The Christchurch Town Hall must be saved

00:12, Jul 18 2014
christchurch town hall
TIME STANDS STILL: The Christchurch Town Hall remains severely quake-damaged.

It's an ancient political ritual involving frenzied exhalations of hot air, consultations with the public oracles (usually found on Facebook and in the website's opinion section) and the potent politics of populism. The climax of all this is a tribal dance called the wibble-wobble.

It's being performed in a council chamber near you where a number of our elected representatives currently appear to be having nagging doubts about the future of the Christchurch Town Hall. Flourishing the banner of financial prudency, (always a popular rallying point for voters) while displaying common sense (is it really restorable?) and an admirable awareness of what the "real" people think (bowl it), some councillors seem to be increasingly twitchy.

Somehow I always knew that they would. But should the council balk on the restoration of the existing building? No.

chris moore
CHRIS MOORE: Arts commentator for The Press.

Should they do the time-honoured wibble-wobble and reverse the decision to restore and strengthen the entire town hall complex? Absolutely not.

Should the council have the courage and foresight to restore and strengthen the existing town hall as a functioning part of Christchurch's cultural and artistic life? Absolutely yes.

But there's a grave risk that any semblance of a sensible and informed debate over the building is being submerged beneath a steady flow of misconception, misinformation and altruism.


We've been told that retaining the town hall threatens the surrounding Performing Arts Precinct. It does and will not.

The arts precinct will continue. Remember that the town hall is a facility used for the broad sweep of events from university graduation ceremonies to orchestral concerts and civic receptions. It's not the exclusive preserve of the arts.

Admittedly the James Hay Theatre has always been a problem child but somehow the fact that the rebuild includes a major overhaul of its sound system, stage and seating has eluded the critics. The result will be a versatile and adaptable performance space ideally suited to theatre and smaller scale events.

There's a widely held misbelief that the cost of retaining the town hall will prevent the construction of a series of glittering arts palaces custom-made for individual organisations. But there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The council simply provides the site. The building or venue will be constructed and paid for by the individual organisation - not the ratepayer. The sense of entitlement accompanying proposals for the arts precinct is mind-boggling. Some individuals and groups should remember that tooth fairies do not exist.

Will the precinct be the city's glittering entertainment hub? (think Melbourne and Brisbane). Let's be realistic - under the existing proposals, the precinct is largely administrative rather than a focus for a plethora of concert halls, theatres and performance spaces . . . and exactly how many concert halls and theatres does one small provincial city need and, most importantly, afford?

If plans proceed, in one relatively confined space we'll see the Isaac Theatre Royal, a small concert chamber in the music centre and, perhaps, a new Court Theatre. Placed alongside what exists in a restored town hall, it more than fills the city's needs.

Having rejected the previous council's rebuild scheme as wishful thinking, the original proposals for the precinct formed part of the Government's 100 Day redesign package before it was placed firmly in the council's lap.

The plan has always involved a considerable dollop of spin. The reality is very different. There are even suggestions that events and performances could be held in the nearby convention centre - a case of apples and bananas thinking but highly unlikely especially if the convention centre is in the hands of a major casino company.

The existing building, the town hall's detractors cry, is an ugly, decrepit and obsolete architectural dinosaur well past its use-by date. A concrete bunker. Demolish it and build something better.

Sir Miles Warren's vigorous design, like all fine architecture, is timeless and perfectly suited for its purpose. Above all else, it's adaptable to current needs. Let's not forget that constructing a new building of quality would be mind-blowingly expensive. Settling for anything less, including leaving the concert chamber like a grotesque single tooth in a toothless mouth, would ensure that Christchurch is seen as the graveyard of fine architecture and cultural maturity.

Ultimately I predict with the rashness of late middle age that the Christchurch Town Hall will not disappear. Despite the shrill whine of ignorance, self-interest and dire prediction, I don't think that any apprentice council wants to be stamped as the myopic vandals who destroyed an essential and inclusive part of Christchurch's civic culture.

Voters have long memories. But it could still be a damn near-run thing. My advice to councillors? Grit your teeth, weather the storm and stay the course set with foresight by your predecessors. Don't read Facebook or the online experts. Believe me, it'll be worth it.

The Press