Experts want to save the cathedral

PEAL OF BELLS: Architectural historian Jonathan Mane-Wheoki outside his beloved St Michael's and All Angels church in central Christchurch.
PEAL OF BELLS: Architectural historian Jonathan Mane-Wheoki outside his beloved St Michael's and All Angels church in central Christchurch.

The Christ Church Cathedral is the emblem of the city it stands in but its future looks bleak. A restoration expert, an architect and an architectural historian tell Paul Focamp that it is too valuable to be demolished.

After the February 2011 earthquake the Christ Church Cathedral looked as if it had been in mortal combat with a hellish brute sourced from the depths of the earth.

The spire lowered and entrance warped with lurching supports, it presented as a staggering Christian soldier, a punch-drunk paladin. Another solid push and it might topple over.

BLEAK OUTLOOK: The Christ Church Cathedral stands unprotected from the elements.
BLEAK OUTLOOK: The Christ Church Cathedral stands unprotected from the elements.

But the cathedral had its better side - both sides in fact. The heavy stone walls had absorbed the quake's power and stood firm. Three-and-a-half years on, without the protective cover of galvanised iron, those walls remain defiantly upright.

The stones that occupied Christchurch's hallowed ground for more than 130 years as the city grew around them, accepted the mild yet inexorable layers of seasonal change, oxidation, perhaps even the dust of time.

Archaeologists, historians and architects call these layers on a heritage building the patina of history.

Carolina Izzo is leading the restoration of the dome in the Isaac Theatre Royal and she is passionate about the patina that major heritage buildings hold for their citizens.

Izzo has years of experience in restoring quake-hit churches in Italy but she now runs a Wellington-based company specialising in restoration. The cathedral holds too much of the city's history to let it fall, the expat Italian says.

"A church in New Zealand is not a place where you go and pray to God only. It is a place where you recognise where you are from."

A new church has no patina and cannot hold the same meaning for the people of Christchurch.

"You have to wait 200 years before it becomes the city's identity again."

After the quakes she was surprised when it was proposed the cathedral be demolished. She wasn't the only one. There is a French stonemason on the Isaac Theatre Royal team who flew to New Zealand after the quakes anticipating restoration work on the cathedral.

Izzo was even more surprised that the bishop supported lowering the cathedral, expecting her to defend a building that housed so much of Christchurch's identity.

Indeed without the cathedral, is Christchurch still Christchurch?

"Maybe you [Christchurch] have to change your name. It is THE cathedral, not a cathedral. Roma [Rome] without the colosseum is not Roma."

But she urges people to listen to the bishop's concerns of safety, cost and practicality and for the bishop in turn to engage with the community.

"If we are not prepared to listen to her concerns she will never let it go. Resistance creates persistence."

There is an opportunity to integrate the historic building into a new complex that might serve the congregation better.

"Conservation is not just about saving old things. It is also about making good use of the resources we have inherited and respecting the environment," Izzo says.

Te Papa's head of arts and visual culture and University of Auckland professor of fine arts, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, describes the lifted stay of demolition on the cathedral as a "stay of execution".

"I understand all the reasons why [in favour of demolition] but I am quite heartbroken about it mainly because most of the fabric of the building survived."

After the quakes first there was talk of dismantling which gave Mane-Wheoki, a recent appointee to the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM), hope the cathedral would be saved.

"Dismantling, it is different from demolition. You can take down buildings stone by stone and put them back together again.

"Demolition means removal of the materials altogether and I think that is extremely disappointing. I find it heartbreaking."

The architectural historian accepts some people feel a restored cathedral will remind them of the quake but others "construct their identity around that cathedral".

"It is not just the cathedral but the peal of the bells, the whole package was part of a strong Canterbury sensibility."

If Christchurch razes this church "it will lose a very important part of its memory". "It will lose its beating heart." For it is greater than the Anglican congregation: "It is the city."

Architectural consultant Scott McKenzie agrees. Located in the city's main public space, the square, meant "it goes beyond just being a church".

Its heritage value meant that it should have been covered and protected from the weather. "The only real option is that it should be saved. You can't replace the heritage value that something like that has." However, he points out that something of the old can be found in the new. He appreciates how the triangular shape of the transitional cathedral makes reference to the proportions of the stricken cathedral.

Mane-Wheoki agrees that the so-called "cardboard cathedral" is a "clever design" and it is a "considerable achievement to build it so soon after all hell broke loose in Christchurch". But it is an insubstantial disappointment.

"It looks like a toy building."

The proud eagle lectern looked too grand in its transitional quarters which "in the end is a glorified parish church".

The eagle "was longing to be back in the cathedral". "It did look a little homesick."

Mane-Wheoki doubts the eagle will be much happier in a new cathedral that follows the Anglicans' preferred design.

"I think it looks like a caricature of an ecclesiastical building - Gothic kitsch," he says, regretting his fellow Anglicans have not grasped the opportunity to choose a "more radical" and contemporary design for the 21st century.

The homesick eagle may be more at home at St Michael's and All Angels on Oxford Terrace. The "pro-cathedral" opened in 1872 to accommodate the Anglican congregation until the main cathedral was opened in 1881.

Arguably the original "transitional cathedral", its timber construction meant it weathered the quakes better than its more famous replacement.

Mane-Wheoki, who fell in love with the wooden church in the 1960s and was later a warden there, says it was very solidly built.

"Inside you are standing in a veritable forest of trees."

Its aged timbers do proffer a dignified warmth. It hosted the funeral of Lady Diana Isaac and Christchurch Repertory Theatre has staged several plays there. For When an Inspector Calls, a moral play featuring a stentorian detective, the church seemed to add a religious power to the drama.

St Michael's keeps its consecrated bread, not in a metal tabernacle, but in a carved waka huia (wooden feather box) enhancing its regional and cultural credentials. The waka huia was an idea of Mane-Wheoki's and was unveiled in 1994 coinciding with the University of Canterbury's celebration of Sir Apirana Ngata, the first Maori university graduate in 1894.

Should St Michael's, perhaps reflecting a greater New Zealand sensibility with its native timbers than Gothic stone or cardboard, have been the transitional cathedral?

"Could it have been? Yes. It might have been but I think the cathedral people decided that they wanted to keep their separate identity. This [St Michael's] was very much a going concern."

So the cathedral of card stands and for Mane-Wheoki the city's "beating heart" is very much at risk but perhaps, closer to the Avon and within the embrace of St Michael's "veritable forest", the city's soul is well protected.

Comment was sought from Bishop Victoria Matthews. Anglican church media adviser Jayson Rhodes responded on her behalf. He says a report prepared by Holmes Engineering states that no part of the cathedral's building fabric has any structural integrity. The Church Property Trustees have previously said that the cathedral was deteriorating, no restoration plan was presented that satisfied Cera's requirements, there were concerns about escalating costs and the trustees decided on a contemporary cathedral after engaging with the public and receiving expert advice.

"A key issue to remember is that churches do not primarily exist for heritage purposes, they exist to reveal and tell of God," Rhodes says.

The Press