My letter to Prince Charles

Last updated 08:18 22/11/2012

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OPINION: David Killick has written an open letter to Prince Charles, hoping he will get behind a new, sustainable Christchurch.

Dear Prince Charles.

I am glad you could celebrate your birthday in New Zealand. You and Camilla certainly looked like you enjoyed the Christchurch Dance-o-Mat - and you definitely delighted some local fans. Fashion and style icons indeed!

Fortunately, the weather stayed fine for the Canterbury Show, and you didn't experience the kind of moving and shaking that has left our city in such a sorry state. Meeting some of the earthquake survivors who were badly injured provided some comfort in the face of adversity.

Now you are back in Britain, I wonder what you will make of Christchurch and its lost heritage buildings? Devastation wrought by last year's earthquakes has been colossal. Now the potential exists for more devastation to be wrought at the hands of developers, planners, and reckless architects.

However, there is also enormous potential to rebuild the city as a sustainable, people-friendly place, with human-scale buildings and green spaces, and real communities.

Sir, perhaps you could help. You would be most welcome! Although I must warn you that you will find Christchurch people can get pretty feisty about architecture, debate can get intense, and vested interests will come into play. Just like Britain, then.

It may surprise you to know that Christchurch was once called the most English city outside England. It never was really - the houses and streets look different for starters - but there have been glimpses of the best of English-inspired heritage in our city park (one of the finest in the country, with magnificent English trees that actually grow faster and taller than they do in England); and punts along the River Avon. The weather can also be very British - it can do anything.

Christchurch's finest 19th century neo-Gothic colonial architecture was modelled on English buildings. Many of these buildings are now gone or have been seriously damaged.

You saw the residential red zone. It has been tough. Despite some positive moves, progress has been slow, and thousands of people are still forced to live in badly damaged homes, with no idea when they might be repaired or what might replace them.

Little or no attempt has been made to save heritage buildings. In some cases, old buildings had to go; in other cases, the bulldozer has been seen as the quickest fix.

You would have been saddened to see the ruins of Christ Church Cathedral. Designed in the 1860s, the Anglican cathedral has been an iconic symbol of Christchurch. Despite a spirited fight by supporters to save it, the cathedral appears doomed. So, too, does the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

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The historic Provincial Council Buildings have also been severely damaged. Residents tried in vain to save another historic building, Cranmer Courts, converted into apartments, and broke down in tears as the bulldozers moved in. Heritage advocates have been aghast but powerless.

A few fine old buildings, like the Arts Centre, remain, but in a sorry state. Many old two-storey masonry buildings have been torn down. Individually, some of them might not have been special, but together they formed part of the city's identity.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee called old buildings "old dungers". Imagine saying that about Britain's heritage buildings.

True, many were beyond saving. Some were in bad repair to begin with because owners failed to spend money on them, and the city council failed to enforce tighter standards that would have made them more resistant to earthquakes. Most lives, however, were lost in one shoddily built 1980s high-rise, the CTV building.

Other buildings won't be lamented, and I suspect you would agree. These were the towering 60s and 70s era high- rises that dwarfed the Anglican cathedral, for example - like the "jostling scrum of skyscrapers" you condemned for encroaching on London's St Paul's in A Vision of Britain.

What now for Christchurch? Will we get exciting cutting-edge architecture? Or will we be saddled with "deformed monsters", "monstrous carbuncles", and buildings that look like they were "designed by a visitor from another planet" - as you described some of the architectural additions to Britain's green and pleasant land?

The future is in the balance, right now.

At least modern architecture can look eye-catching. The fear is that we will get developer-driven unimaginative and totally utilitarian structures - anonymous and anodyne boxes utterly devoid of character.

Would you, Sir, or your family, really want to visit Christchurch to see yet another shopping mall, concrete warehouse, convention centre, car park, or high-rise hotel?

One could be anywhere in the world.

The alternative is building aesthetically pleasing, lower, stronger, and greener buildings that work together harmoniously and a city that is not dominated by the car - like Christchurch used to look early last century, in fact.

We also need better housing solutions, and an alternative to more sprawling subdivisions. An international design competition for an inner-city site invites architects and designers from around the world to design an inner-city urban village. One of the judges is Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame. That seems like a good idea. It needs encouraging.

Not everyone will agree. At first, your views on architecture and the environment were criticised as being alternative, or - dare I say it? - slightly potty. But you stuck to your guns, and now it seems the design world has caught up. Environmentally friendly green architecture and sustainable communities are no longer seen as offbeat and odd; they are mainstream, even cutting edge.

Sir, some may see your expressing an opinion as interfering in local politics or undermining democracy. Well, that's nonsense. Throwing your weight behind new environmentally friendly urban developments in Britain has made a real difference for the good, so why not here?

I hope when you return in a few years' time, you will find a much more attractive Christchurch - and you can go dancing again in new surroundings.

David Killick edits the monthly At Home supplement in The Press. david.killick@press.co.nz.

- The Press

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