Powerful symbol of past and future

DR IAN LOCHHEAD
Last updated 09:15 19/08/2011

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Dr IAN LOCHHEAD surveys the possible future for the badly damaged Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings.

The collapse of the stone council chamber of the Canterbury Provincial Buildings was for many, the greatest single heritage loss of the February 22 Christchurch earthquake.

Designed by New Zealand's pre- eminent Victorian architect, Benjamin Mountfort, it was recognised internationally as an outstanding example of colonial Gothic Revival architecture, illustrated in standard texts on the subject such as Chris Brooks' The Gothic Revival (Phaidon, 1999).

For Canterbury it was much more; the buildings as a whole, and the stone council chamber in particular, were a powerful symbol of the province's belief that it had an outstanding future.

It exhibited a sense of confidence and self-belief as well as the prosperity of the 1860s.

When the system of provincial government came to an end in 1876, Canterbury was the only province that paid money into the Treasury in Wellington; all the others brought their debts with them.

From a national perspective the Canterbury buildings are the only surviving example of a complete, provincial government complex, a unique survivor of an important phase in our constitutional development.

As a work of architecture they represent one of the high points of our brief architectural history and were unique in the richness of their decorative programme.

From the novelist, Anthony Trollope in 1872 to the Duke of Gloucester, just last year, the buildings have been admired by many of Christchurch's most distinguished visitors.

Do we simply accept that this badly damaged structure has come to the end of its life or is there another way forward?

There has been much discussion of the value of ruins as memorials but Christchurch's situation is very different from that of two of the most often cited examples, Coventry Cathedral in England and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

Coventry's burnt-out cathedral was in fact, a large parish church that had only become a cathedral in 1918; its destruction provided the opportunity to build a much larger church suited to this cathedral function.

In Germany there was a conscious policy to memorialise the destruction of war, as an ever- present reminder of the consequences of militaristic aggression.

In Berlin, the seat of political power, such images are particularly telling. Elsewhere in Germany, war damaged buildings have been meticulously restored. Is a stark, broken building an appropriate way to memorialise an act of nature?

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The picturesque ruins of Europe have also been appealed to as a justification for leaving the Provincial Buildings as a ruin, but the very concept of the picturesque, which emerged in Britain in the 1790s, runs counter to the act of memorialisation.

Advocates of the picturesque saw ruins in a generalised, aestheticised way that de- emphasised their historical reality.

Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire and Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire only became picturesque when the social upheaval and violence of the Reformation and political succession conflicts had receded into the distant past. A ruined Provincial Council Buildings will take a century or more before it ceases to seem like a bleeding wound in the city's heart.

Can the buildings be reconstructed and restored? First, it is important to emphasise that much of the complex is only minimally damaged.

The Bellamys wing has sustained greater damage but previous extensive seismic strengthening of this section makes recovery entirely possible.

The stone council chamber is a greater problem, since the completeness of its interior decoration made it much more difficult to earthquake strengthen without seriously compromising the very qualities it was so important to protect.

A conscious decision was made to strengthen the stone chamber only as far as was possible without intrusive visual impact, while recognising that a major earthquake could still bring disaster.

A corollary of this policy was the decision to maintain an exhaustive record of the building's fabric so that, in the event of a major building failure, reconstruction would be possible.

A revised version of this country's most authoritative statement on heritage conservation practice, the New Zealand ICOMOS Charter, was adopted, ironically, on September 4, 2010.

The 2010 charter makes it clear that reconstruction is a valid and appropriate heritage conservation process, and the charter also acknowledges the need to build to a greater level of strength than the original structure.

With comprehensive documentation available to support a reconstruction process there can be no objection in heritage terms and already prominent figures in the New Zealand heritage community have indicated their support for the reconstruction of the stone chamber.

Do we have the technical capacity to re-engineer the building and are the craft skills available to carry this out?

First, I have been assured by one of Christchurch's leading engineers that such a reconstruction, to the required level of seismic strength, is entirely possible; in some respects this will be easier than having to retrofit seismic strengthening since the new work can be integrated into the rebuilt structure.

Until the site is carefully cleared and all the building components assessed it is too early to say how much of the fabric can be reused and how much made new, but conservation work recently carried out on the buildings has demonstrated the high level of craft skills available to complete all necessary work.

Would Christchurch be going out on a limb, reconstructing a broken Victorian building?

For all the examples of ruined buildings discussed in recent months, it is possible to cite a dozen major structures that have been successfully reconstructed, from the Ypres Cloth Hall, a late medieval town hall that was reduced to rubble by shelling during World War I, to the 16th century single-span stone bridge at Mostar, destroyed during the Balkans war.

At Ypres, the reconstructed town hall restored the city's pride and sense of identity; at Mostar, the reconstructed bridge symbolically reconnected the Christian and Muslim sectors of a community that had previously lived in harmony.

Carried out with extensive international aid, the bridge at Mostar is now a World Heritage Site.

Closer to home, Te Rangiatea, Te Rauparaha's church at Otaki, was rebuilt as a faithful replica of the original building. Even though the original fabric of the church had been completely destroyed by fire, the mana of Te Rauparaha's church has been passed down to his descendants.

What would a reconstructed Provincial Council Buildings represent for Christchurch, Canterbury and New Zealand?

First, it would demonstrate in visual form the resilience of our population and our determination to transcend the successive blows that nature has dealt us.

Second, it would bring back to life a greatly loved work of architecture that would join the artistic, craft and technological skills of the colonial era with those of today in a unique bond.

It would demonstrate that the vision of Canterbury held by our Victorian predecessors has not dimmed and it would provide an anchor in the past that would help to direct us towards a more stable future.

The process of rebuilding will, of necessity, be slow and painstaking, but that can become a benefit in itself.

As the building is made safe it can progressively be reopened to the public while the reconstruction project will become an attraction in its own right.

The preservation of the craft skills necessary for such a project is a further benefit, as will be the educational possibilities of demonstrating those skills in action.

A reconstructed Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings can become a living memorial to those who died in the Christchurch earthquake, but also a memorial to a generation of Cantabrians who triumphed over the greatest adversity in our province's history.

If such an act can ever be considered vulgar, I am with the vulgarians.

* Dr Ian Lochhead is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. He has advised on the restoration of the Provincial Council Buildings since 1981 and is author of A Dream of Spires: Benjamin Mountfort and the Gothic Revival (Canterbury University Press, 1999).

- © Fairfax NZ News

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