A design for future generations

A design for future generations

Last updated 08:44 10/11/2012

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Christchurch will be one of the biggest jobs on the planet for architects - a vast canvas of possibilities. But dominating early on will be the bread-and-butter work of just getting buildings up quickly, writes CHRISTOPHER MOORE .

In August 2010, Justin Leadbetter and Kate Carr launched their new Christchurch architects' practice with high hopes, vision and enthusiasm to the fore.

Within a month, the September earthquake shattered their plans. Their client list evaporated, projects were abandoned or placed on hold. Four months later, Leadbetter Carr Architects suffered another blow with the February 22 tremor. Somehow, they kept the practice alive with minimal facilities. In the days that followed, with no internet, no landline, using a cellphone and working off a kitchen table, the couple struggled to keep going in a badly damaged Mt Pleasant home.

Christchurch's architects are a resilient breed. Today you'll find them working from a minuscule but perfectly formed office in a Sydenham car yard, battered, unbowed and definitely bullish about the potential contribution of architects to the city's rebuild.

They are both keenly aware that a new Christchurch won't materialise overnight.

"We talk about optimism for the new Christchurch, but it's important to remember that many people are still in survival mode," Leadbetter reflects.

"We've racked up debt. We've had to restart from scratch. But as architects, we remain hugely optimistic about what will happen in Christchurch. As architects, we must make the city the best that it can be."

Similar views are heard throughout Christchurch's architectural community. Earlier this year, a group of about 80 architects launched their own Facebook site to share ideas, projects and views from New Zealand and overseas. There is a mood of optimism among the new generation of architects, determined not to be overlooked in what are extraordinary and challenging times for New Zealand architects and architecture.

This is the best and the worst of times to be an architect. The worst because of the human and professional cost of a natural and national disaster - but paradoxically the best because of the challenges and exciting potential surrounding the largest and most complex rebuild in the country's history.

After examining the plethora of issues, it's easy to appreciate what London confronted after the Great Fire of 1666 and the end of WWII in 1945. This will not be an easy or quick process of resurrection. Conversations with architects indicate that Christchurch will have to firstly deal with the practical realities - the stunning, ground-breaking architecture will come later.

But there are signs of rebirth. The invisible fences that previously separated seasoned architectural hands and the newcomers, the big and the small players, are now being demolished, while the buildings they design come under intense public focus.

"It took a disaster to generate something that I don't think would have happened before," Leadbetter says.

"There is currently a wide sharing of information and opinion amongst the local architects. But this might change as competition mounts during what will undoubtedly become a boom period for architects."

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Leadbetter says the quality of architecture can decline during a time of rapid growth, when there is no time to sit down and consider projects. Arguably, during a boom time, pressure can mean a decline in quality designs, resulting in what has been described as "fast food school" - quick, cheap and unsatisfying. At the offices of Map Architects in Victoria St, director Simon Elvidge has also noticed an increased involvement by large and small architectural practices. There is currently a conversation about the future form of the city, especially through the City Council's Urban Design Panel (UDP).

"There's collaboration on neighbouring building sites where an exchange of views and advice can and does take place. The UDP is vital, especially on the key sites in the city where details need to be clearly spelt out to inform people where the common direction is. This is a situation where this must happen," Elvidge says.

Part of the conversation focuses on giving new buildings an integrity and relevance, both to their surroundings and to those ephemeral qualities that are difficult to inject into a city plan.

Elvidge's suggestion is to give the UDP more teeth and the ability to make suggestions and recommendations.

He sees at least a dozen "massive" opportunities in Christchurch's rebuild that have the potential to change the way the city operates. The Re:Start project is one, the redevelopment of Victoria St another. Then there are the city's "formal spaces" - Elvidge cites Cathedral Square as an example of an area that must be identified and planned.

Meanwhile, in-fill development is emerging as part of the often criticised commercial projects.

"There is no reason why these cannot be carefully scaled and detailed with simple but well considered architecture, which provides good streetscapes," he says.

"Christchurch's great modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s has endured. If there is a starting point, then it lies with these buildings - buildings which are an honest expression of their function. If there is a Christchurch style, then it's reflected in the work of Peter Beaven, Don Donnithorne and Miles Warren; buildings that were not a pastiche of contemporary trends, but honest, beautiful and sophisticated design."

His colleague, associate Andy Watson, supports that perspective.

"Buildings don't have to shout to get attention. The "Dubai" school of architecture has no place in Christchurch. Equally, we don't want every new building to look the same. We should design and build quality architecture of and for our time."

Columnist and lecturer in architecture at Auckland University, Bill McKay, warns against what he believes is a central government drive to get business re-established as quickly as possible by fast tracking the re- build.

"My impression is that Christchurch is getting the 'big box' solution. The result is that the city will resemble Hamilton or suburban Auckland. Good architectural design is perceived as taking too long, and government doesn't want to spend the extra time."

He says architects are seen as often going over budget and over time, and he claims that is why they have been largely shut out of the Christchurch rebuild.

"There are others who can bang out big boxes and generic homes far more efficiently, which is all that is needed to get business back on its feet as far as Government- appointed authorities are concerned. Their attitude appears to be that urban design is nice to have, but unfortunately unaffordable in terms of time and money."

McKay believes housing should take priority. As Re:Start in Cashel Mall has shown, businesses can easily adapt to the situation, but housing has a fundamental impact on people's lives

Jasper van der Lingen, chairman of the Canterbury Institute of Architects, disputes claims that architects have been excluded from the rebuild.

"There was a feeling for a time last year, when the council was putting together its plan, that local architects were not being sufficiently consulted. A similar feeling existed to the business and property owners' concerns at the time.

"I believe this changed when the CCDU team was set up and the 100-day blueprint was produced. Local architects and landscape architects were intimately involved in this and have been involved to an extent since it was announced. We are now starting to move into the implementation phase and architects are heavily involved in this, certainly in the central city.

"I would say the feeling that architects were sidelined has gone, in my opinion.

"The only area that there may still be some concerns about would be the residential area, where anecdotal evidence is that they are being excluded in favour of group building companies. This applies in particular to complex architect designed homes [and] that the owners are being offered a standard builders' alternative."

Peter Marshall, senior manager at Warren and Mahoney and a respected senior figure in the architectural world, understands lingering feelings of exclusion, especially among the smaller practices.

"There's so much activity at so many levels in this city. The smaller practices involved with commercial or residential work before the earthquakes, now find that this work is in the hands of Cera or the insurance companies - or has disappeared.

"They may not be engaged to the same levels as before, while the larger firms are not affected to the same extent.

"In the first year after February 22 - and even now to some extent - the engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers were important because of the structural, geo-technical and insurance issues that had to be dealt with at that time."

Marshall believes a combined submission from architects and urban planners to the CCDU and the Christchurch City Council, co- ordinated by the Institute of Architects, gave architects a closer connection to the thinking surrounding the rebuild.

He also sees a rising awareness of good architectural design among a cross-section of clients, from major commercial developers to the first-time property investor.

"What was significant was the blueprint's acknowledgement of the importance of design. The city council engages with architects through the Urban Design Panel. The CCDU and CCC will be moving anchor projects which, in theory, all architects can become involved with."

According to Marshall, there's no reason why smaller architects cannot combine to form an effective consortium.

"There are so many projects that any architectural practice worth its salt will find work in. People should not feel threatened. They should be smart, recognise their strengths and consider collaborating with others, rather than tilting against windmills."

He believes the central projects in the rebuild - the so-called "icon buildings" like the convention centre - will send a signal that the city centre must be rebuilt.

"Christchurch is of a scale that it needs a heart. Before the earthquakes, the suburban malls were taking over from the city centre. Here's the opportunity to address these issues."

While there is a burgeoning Australasian involvement in the rebuild, Marshall believes the attention of major international architects (think of heady names like Norman Foster, L M Pei, Frank Geary) will only be focused on the icon projects - such as the metro sports centre, the convention centre and the stadium.

"If they did become involved, they would have to be engaged with local architects, aligning their teams with them. In that sense there could be competition, but equally there are many local and national architectural firms who could take on these projects." IIn the months following February 2011, "a blank canvas" became a catchcry in discussions about the city's rebuild.

It's a term that one of New Zealand architecture's most well known figures disputes.

Ian Athfield, the city's former architectural ambassador, believes no such thing exists. Architecture abhors a vacuum, he suggests.

"For the architect, a canvas is filled with many things from roading and transport systems to trees, green spaces, population densities and the weather. The canvas is definitely not empty. A good architect produces work that copes with fashionable nuances, the input of others and different lifestyles."

The added ingredient in the mix is economic. The rebuild comes in a difficult economic climate, which can have a direct effect on design and standards.

He sees parallels with the 1970s, when many architects found themselves working for builders rather than with clients.

The rebuilding of Christchurch involved this broad range of issues, Athfield says.

"This is the rebirth of many spaces and a new celebration of others. Addington and Riccarton, for example, have become busy and active parts of the city. If you simply consider the central city in the rebuild, you are ignoring an important message."

At the heart of the matter is the collaboration between the architect and a committed client. A design is the product of a joint mind.

"An architect should be a damn good listener," he says.

"He or she should be able to make their first move in front of the client. It's not a question of 'I'm the creator and you are the recipient'. It's far more complex that that. There has to be a respect that emerges from understanding and trust," Athfield says.

"The best architecture is something you erect today to be inherited by people tomorrow.

"Heritage is not something you endorse 40, 50 or 100 years after it was built. It's something which starts tomorrow."

The final comment comes from Alan de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once abandoned his erudite search for the eternal truth to spend three years building a house for his sister in Vienna.

Afterwards, a friend asked him about the project.

"You think philosophy is difficult, but I tell you it is nothing compared to the difficulty of being an architect," he replied.

Urban design panel

 

The Urban Design Panel is a group of professionals who provide independent design reviews for both Christchurch City Council and private developers on urban design aspects of new developments.

Panel members are nominated by the New Zealand Institute of Architects , the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects, the Property Council of New Zealand and the New Zealand Planning Institute. Members are specialists in urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, property and planning.

Each meeting includes four panellists drawn from the larger pool of approved members to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest and to allow for specialist skills to be utilised when required.

The panel's advice is currently provided at no cost by the Christchurch City Council and, according to the council, "can assist in achieving high- quality design outcomes for new developments".

Private developers are encouraged to submit their plans to the panel for a pre-application review to provide "greater certainty at the resource consent application stage".

Major urban projects undertaken by the council are also submitted to the panel for review. The panel does not have the power to make decisions.

In a resource consent application, the panel's recommendations carry the same weight as any other technical report.

Recent architecture stoushes

 

Christchurch relishes a vigorous, opinionated and occasionally shrill debate about architecture.

It seems that when it comes to new buildings everyone holds an opinion on the post-earthquake cityscape, especially when it involves contemporary design, a subject which polarises opinion and dominates the letters to the editor and talkback radio.

From music conservatoriums to cathedral visitor centres, glass and brutalism, there are no shades of grey when it comes to modern architectural trends in the Garden City. You either love it or hate it, with both sides of the argument taking no prisoners.

"Why are the present school of local architects giving us geometric boxes with glass fronts and sides as design proposals for key city sites?" heritage advocate Rodney Laredo wrote recently.

"The list to date shows appalling proposals indicating that our architectural fraternity need a shake-up. Designers need to get out of their comfort zones and their cubism classrooms and look closely at what is right for Christchurch and what's not right for their personal statements."

His comments lit the fuse.

"So much ignorance in this article! . . . architects do what their clients want and can afford. Office clients want lots of light because that is what their tenants want, hence glass . . . I have had several clients tell me that my building design looks too flash so it needs to be dumbed down," an unnamed architect replied.

"Disrespectful modern architects pandering to tasteless clients," another corespondent thundered.

"To suggest that architects and designers are relentlessly chasing the lowest common denominator is a childish throwaway comment," a third fulminated.

Christchurch City councillor Jamie Gough then entered the fray, suggesting that Christchurch developers who built "ugly glass boxes" to cut costs should be driven out of town. Gough urged the city's residents to put more pressure on developers. The city had "one shot" to get the rebuild right, and property developers had to be held to account for approving poorly designed buildings.

Supporters and critics soon massed forces.

"Personally, I would rather have a tilt-slab building like Rebel Sports selling stuff I want, than seeing a patchwork of wasteland and rubble offering nothing. Buildings get replaced as an economy evolves - usually to match new commercial needs. However, if our council impose too many fanciful and grandiose restrictions they will strangle any recovery in the CBD since no-one (beside the council) is going to plough capital into a grand building unless they can make an acceptable return."

"Nothing wrong . . . with a little bit of class in our rebuild that recognises the history that is lost. It must be possible to design and build something that meets the new building regulations that also has taste and doesn't cost an arm and a leg."

"The beautiful buildings we all mourn have artistic decoration, they aim to be beautiful. I would rather see bright colours, interesting shapes, something to kick the idea that Christchurch is boring to the kerb. We have this opportunity, let's go for it!"

Architectural writer Bill McKay took a different approach with a call for Christchurch to save its modern heritage architecture.

"In a situation like this there has been little focus on preservation of our more recent heritage such as modern buildings. But we are now looking at entire generations of recent architects' work being bowled," he wrote in ArchitectureNZ.

"Despite a fight, we may well see the life work of Warren and Mahoney and Peter Beaven and many others binned. It is time for architects all over the country to stand up and take the lead, along with the Institute of Architects and IPENZ.

"The Blueprint for Christchurch involves the demolition of the Christchurch Town Hall. Reportedly it is on 30 metres of liquefiable material. The figures I've heard are $120 million for repair versus $80 million for a new one on a different site. It seems the country will happily spend $30 million on a temporary sports stadium without the blink of an eye, but we will deem it impossible to spend good money on the survival of one of the most important buildings in the country."

McKay was also uneasy with the view that architectural heritage is nice to have, but times are tough, older buildings don't satisfy contemporary needs and you can't stand in the way of progress: a city needs its retail space and fast food joints.

He saw an inherent danger with this perception . . . a big box development of tilt-slab structures with some polystyrene garnish that resembles what tourists thought that Christchurch once looked like. "A politician's idea of heritage and urban design," he added.

Proactive in design

Architecture in a seismologically active arena has also assumed other dimensions. When a new company of consulting structural engineers was established in 2006, it decided to call itself after the Maori god of earthquakes. It was a prescient move. Six years, two earthquakes and many significant aftershocks later, Ruamoko Solutions finds itself in the engine room of the city's rebuild, working alongside other structural engineers.

"The past two years have shifted perceptions of buildings and architecture. Before engineering was just another box to be ticked. Now architects and developers are keen to get us involved in designing a structure which is going to work and be safe. It's a fundamental shift which has seen engineers working alongside architects," senior partner Julian Ramsay says.

"Developers are not prepared to accept the downtime involved in repairs to earthquake damage. We are increasingly looking at the construction of damage avoidance buildings and the use of the emerging seismic engineering technology from here and overseas."

Peppered with references to buckling restraint braces and base isolation, Ramsay and partner Grant Wilkinson believe that the new Christchurch could become a world leader in seismic design and innovation.

"As engineers we had concerns about the city's buildings before 2010. We'd spent our whole careers since university thinking and designing for the earthquake we knew was going to happen."

- The Press

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