Broken heart better than no heart

What do you get when you take the church out of Christchurch? What are they thinking? When they propose demolition, are they thinking at all?

Cathedral Square is now the broken heart of Christchurch, but surely a broken heart is better than no heart.

The Garden City is more fundamentally branded Christ's Church, and the city council's imagery reinforces this.

Local Christchurch boy come Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee has described heritage buildings as 'old dungers' and 'old stuff . . . [that] needs to be got down and got out, because it's dangerous and we don't need it'. He has also been quoted as saying most of Christchurch's 1000 heritage buildings were a danger to lives and should be demolished.

What is Brownlee's master plan for a city without the soul of heritage buildings? Does he not know that most earthquake deaths occurred in relatively modern buildings? What is his plan for the majority of South Island exports if the Lyttelton tunnel collapses?

A brief look overseas shows how heritage buildings and churches in particular are valued worldwide, and Peter Entwisle has listed compelling examples in his [ODT 19/3/12] grand opinion piece Precedents exist for rebuilding cathedral. From Coventry to Dresden to Santiago, Entwisle shows how heritage value has been recognised, restored, and is rejoiced all over the world.

Why then do Christchurch leaders want to knock down their cathedral? The cost of a reinforced rebuild is certainly a factor with Bishop Victoria Mathews saying it would cost more than $100 million while other experts say it could be done for as little as $20m.

Whatever the figure, it pales when you consider that $240m is being spent on airport improvements for an airport that saw a 35 per cent drop in tourist numbers last year.

The Wizard is running a campaign to save the cathedral, and the Unesco World Heritage Centre has called for it to be saved.

My sense of it is that the real reason Christchurch leaders want the cathedral gone is because it is an iconic reminder of Christchurch's underlying weakness - its seismic insecurity.

The cathedral has been damaged by earthquakes throughout its history, in 1881, 1888, 1901 and 1922 before the recent spate of earthquakes destroyed its spire.

Christchurch leaders want to go on pretending that they have built on rock instead of shifting sands. The spire, which defied gravity and invited all to look upwards to the sky and to spirit has fallen, and too many monetary hopes have fallen with it.

Their crumbled cathedral is too much visible reality for city leaders to tolerate.

Christchurch has long branded itself as the Garden City, but is now trying to unbrand itself as the South Island epicentre, so the cathedral must go.

If you go to the Christchurch City Council website, however, the first image you see is the out-of- date undamaged cathedral, misleading advertising at best. The cathedral spire is central to the CCC logo as well as central to Christchurch people's sense of permanence and place.

In Dunedin, shops have done a brisk trade in pillows and tea towels featuring an embroidery-style image of Christ Church Cathedral - sold mostly to permanent or temporary Christchurch refugees here. Has Brownlee counted the cost of changing the CCC logo everywhere, and the attachment that most Christchurch people have to their city's heart and name?

Christchurch is a city where it is money that matters. Long-term planning, resilient community, and ensuring that building was on stable land have taken a back seat. Where is the money in saving the cathedral?

Christchurch "haves" live in a different sphere to the bulk of Christchurch "have- nots", and their view of the cathedral seems to be Brownlee's 'we don't need it'.

I believe that the people of Christchurch not only need the cathedral, but that they must have it because it is symbolic of their identity, their history, and it is their reality check.

Between rebuilding and demolition lies an even tougher option - that of stabilising and using the remaining structure as it is. Much tougher because it would mean moving beyond denial to acceptance of Christchurch's earthquake proneness, acceptance that mistakes were made building monuments to the sky, and acceptance of nature's power.

It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Christchurch should reflect on this great power of acceptance, as the people of Berlin did with the destruction of their Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the bombing of 1943.

My most memorable experience of that city is of a choir singing in the remaining reinforced ruin of the church, their determination not to forget, and their love for their spiritual centre. Can Christchurch not similarly accept and see the value in their compromised cathedral?

This tough option of preserving the ruin would be much more affordable. With time Cantabrians would realise a fascinating permanent cathedral ruin in the heart of Christchurch which people could continue to use, and learn through acceptance to love again. The preserved remains of the cathedral would be a much more interesting and informative focus for the Square than anything new that could be built.

As you read this, however, denial is being hoisted into place to wipe out Christ Church Cathedral forever.

The wrong people are ruining Christchurch by failing to at least preserve what remains of its truly iconic ruin. All options disappear when the cathedral is demolished . . .

Lee Vandervis is a Dunedin City councillor who also restores heritage buildings.

The Press