Careful carving recreating Arts Centre

WILL HARVIE
Last updated 11:54 12/04/2014

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"Carving is the best part of this work" says Sam Sleeman, one of seven stonemasons restoring the Arts Centre of Christchurch.

The journeyman grew up in Scotland, apprenticed in Dorset, England, worked on St Paul's Cathedral and found his way to Christchurch after the earthquakes. He's settled in Christchurch now, with a Belgian girlfriend and can expect at least five more years of work at the Arts Centre, if his visa doesn't expire.

His carvings are in Oamaru limestone, the soft white stone that makes up the door frames, window frames, columns, pinnacles and other decorative elements on the exterior of Christchurch's gothic revival gem. If the sombre basalt rock from the Halswell quarry and elsewhere dominate the exterior, the Oamaru stone delights the eye with fine details and clever and beautiful motifs.

Stonemasonry is probably as old as civilisation and the tools are largely unchanged: chisels, hammers, saws, tackles and blocks. These days, the tips are tungsten and the cranes hydraulic. The heavy work has been mechanised but the skill of carving a flowery pedestal is unchanged.

"You got to take pride in the job," says Sleeman. "Nobody on the ground can see the quality of your work high up but you can't have rubbish at the top just because it can't be seen," he says on scaffolding three storeys high.

Leading hand Stuart Mackintosh was apprenticed for four years in Scotland and worked on Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace before coming to Christchurch in 2011 to play rugby and find work. "There wasn't much going at home . . . and I would definitely get a job here," he says.

The careful carving by Mackintosh, Sleeman and the others is done in a white marquee squeezed onto a former car park. Some is done by artisans offsite. Working if possible from surviving carvings - and drawings and photographs as necessary - they cut and chisel the forms to near completeness, then carry out final polishing on the scaffolding.

Still, most of their work isn't carving, it's repairing or reassembling the basalt rock walls. If a wall needs to be rebuilt, the stones are carefully photographed and documented, cut out, numbered and stored. The intention is to replace them as near as possible to their original location.

But if walls fell or were substantially damaged, the work is more difficult. A gable from "East Wing Additions" for example, collapsed and is being forensically recreated on flat ground before being hoisted back into place. Some rock from demolished churches has been added to the Arts Centre fabric.

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"The brief is to restore the buildings in ways that give them strength and robustness while ensuring that nothing modern is expressed or visible," says chief executive Andre Lovatt.

At it's highest form, it means peeling back the outer skin of the buildings - the basalt and limestone features - as well as the red brick that lined the interior of the walls. A new reinforced concrete wall is introduced and then covered with the exterior rock and interior brick, usually tied back with stainless steel rods, epoxy and mortar.

"It will be better than it was before," says Lovatt of the seven year, $290 million restoration project.

Following techniques accepted at the time of construction (1870s- 1923) many of the decorative elements were essentially held in place by gravity and perhaps a "pebble" - a stone peg a few centimetres long - says site manager Chris Whitty. While this was good enough for northern Europe, it wasn't satisfactory for New Zealand, he says.

Which is why Canterbury College or Canterbury University College, as it was later called, removed some decoration after the 1931 Napier earthquake. "Rightly so", says Lovatt, it wasn't safe. Other elements were removed over the years for other reasons, including weathering. "It's our intention to put most of that back," Lovatt says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catch up on 100 years of deferred maintenance."

The Arts Centre archive includes many original drawings and photographs of the centre, and these are being used to recreate what was removed or lost. The whole site has also been scanned in three dimensions.

"This is a very valid approach to heritage conservation" says Canterbury University art history associate professor Ian Lochhead, a campaigner in almost every significant heritage building squabble in Canterbury since at least 1996. They're not guessing what was there, they have evidence, he says.

On the wider project, Lochhead is equally on board. "It's OK to intervene to ensure greater structural strength," he says. "In the end, you want something that provides a clear sense of what the building was."

Lochhead, who served on the Arts Centre board for a time, says it wasn't just luck that nobody died at the centre in February 2011, "it was prudence". A quake strengthening project had been under way for about 20 years beforehand.

Kiwi stonemason Paul Houlihan did much of that work. He spent 21 years working at Dooleys Masonry in Oamaru - source of much of the new limestone going into the centre - before getting the in-house stonemason's job at the Arts Centre 13 years ago. He shows off two pinnacles he carved about 10 years - they are weathered, but strong - and will be reinstated."We want everything as good as we can make it, but still keep the original parts of the buildings," he says.

Journeymen stonemasons used to journey after finishing their apprenticeships. They would get work in different towns, building skills and broaden their experience.

The practice has formally died out, but not the impetus. Earlier this month, Colm Costello of Galway, Ireland, was finishing his last day at the Arts Centre. His visa had expired and he was heading home. But until downing tools, there were rocks to shape.

- Canterbury

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