A secular suggestion for Cathedral Square: A tall tower

Dr Geoffrey's Rice's suggestion of a tall tourist tower in the middle of Cathedral Square, connected to what is left of ...

Dr Geoffrey's Rice's suggestion of a tall tourist tower in the middle of Cathedral Square, connected to what is left of the old Cathedral.

OPINION: Christchurch Cathedral was a monument to the aspirations and beliefs of the first British settlers of Canterbury.

The tower and spire were donated by the Rhodes family, early sheep-farmers and wealthy property speculators. The rest of the Cathedral was funded by the Anglican community, and a few non-Anglican well-wishers. While it was a centre for Anglican worship in the province, the Cathedral also became a venue for major civic events, especially funerals of prominent citizens, and thus became a secular icon as well, along with the Avon River, on the city council's logo.

But times change, and New Zealand society has changed profoundly since the Cathedral was built. We still call ourselves a Christian country, as our laws and mores are based on Christian teachings, but very few people go to church, apart from weddings and funerals, and I suspect that a majority of people in this country now share my own secular, rationalist and scientific view of the world.

Christ Church Cathedral as it looks now.

Christ Church Cathedral as it looks now.

Even if the Cathedral were to be rebuilt or made safe, how many people would it serve? How many would attend services each Sunday? Friends who have been to the Transitional Cathedral tell me that the congregation is small and mostly elderly. I don't mind that someone is preserving the rituals of the past, for some people derive great comfort from familiar rituals. But it does seem odd that the community is expected to spend millions to rebuild the old cathedral when most people no longer go to church. Especially young people.

* Cathedral working group investigating how to restore
Christ Church Cathedral plans announcement due soon
Christ Church Cathedral: why all the fuss?

Back in the 1960s and '70s ordinary Christchurch people from all faiths made an enormous effort to raise funds to build the Town Hall. But how many ordinary citizens would now raise funds to rebuild the Cathedral in the Square? And what about the architecturally superior Catholic basilica in Barbadoes Street? I very much doubt that these buildings would be a top priority in most people's lives.

We are told that there are wealthy New Zealanders living abroad who are willing to contribute millions to rebuild the Cathedral, and I applaud their altruism, but I wonder about their motives. Will they want their name on a donors' plaque, to remind future generations of their wealth and their generosity?

I have sympathy with those who oppose the demolition of what is left of the Cathedral. Thanks to earthquake-strengthening in the 1990s, the roof has survived intact, strong and straight. Those timbers came from Barry's Bay on Banks Peninsula, and are a reminder of how much the early settlers plundered from the natural environment. Engineering reports have established that the ground underneath the Cathedral is sound. What is left of the Cathedral is authentic, and keeping it intact would be a fitting memorial to the pioneers who built it.

What about the west front? I do not think it worthwhile to rebuild the tower and spire. They fell in the earthquake, and are gone for good. Instead, I have a suggestion that will no doubt provoke howls of protest and dismay.

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Christchurch's economy now rests squarely on tourism, and we have so few heritage buildings left that the majority of future tourists won't be coming to take photos of old buildings. They will be coming to spend money, and the city will prosper if we can think of yet more ways to extract it from visitors' purses and wallets.

My suggestion is that Christchurch should build a very tall tourist tower in the middle of Cathedral Square, connected to what is left of the old Cathedral. Its shape would recall the spire that used to dominate the cityscape, until it was diminished by tall buildings from the 1970s onwards. The ground floor could comprise a central visitors' centre, and a welcoming foyer to the old Cathedral, which need not be an active church: the Transitional Cathedral seems more than adequate for the remaining adherents of the Anglican Church. The old Cathedral could become a museum dedicated to the Canterbury Pilgrims.

The first few floors of a tourist tower could provide ample office and meeting space for the Anglican Church, or a source of rental income. After all, the Bishop is on record as saying that the old Cathedral was not fit for purpose in the 21st century, and lacked suitable office space. Upper floors could house the restaurants that attract tourists to such towers, while a higher floor would house the inevitable viewing platform.

Back in the 1980s there was a proposal for a tourist tower in Victoria Square. A special commission heard public submissions and concluded that such a tower would destroy the heritage and amenity values of that part of the central city. The design published in The Press was appallingly banal, resembling a rubbish tin perched on top of a drainage pipe.

So why build an even taller tower in Cathedral Square? I think the city needs something spectacular to announce to the world that we survived the quakes and are looking towards a prosperous future. A tourist tower disguised as a steeple would recognise one of the city's major economic drivers and restore a focal point that was lost in the 1970s.

Suitably floodlit, the Cathedral Tower or Spike would be visible at night from the outer suburbs and even parts of the plains. In daylight it would rise above the end of Worcester Boulevard and be visible from one end of Colombo Street to the other.

The design I propose would be a copy of the TransAmerica Tower in San Francisco. An elongated pyramid, it would stand firm against any future earthquakes. Of course it would make the remains of the old Cathedral look pathetically small, but that would be symbolic of the decline of public interest in church-attendance in the 21st century.

We need a circuit-breaker in the prolonged dispute over the future of the Cathedral and Cathedral Square. Here's one that hasn't been made before, probably because it is too outrageous. It's just a suggestion, and I will be most interested to see how people react to it. Christchurch being Christchurch, with its love of controversies, I am confident that it will never happen.

There still remains the drastic solution, to clear the site completely and build a fully functional contemporary church, with as many offices and meeting rooms as the Anglicans deem necessary to their ministry. St Andrew's College took this option with their badly damaged memorial chapel, and this month will open its replacement, designed by an Auckland architect. It is a striking new building, incorporating elements of the old, especially the gargoyles, and has been designed to perform a variety of functions. Well done, St Andrew's!

But could any current New Zealand architect produce a replacement cathedral that was both beautiful and functional? I have grave doubts on that score. I'd rather go for the safer option of a simple tourist tower.

Dr Geoffrey Rice is a retired history professor. His publications include Christchurch Changing: an illustrated history, All Fall Down: Christchurch's lost chimneys and Victoria Square: cradle of Christchurch

 - Stuff


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