Loss of Cranmer Courts seems inevitable in a rebuild that devalues heritage

19:05, Oct 14 2012

Christchurch without Cranmer Courts would be a lesser place. They are a fine example of the Gothic architecture that has infused the look and spirit of the city from its earliest days and focus the beauty of the square after which they are named. With the courts gone - which will be the case, barring an improbable saving of the shredded structure at this eleventh hour - the attractiveness of the precinct will be drastically reduced, but the impact will also fall on all who want the new Christchurch to preserve at least its key structures as a connection with the old - a map of memory, a sign of continuity, a tribute to what the 162 years of the city have produced.

That explains the distress of heritage enthusiasts as they make ever more desperate attempts to save Cranmer Courts, and their feelings may in future be shared by all citizens as the barriers come down in the city centre.

The demolition there is much greater and more astonishing than can be conveyed by photographs and the rebuild will deliver a radically different look. With probably no cathedral in the Square and only the Old Government Building and Chief Post Office remaining of the landmark structures, the CBD will be foreign. Cranmer Square depleted of its courts will not help establish bearings.

This has come about because the new masters of the Christchurch universe have devalued heritage in the spirit of Gerry Brownlee's old-dungers philosophy. Had they in the immediate aftermath of the February 22, 2011, earthquake undertaken to preserve even half a dozen downtown historic buildings, citizens would have been earlier restored to confidence and the new city would be more easily adopted as their turangawaewae. That prospect has now gone, though, a loss symbolised by the rubble of the half-destroyed Cranmer Courts.

Regret about that is justified, but unjustified is the accusation that the building's owners and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) have rushed to destruction. The owners spent money on shoring up the courts and sought a buyer who would undertake restoration, and Cera has given time for that. What has brought the building down is the Government's lack of will and lack of provision to save key historic buildings when no other saviour is available.

Such negligence would be inconceivable in Europe, but New Zealand has never much esteemed its built heritage - a blindness to history shown not least in Christchurch. The Square was transformed by mediocre modern buildings that dominated the cathedral and killed the retailing that attracted people. The old university was nearly torn down. Canterbury Museum was poised to be violated and was saved only by a court ruling. The King Edward Barracks, from which young Christchurch men and women for decades left for punishing wars, was scrapped by a ravenous Ngai Tahu. That is only a mite of the destruction that made Christchurch less individual and more ugly. A building's survival was often a matter of luck. Brownlee and associates are merely continuing a tradition of vandalism.

That, though, needs to be balanced by acknowledging their good intention of making the city safe and their not having limitless funds on which to draw. The pity is that those realities are not associated with the realisation that a city and its people need continuity in their surroundings and that could have been achieved by saving key structures.

The consolation is that the old Chief Post Office, Arts Centre and museum survive and the Provincial Chambers will be rebuilt. Citizens also have a CBD that will be safe, green and in time might seem beautiful. That last quality will have to be fought for.

The designs so far put forward displease many people - too boxy, undecorated, not native to our place, too much glass and steel - and little can be done about it given the prevailing architectural styles and lack of rules on the look of buildings. But the big keystone structures - the library, convention centre, stadium, transport hub and cultural precinct - are different. They will be largely paid for by ratepayers, who should take a strong stand on how they look.


The Press