flimsy reason".

The loss of heritage had left Christchurch somewhat bereft, Mane-Wheoki says.

"I hear people say over and over, I don't know where I am [when in the city]."

Heritage "anchors you in terms of identity".

"It gives you a sense of place. It's like looking in a mirror. It tells you who you are."

The visitor who fell so deeply for the Mainland capital is now concerned for the future.

With so much heritage demolished, Mane-Wheoki says there is an inevitable sameness to the designs that are replacing the city's previously diverse architecture.

"What is happening now is that a whole lot of glass, concrete and steel boxes are being built that will be gleaming new for about 5 to 10 years but will start to look shabby at about the same time in 10 years."

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Christchurch will have the "largest collection of glass and concrete boxes in the world".

"The glass curtain wall stuff going up looks flimsy."

There is a "blankness, blandness" to many of the neo-modernist designs appearing that are "economical and compliant".

If the city succumbs to a neo- modernist monotone it could find itself stuck with its boring, impersonal appearance, warns Mane-Wheoki.

"That will be its signature for ever and a day, until it is challenged by a new architectural aesthetic in 20-30 years time."

Modernism was criticised late last century for producing boring cities of impersonal skyscrapers and modernists took cover from accusations that their preoccupation with functional forms marginalised the place of beauty in architecture's foundation triangle of strength, usefulness and aesthetics.

Costs of building in an earthquake zone have put a further emphasis on the first two parts of the building triumvirate.

Mane-Wheoki says if the rebuild focus is on strength and utility at the expense of beauty "we run the risk of monotony".

"We need to have this debate because losing variety in our architecture contributes to social discord."

Tenement and terrace housing was pulled down and replaced with high-rise flats in Britain which became "high-rise slums" and dangerous places to live. They are now being "dynamited", he says.

British architectural commentator Jonathan Glancey touched upon a problem with Anglo-Saxon masculinity and the rebuild. Seeking beauty is viewed with suspicion, is it seen as less than manly in New Zealand?

Mane-Wheoki agrees with Glancey pointing out that Kiwi men are reluctant to discuss beauty because it runs counter to the pioneering "man of the earth, good [keen] bloke" elements of Kiwi culture.

But he has faith that Christchurch and its citizens will get over their current fatalism and exhaustion and return to debating architecture and aesthetics.

"Christchurch has always been a place of argument. You can hardly do anything in Christchurch without there being some kind of rumpus."

When the new art gallery was mooted there were arguments about the location and then there was vigorous debate about the design. "There seems to be a strong concentration in Christchurch, you can't imagine those debates in Wellington or Auckland.

"What it does tell you is that Christchurch people do care about their environment, they do care about their city."

FAB FIVE
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki's five favourite buildings in Christchurch:

1 St Michael and All Angels, Oxford Tce: A personal favourite from my long association with the parish (as parishioner and church warden), an impressive interpretation of the Gothic style in timber construction. The beautiful Mountfort lychgate and campanile survive from the earlier church. Essential heritage.

2. Manchester Unity Building, cnr Manchester and Worcester streets: A beautifully proportioned and detailed brutalist structure, eclectic in its respectful borrowings from modernist masters - the Y shaped pilotis from Pier Luigi Nervi, for example - and respectfully acknowledging another high-rise early modernist building, the Luttrells' New Zealand Express Company Building at the next intersection in Manchester Street. A grievous loss.

3. Post Office, Cathedral Square: The building that announced that the provincial government system had given way to the central government, in a cheerfully eclectic Palladian centre and ends composition and exuberant clock tower. Essential heritage.

4. Great Hall, Arts Centre: One of Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort's greatest designs, this a Christchurch's pantheon to some of the most famous and influential members of the city's intelligentsia. Essential heritage.

5. Bell's Arcade (Anderson's Foundry), Cashel St: A jewel of a facade cleverly combining an Italian Renaissance palazzo style with Gothic detailing, and one of the great commercial architect, William Barnett Armson's finest designs. A grievous loss.

- The Press

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