Step-by-step revival of Arts Centre's heritage

The Great Hall at the Christchurch Arts Centre teems with activity.

Scaffolding runs up the walls of the cathedral-like space to the vaulted wooden ceiling, where steel cables hold the walls in place.

Workers are digging under the building by hand to install new foundations.

Holes are being drilled down through the 11-metre-tall Oamaru stone columns. The columns are being dried by workers with sponges to prevent moisture damage from the water used to lubricate the drilling.

This is the busy heart one of the largest heritage restoration projects in the world.

Arts Centre director Andre Lovatt stands amid this work with a calmness at odds with the scale of his task.

The Arts Centre was badly damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes, with every building except one red-stickered. The repair bill is $290 million and there is a funding shortfall of between $50m and $100m, depending on construction cost inflation. The project is expected to take seven years.

"This scale of heritage restoration I don't think has been done anywhere in the world before," Lovatt says.

"There was the restoration of Windsor Castle following the fire, but that was four years rather than seven."

The Great Hall is one of the most important heritage buildings in the Arts Centre.

It is being restored along with the Clock Tower and Rutherford's Den on the northwestern corner of the centre. The corner will take three years and cost $36m to restore.

It is painstaking work installing steel and concrete foundations and drilling down the length of the columns so concrete and steel can be installed inside them.

The work will make the building quake-resistant, but not alter the historic look of the building.

As a reminder of the risk involved in working in such a fragile building, two sturdy wooden tunnels have been erected inside the Great Hall where workers can flee for safety in the event of a quake.

The Arts Centre employs about 14 specialists to work on the restoration, including three fulltime stonemasons and two apprentices.

The stonemasons work raw Oamaru stone by hand in a marquee on the Arts Centre site.

They methodically carve the blocks into the shapes and sizes required for the restoration.

They will be busy over the next seven years as different parts of the centre reopen.

The first building to reopen will be the Registry on the corner of Worcester Blvd and Montreal St.

The former Untouched World store is being strengthened and turned into office space that will be ready for tenants in July.

Next is the gymnasium building, formerly occupied by the Academy Cinema, which is being converted into a bar and restaurant. The building is being stripped back inside, revealing a long skylight and the original wooden floor.

Demolition of the former art workshops next door has revealed a colonnade. The new bar could be open by December.

Lovatt hopes that much of the Art Centre's heritage can be revealed by stripping back modern additions.

"We want to make sure as much of the heritage of the place [as possible] lives on," he says.

"We are finding a lot of screening. It would seem to me to be a missed opportunity not to express the place's history or pay it the respect it is due."

Restoration of the Christchurch Boys' High School building next door could begin in the first half of this year and will take two years.

Lovatt says working out which buildings get restored first is a bit like the medical triage process. He considers the revenue a restored building could generate, the repair cost, heritage values and how vulnerable it is to further quake damage.

The Registry and the gymnasium building are being targeted early because they are relatively cheap to fix and could start generating revenue to fund the restoration project. Courtyards will reopen to the public once all the buildings facing on to them are restored.

Lovatt says challenges include public confidence in heritage buildings and how new tenants will feel about opening a business on a construction site.

"That is something that needs to be thought through from businesses that come through. We can't pretend that the site won't be a construction site for a long time," he says.

"One particular concern is how people will feel about repopulating heritage buildings."

Many buildings do not have start dates for restoration work.

The large building that used to house the Court Theatre is badly damaged and will be the most expensive building to restore.

The top half of the building was shunted north about 10 centimetres in the February 2011 quake. It will take three years and cost $40m to restore the building.

"We are trying to resolve some technical design issues with the final engineering solution," Lovatt says.

"We are looking at nine months of work. It is about trying to achieve a solution that has strength without butchering the building."

The student union building, formerly the Dux de Lux bar and restaurant, will cost $7.5m to restore.

"It is a very broken building. People are not permitted to go inside," Lovatt says.

"The understanding of how badly this building is broken has increased over time."

Lovatt hopes to involve former tenants, local authorities and young people in a master plan for how the Arts Centre buildings might be used.

It is a long road ahead and Lovatt is keen to avoid the conflict with former tenants that has dogged former directors.

"We want to sit down with people and test some ideas and generate some discussion," he says. "We are revitalising this place for the long term, so we are keen to get young people involved."


The Press