Architecture experts back cathedral restoration

21:11, Apr 05 2013

Kieran Long - senior curator of contemporary architecture at the Victoria & Albert Museum

From what I can see, the three offer Christchurch a fairly mediocre architectural choice. The original cathedral is a rather squat and undistinguished thing, far from George Gilbert Scott's finest work.

However, to my eye, it evokes something of the place: not for NZ the soaring, hyperventilating perpendicular of Gilbert Scott's famous German church.

Instead Christchurch Cathedral had a stolid, no nonsense presence. That still feels appropriate to the admirable stoicism of the city's reaction to the tragedy of the earthquake.

The modern gothic reconstruction is architecturally illiterate, and looks from the image like something from the wild west - a kind of stage set or screen. The hexagonal facade treatment is bizarre and at odds with the ornamental logic of the gothic - the pattern and the rose window jar horribly. If built, it would be a travesty.

The modern version is too generic to be interesting. It is Renzo Piano-inflected high-tech, with strong shades of Richard Meier's (catholic) church in Rome built for the millennium. For me it is symbolically lightweight. Making a visitor attraction out of the campanile (implied by the spiral staircase visible behind the glass) seems gauche: only the church can decide whether it wants to subordinate the liturgical and symbolic resonances of the tower to the desire for tourists to have a fun experience.


Its clumsy modern gothic (visible in the broken gothic arch of the nave's form and the gossamer implications of the glassy campanile) is a kind of euphemistic architectural language that wants to appear rooted in history but in fact doesn't take it very seriously. The 'quotation' of the rose window is proof that there is little to no understanding of the symbolism or order of gothic architecture here.

The 20th century reaction to churches ruined by disaster was to preserve parts of the ruin. The Gedächtniskirche, for instance, became an extraordinary symbol of West Berlin and was Egon Eiermann's greatest work. It resonates today. The many churches ruined by the Blitz in London but retained as a reminder are still powerful. I am surprised there is not a proposal like this on the boards. 

I would say that the way to choose a new cathedral is not a beauty parade of three projects. The city must listen to the arguments of its leaders, artists and architects. The debate should be around liturgy, the role of religion in the city and country, the relationship between the cosmic order of existence with the civic values of our worldly political order. Only when that debate is had in public can a decision be made.

If I HAD to choose now, though, I would strongly advocate rebuilding the original cathedral. It is the only piece of architecture of these three that will have enduring meaning. It would speak of continuity, which is surely something valuable in a city like Christchurch today. The alternative would be to commission a serious artist to take on teh commission (a Peter Zumthor or a Glenn Murcutt, NOT a Zaha Hadid or a Frank Gehry) and allow them a decade to come up with the right answer to this difficult problem.

Professor Paul Walker, University of Melbourne, and Justine Clark, architectural critic and writer

Our first response is that the process is very problematic, and at this stage this is much more significant than any assessment of the 3 options based on 2 renders. We wonder what the vested interests are.

Given that, we would make the following comments on the three options.

Reconstruction. This option needs to be given serious consideration. This is a historically significant building by a great architect. The building has been very important in the cultural and spiritual life of the city. The comments attributed to the 'Anglican leadership' (whoever that is), implying that this would be a less safe option than others seem misleading. One wonders what expertise they have to make such comments - it seems they intend to preclude this option by irresponsible scaremongering.

Any reconstruction would involve strengthening and contemporary technology. We would also note that, reconstruction is often not seen as an appropriate architectural approach, but it has been successful with Rangiatea, for example.

Traditional option. This is a poor option architecturally, and seems to involve a great deal of redesign, especially of the roof. It erases a very significant event in the life of the city and is hard to see it as anything other than a weak imitation, with little to commend it in its own right.

Rebuild. The images are too schematic to make a serious assessment of the proposal. However, it looks derivative and to be a much lesser project than the original. Rebuild to a fresh design should be seriously considered, but in a much more rigorous manner than seems to be the case here.

These three alternatives are not the only options. There is a whole range of approaches that could be adopted, but NONE should erase entirely the physical memory of the original building and its fate in the earthquake. There are many existing, highly successful examples that Christchurch could draw lessons from - from Rafael Moneo's National Museum of Roman Art, to Tonkin Zulaikha Greer's Paddington Reservoir Gardens, to name just two.

The city's original Anglican leaders were audacious in commissioning the Cathedral in the 1860s, when Christchurch was a small town. They commissioned one of Britain's best architects and were patient in understanding that it would take decades to build it.

These days a large building does not take four decades to build, but our view is that it is worth taking more time to find the best outcome. The Anglican Church has already shown a courageous approach in commissioning Shigeru Ban's cardboard cathedral, which has the additional benefit of giving time and space to seriously work through the options for the permanent building. It would be great to see the church take an equally brave approach to this.  

This would entail writing a proper brief, setting out clearly and dispassionately the condition of the existing building so that design options could be seriously explored, including ways to build new in a manner that incorporates fabric from the nineteenth-century building. A proper brief would allow an international design competition, which we think would attract the best architects in Christchurch, New Zealand and the abroad. This would be a way to get a fitting successor to GG Scott's original building.

Any work needs to be preceded by a detailed Statement of Significance, which would understand the significance of the existing Cathedral in complex ways. Simply saying that each option will keep the rose window is not an adequate way to understand the heritage and cultural issues.

Overall we are very concerned about the process that seems to underway, and would urge the church and the city to be more exploratory, rigorous and open.

Elizabeth Farrelly - Australian architecture critic

The first thing to recognise is, it's not about the architecture, it's about the place. 

Having lived in Christchurch for a year (working for Miles Warren, as a year-out student) I know that the cathedral is Christchurch's symbolic heart. So the one blindingly obvious thing that the city must do - like, yesterday - to show defiance in the face of catastrophe, is to re-establish it as a healthy and ongoing presence, and in the most vivid possible way.

To leave it hanging like this, like a beast with its gust on the ground, seems to prolong the devastation and the sense of despair. I think it is indefensible. Restoration work should have started on day one.

So, to the three options. Admittedly, 19th century gothic was in any case 'fake'. But in this part of the world, it's the best approximation we have to a real sense of depth and mystery. The three options seem to me to show a gradient, from that depth and mystery, through cold architectural cleverness to outright Salt Lake City vulgarity.

To my mind, a sense of history is fundamental to any sense of place. This is especially true for Christchurch, which has always treasured its past, and most especially after such appalling trauma. The best way is therefore unquestionably the faithful restoration of that ancient gothicness - making only improvements that would intensify that experience (eg if there was a gargoyle or tower or stained glass window that should have been there but wasn't).

As evidence, look at the German towns that were bombed during WWII (eg Kassell). Those that took the opportunity to flood the town with then avant-garde Modern thinking and planning (eg Kassel's main street) now regret it, since the places have remained soulless, unpopular and unprofitable. The most sought after (and therefore most expensive) parts are the bits of ancient core that remain intact and re-invested in.

Ellis Woodman, architecture critic for British newspaper The Telegraph

I don't know that I can really offer a very informed view having never set foot in the country but my hunch would be that the straight restoration would be the most appropriate route, not least because the other alternatives on offer look painfully voguish. 

It is not as if the use of the building is changing any way and one might question the need for a church to communicate an idea of modernity that is surely only going to appear dated within a decade.  

The decision to reconstruct the Dresden Frauenkirche offers an obvious precedent - another building that fulfilled an emblematic role for its city and which was rightly returned to its original state.

The Press