Christchurch Town Hall's fate unclear

UNANIMOUS: The city council has voted unanimously to save the Christchurch Town Hall.
UNANIMOUS: The city council has voted unanimously to save the Christchurch Town Hall.

The Town Hall's fate remains far from clear. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

In Christchurch, nearly two and a half years after the February 22 earthquake, you can still feel that strange sensation of walking along streets you have not walked along, or even looked at, for years.

On June 7, more of the cordon lifted around the north side of the so-called rebuild zone. You can walk or drive from Manchester St into Kilmore St, heading west, past what are now urban fields fringed by wild flowers. There is no sign of what was here before, or what will be here next.

You have to prompt your memory.

The Repertory Theatre stood here from 1929. It was built as the Radiant Hall a year or two before New Regent St, with similar Spanish Mission elements and designed by the same architect, Francis Willis. You remember seeing Joanna Newsom play here in 2010, when a queue snaked down Kilmore St. The concert was shifted at late notice from the Harbour Light theatre in Lyttelton - and that building has gone too.

This is Christchurch, post- quake. After all this time, you are still writing about buildings, thinking about buildings. Their histories, their personalities. And, occasionally, their futures.

This is one of those occasions. Across Colombo St, there is the Christchurch Town Hall, stranded behind fences.

The February 22 earthquake closed the building and now it sits as a time capsule of entertainment events that never quite made it to Christchurch. Santana's "Guitar Heaven 2011" tour poster is on the northeast wall. Behind smashed perspex, there is a sun-faded poster for a show called Dirty Dusting, directed by David McPhail and starring the unlikely trio of Lynda Milligan, Suzanne Paul and Rima Te Wiata. In the parallel world in which Christchurch never had earthquakes, this might have entertained you at the James Hay Theatre on May 28, 2011.

You can come close to the Town Hall again, but you still can't go inside. There is wire fencing, the inevitable shipping container, a saw horse, a couple of chairs, a smashed bottle.

To the untrained eye, the building still looks as solid and imposing as it ever did.

The roses are overgrown, the posters on bollards just scraps. Temporary life goes on next door, on the vacant site where the Crowne Plaza hotel stood for more than 20 years, designed to complement the Town Hall.

In this interim period, the Town Hall still looks like permanence, and the Gap Filler office and the Pallet Pavilion look as though they will be here just as long as we need them. It seems that we still do. Christchurch recently put its money where its mouth is and raised $80,000 to keep the Pallet Pavilion open for another year.

On this west side of the Town Hall, where it faces Victoria St, you notice boarded-up windows, and a sign above a door into the building that reads "Artiste entrance". Not "artist", but "artiste".

Head southeast, across the river, and into Victoria Square. There you can see the Town Hall at its worst. This is the cold side, where autumn leaves are banked up and the paths are cracked and uneven. This is where the land has sunk.

It is a clear June morning and utterly silent. Look south and watch as another office building is slowly dismantled, casting fewer shadows across Armagh St and Victoria Square.

We are progressing on the basis that it will be as it was," says Sir Miles Warren, on the phone from Ohinetahi.

In November, the Christchurch City Council voted unanimously to save the Town Hall. The repair bill was expected to come to $127.5 million with $69m coming from insurance.

It was a big step in the city's post-quake recovery. The council was told that "there is no visible damage to the auditorium's acoustics," according to acoustic engineers, Marshall Day. Acoustician Sir Harold Marshall was present, as were the original architects, Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney. Marshall Day expected some remedial acoustic work would be required, but it would not know how much until further testing was completed.

It was agreed that the entire complex would be saved and brought up to 100 per cent of new building standards. The upgrade to 100 per cent accounted for the gap between the insurance payout and the total bill, according to Paul Anderson, the council's general manager of corporate services.

Substantial land remediation was needed. An architectural statement prepared for the council said "lateral spread adjacent to the river and a significant liquefiable layer under the building" had seriously damaged the ground floor and foundations. The Limes Room had separated from the rest of the building and the floor level of the auditorium varied by 400mm from north to south.

Part of the thinking behind keeping the entire complex was to retain the Town Hall's "sense of place", said heritage consultant Jenny May.

In her report to the council, May called it "the most significant, internationally recognised civic building in New Zealand" and "the most important secular built landmark in Christchurch".

But how would full repair fit with the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) blueprint for the city, released four months earlier? That blueprint planned a new performing acts precinct "in the event that the Town Hall cannot be repaired".

For the council, agreeing to fix it was the easy part, politically. For some, the vote also looked like a red flag waved at Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. His response seemed predictable: claiming that the damage to the Town Hall was far worse than described, he implied he might overrule the council's decision and order a demolition.

Has Brownlee changed his view on the future of the Town Hall? He did not respond to requests for comment.

In November, the council said there was still more work to be done, including geotech reports on the land.

Warren and Christchurch architectural historian Jessica Halliday, who both presented submissions on the importance of repairing the Town Hall, were brought into the council's tent as part of a heritage advisory team.

Warren is amused that the original architect of a daring modernist building can now be considered a heritage architect. The process took just 40 years.

A Christchurch City Council spokeswoman says a council workshop was due to consider options on May 28, but staff "were asked to include some more information on the different options in the report". A new date is still to be set for the report to go to council.

In the meantime, Halliday says, "full restoration is what we are hoping and expecting".

Simple question: why does the Christchurch Town Hall matter?

"It is the most important building in New Zealand in the second half of the 20th century," Warren says. "It is the only building in New Zealand of that time that had an international reputation, largely due to its acoustics."

Well, he was the architect. But other experts tend to agree.

"There may be a few contenders," Halliday says. "It depends on where you're standing."

In her view, architect John Scott's Futuna Chapel in Karori, Wellington, and some work by the Group Architects in Auckland could compete for the title, but a key difference is the social value and public function of the Christchurch Town Hall.

"It has very much been this public space that we've all had a stake in," she says. "If you grew up here, it punctuated certain times in your life. There were science fairs, public meetings that my parents dragged me to, performances, graduations and gigs, so many gigs."

The New Zealand citizenship ceremony was held in the Town Hall.

"It was where people were welcomed and introduced to the city," Halliday says. "It was ours."

It is because of the history of these very ordinary functions that Warren describes the Town Hall as "the city's living room".

There is also a sense of ownership. Of the three important Christchurch buildings whose precise future is still to be announced, the others being the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals, only the Town Hall belongs entirely to the wider public.

You could even see the long period of public fundraising that preceded the Town Hall's construction as an early form of crowdsourcing, similar to the public appeal that has kept the Pallet Pavilion open.

Beyond its social function, the Town Hall is valuable to Halliday as architectural history. It is "the apex" of a generation of post-war Christchurch modernism that has been very badly affected by the earthquakes.

What is left of the so-called Christchurch School of architecture? There are university buildings, such as Warren and Mahoney's College House, the Harewood Crematorium and CoCA, designed by the firm of Minson, Henning-Hanson and Dines, but so many modernist commercial and public buildings have disappeared from the city.

The work of Warren's flamboyant contemporary Peter Beaven has been "wiped off the face of the earth," Halliday says.

Well, almost. She knows of an early Beaven building still standing - a small office block at 159 Manchester St. Other than that, just his apartments and townhouses remain.

Given that so much of this modernism has gone, and with little of the fanfare that has surrounded the loss of Gothic buildings, the full repair of the Town Hall becomes even more important.

There are many layers of history attached to it. Warren remembers its opening in 1972 as a critical moment in the Christchurch story.

"Before that, the only place we could meet was the King Edward Barracks, for God's sake, or the old Civic Theatre."

Warren can't help comparing the relative ease of the process in the 1960s with "the extremely longwinded, lugubrious process" of the present day, with near- endless discussions and reports, committees and council meetings.

"It goes on and on and on," Warren says.

"But that's the way life is these days. It doesn't only apply to buildings."

The Press