Editorial: Town Hall in balance

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa struck the right note for many in her plea for the retention of the Christchurch Town Hall.

If it were lost, she said, the city would lose a building suffused with wonderful musical memories and possessing fine acoustics. Few citizens would disagree but would add that the hall's physical presence is part of Christchurch's defining look - a look fast being radically altered.

It is therefore understandable that the Keep Our Town Hall lobby group has sprung up with a membership including the building's architects, Maurice Mahoney and Sir Miles Warren, and leading members of the musical and heritage community.

They are not yet barricaded in the back row of the stalls with the demolition ball about to swing towards them, because the Town Hall's fate has not been decided. Its damage has been investigated for a year and the results will be published this month but it is known that the ground has shifted under the building and skewed it. The riverside restaurant and meeting rooms, together with the James Hay Theatre, are understood to be particularly damaged. Even the auditorium, which was once thought to be little affected, has been twisted.

Considering what is already known, and the fate of neighbouring buildings - the Park Royal Hotel, the Law Courts and the Convention Centre - it is unlikely the engineers will find the Town Hall is savable.

Any seriously damaged building can be saved, of course, but at a price, and it is price that will finally count in this instance. Given the hall's qualities, it should be saved if the cost of remedial work is not formidably large, but large the figure is likely to be. Not only is the auditorium a massive structure that would require sophisticated engineering to be righted, but the land under it would surely have to be remediated extensively and deep foundations sunk. On the layman's calculator, the cost comes to many millions.

Adding to the discouraging tally are the options emerging of a new concert hall and large meeting venue in the rebuilt Christchurch. The convention centre is being spoken about as having a space able to match the Town Hall auditorium's seating capacity and the cultural precinct incorporating a concert hall.

If sentiment about the present building is put aside, its mooted replacements are enticing. They would separate the conflicting purposes of hosting large civic events and providing a purpose-built venue for music - a conflict that has dogged the Town Hall auditorium. It was built on the understanding that every respectable city needed a huge meeting place were citizens could gather on great occasions and sing their own praises to the sound of a thundering organ.

But as in Britain, where such buildings originated, the civic bombast conflicted with the need to hear music with balanced clarity. British cities have thus been building concert halls, and, if it can, Christchurch should too - one with perfect hearing from every seat and seats few enough to be regularly filled.

Other things would compensate if the Town Hall came down. Christchurch would not be left with a venue that had lost its context - no neighbouring convention centre, the cultural precinct down the road, distant from the transport hub, off the tourist track.

Those things do not tip the balance against reasonable efforts to save the Town Hall but they make a tip towards demolition far from a disaster.

The Press