Razing of Cranmer Courts 'barbaric'

The demolition of Cranmer Courts is mindless and unnecessary, writes LORRAINE NORTH.

A handful of us spent all day on Thursday at Cranmer Courts protesting against its hasty, brutal and unnecessary demolition. It had recommenced after a re- development plan failed the previous Friday. There was scarcely a day's notice when the digger started up at 9am on Thursday and no-one can tell us what the hurry is.

The reason there were not more heritage advocates present is explained by the fact that many of us were at an eleventh-hour High Court hearing held on the same day to try to save the cathedral from the wrecking ball.

A lot of local support for the protest was indicated by all the tooting that went on as people drove by. From those on the street, there were many tears, a great sense of loss and impotent outrage.

In the course of the day many people came and talked to us, including visitors from Ireland, England, Chile, Canada and the United States. They were appalled and mystified at what they saw. The Cranmer Courts situation has already been brought to the attention of the international media, which is probably not going to do Prime Minister John Key a lot of good in his bid to sell New Zealand as a Hollywood movie set.

Cranmer Courts is one of this city's oldest and most culturally significant buildings. It provides the crucial cornerstone for an inner city heritage precinct which, if saved and restored, would go some way to preserving some remnant of this city's early cultural identity, owing to its close proximity to the Christchurch Arts Centre and Canterbury Museum. The Cranmer heritage precinct includes The Peterborough, Ironside House, Victoria Mansions and the Victoria Clock Tower.

The building is one of the finest examples of the Gothic Revival architecture of which our city was once so proud and is listed as category 1 on the Historic Places register. It was completed in 1876 as New Zealand's earliest normal school. After this use became redundant, it sat vacant and neglected for over a decade while still owned by the Education Ministry.

Then in the 1980s it was given a new lease of life when redeveloped as an apartment complex.

Built mostly from irreplaceable Port Hills basalt, its fronts along Montreal and Kilmore streets are beautiful and imposing. They are graced by decorative gothic windows framed delicately in Oamaru stone and augmented by dormer windows among the slate roofing of the upper levels. Beneath the windows the abandoned camellias and rhododendrons are still doing their best to bloom.

Watching the digger bash and chew away at that beautiful stone building was for me, and many like me, akin to watching some living thing be killed . . . like a beached whale being hacked to death. It was obscene. Seeing sofas and other personal belongings of the people who used to live there spill like intestines out on to the street, I had the feeling this building is indeed - or had been - alive.

As well as providing places in which people love to live, heritage buildings such as these are the means by which we keep our past alive. They are symbols of our civilisation. They provide our collective memory, create a sense of social cohesion and enrich our lives as citizens. Destroying them like this destroys a vital part of our social fabric and a part of us.

The preservation of cultural heritage is viewed as a serious priority by most civilised nations. In 1954 the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict forbade crimes against art and architecture. Unesco's Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage, made in 2003 after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, reminds the international community about the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

It also reiterates Unesco's position that 'cultural heritage is an important component of the cultural identity of communities, groups and individuals, and of social cohesion, so that its intentional destruction may have adverse effects on human dignity and human rights'.

In the same declaration Unesco also urges that 'states should endeavour, by all appropriate means, to ensure respect for cultural heritage in society, particularly through educational, awareness-raising and information programmes.' This declaration was voted for by New Zealand.

Since 2006, as a result of tireless work by American archaeologist Dr Laurie Rush, even the United States military has had an In Theatre Heritage Training Programme to educate troops in the field about the importance of preserving sites of cultural significance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt.

More recently, Rush's collaboration with international colleagues and military leaders has led to the Russian military embarking on similar programmes, with the result that in Libya heritage sites have been added to the 'no strike lists'.

The result has been fewer attacks on troops by local insurgents.

Rush says that such is the importance of preserving cultural heritage that 'in situations of conflict and natural disaster, the preservation of cultural property, sacred places and objects of value rank only behind the protection of human life and safety as top priorities . . . Respect for places of cultural importance in a community is extremely valuable in stabilising and reconstructing the social fabric'.

Rush also believes it is important for local communities to be the ones to assign value to cultural properties in their landscapes: 'Failure to identify and respect these features could very well be interpreted as an act of hostility . . . aggression against cultural property is often used to demoralise and destroy communities.'

In cases where this has occurred in recent international history, perpetrators have been brought to justice, for example General Pavle Strugar was successfully prosecuted in the International Court of Justice at The Hague for deliberately damaging the world heritage site of Dubrovnik in Croatia.

It is interesting to compare the position of Unesco and the international community with Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's statement on the preservation of heritage buildings in post- earthquake Christchurch . It was: "The old dungers, no matter what their connection, are going under the hammer."

A local property developer who joined us at Cranmer Courts believes that given more time to source funds, for an initial emergency input of $3 million, the building could be held and the total investment required to save it would be found offshore. We are awaiting clarification about why Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority should be charging Cranmer Court owners $10,000 a day, as reported, for every day demolition fails to go ahead.

In the spirit of the Venice Charter of 1964, the following quote is from the International Council on Monuments and Sites New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value: 'New Zealand shares a general responsibility with the rest of humanity to safeguard its cultural heritage places for present and future generations.'

However, this responsibility appears to be carried by too few of us, and in the absence of protective leadership at the highest levels, New Zealand's official position on heritage retention today has less in common with other OECD nations than it does with Indonesia , which has been described as 'heritage rich and education poor'.

The barbaric behaviour we witnessed this week with the trashing of Cranmer Courts will continue for another nine weeks. There is no issue of public safety, nor will the demolition aid our recovery.

This is cultural vandalism - an act of aggression against this community - and has no place in a civilised society. The mindless and unnecessary demolition of our cultural heritage must cease.


The Press