David v Goliath battle over Town Hall

02:11, Nov 22 2012
Christchurch Town Hall
Christchurch Town Hall's auditorium floor varies in height by up to 45cm.

The City Council's decision to save the Christchurch Town Hall complex is both courageous and laudable.

It is also a decision which quickly, perhaps predictably, leads to a confrontation with the government agencies who hold a very different perspective on the future of the landmark building. 

For months the Government had made no secret of the fact it wanted to see the demolition of a complex which might conceivably block its proposed performing arts centre.

Chch town hall
UNANIMOUS: The city council has voted to spend $127.5m to save the Christchurch Town Hall.

If the Town Hall complex remains as a functioning cultural space, the construction of 1500 and 500-seat auditoriums a few blocks down the road seems, to say the least, excessively pointless.  

The council has now delivered a challenge to the Government - and the Government has responded with Mr Brownlee's thinly veiled threat that the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority could override the council's decision.

Beneath all the references to dialogue and compromise, this could signal a replay of David versus Goliath.


In a single morning, The Town Hall became a symbol of two very different perspectives for the city's cultural future.

Given that the proposed performing arts centre is one of the jewels in the Government's city rebuild blueprint, it's reasonable to ask whether the council's decision effectively threatens the project which has already caused considerable interest both here and overseas.

There is already conjecture that major overseas investors and developers, notably the Chinese, are eyeing it and the neighbouring convention centre as a lucrative joint venture with New Zealand interests.

If this is correct, it must be an irresistible prospect for a government which attaches so much importance to the market led economy and private investment in Christchurch.

It will brook no threat to the project.

If the council is allowed to repair and restore the Town Hall to life - and if the Government continues with its performing arts complex -  Christchurch could face an uneconomic excess of performing arts spaces.

Exactly how many theatres and concert halls does a community of Christchurch's size need? Should a city with a population of nearly 400,000 accommodate seven to eight large theatre and concert venues? Is this truely realistic?

Now that the initial brouhaha surrounding the launch of the city blueprint has passed, some are already questioning the wisdom of constructing a single mega-performing arts centre instead of placing arts facilities on closely linked but carefully considered separate sites around the central city.

The philosophy of one size fitting all could, its critics argue, create a cultural ghetto and logistical challenges ranging from who would manage it to parking and traffic.

Far better for each arts entitity to develop its own performing space.

There's another reason for sceptism. Like stadiums, the days of  ambitious grandoise monuments to the arts have gone. Each of the arts has its own requirements and character which couldn't be met in a large single entity. 

The Christchurch Town Hall is closely identified with Christchurch. As a piece of architecture, it is one of our taonga.

As a performance space, it's proved its worth for decades. Despite the pundits, it was widely used by local and visiting artists and the community.

It is still a viable arena for the performing arts. Do we need another?

The council's verdict on the Town Hall is an unmistakable gesture of defiance; another step towards, as the Mayor recently proclaimed, taking back the city from the politicians and the bureaucrats.

Given the Government's obdurate determination to push ahead with its ambitious blueprint for the rebuild, it might also be the flashpoint for a nasty bruising brawl which has been simmering beneath the surface for months.

But don't  lay any bets on who will win this particular fight for a city's future.

The Press