OPINION: The Christchurch City Council's unanimous decision to save the Christchurch Town Hall will be welcomed by many people. A poll conducted by The Press a few weeks ago found that 87 per cent of those polled believed rebuilding the town hall should be a top priority, significantly above the number who wanted a new rugby stadium.
Many experts had argued strongly for it. Sir Howard Marshall, who designed the building's acoustics, said it was the finest piece of architecture built in New Zealand in the latter half of the 20th century, "a true taonga", and Associate Professor Ian Lochhead, of the University of Canterbury, said that no other New Zealand building had had an influence on world architecture to compare with it. As one of the few remaining public buildings of any distinction whose future is still in doubt, there is undoubtedly considerable sentiment in favour of trying to save it.
The city council must make its decisions on more than sentiment, however, and in this case it is hard to escape the conclusion that the council has not taken everything it should have into consideration and that, at best, has come to a decision prematurely. The misgivings expressed by the Minister of Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, appear to be entirely justified.
The city council was undoubtedly correct to reject a staff recommendation that only the main auditorium be saved. The auditorium is, of course, the centrepiece of the structure, but it is the whole building that Christchurch people have become attached to. The idea of being able to retain some kind of stub of it in any form that would be at all aesthetically pleasing was difficult to contemplate.
There are huge problems, though, with trying to save the whole building. Damage to it is severe. The restaurant, meeting rooms and James Hay Theatre are particularly badly damaged, to the point that council staff did not think they could be saved. The auditorium would require extensive repair. More worrying is that the ground beneath the building has shifted and skewed it.
Geotechnical reports on the ground have yet to be completed and Brownlee is correct to say that until they are, no final decision can be made. Even without them, it is possible to guess that the site is not a good one. The Crowne Plaza hotel next door has had to be demolished and the law courts building nearby, also on the riverside, is in doubt. Restoring the land to the point where anyone could have enough confidence in it to justify repairing the building is likely to be a huge task.
The council has projected that the cost of the repair would be $127.5 million. That is, coincidentally, not far off, after adjusting for inflation in construction costs, today's equivalent of the $4m it cost to build it in the early 1970s.
Few people, however, would believe that the repair would end at or even near that figure. Public building projects are notorious for running far above their initial estimates and this one, being more difficult than most, would be almost bound to. The council would also have to persuade insurance companies that a repaired building was sound enough to insure. Premiums would likely be high.
Part of the projected cost would be offset by an insurance payout of $69m. That would leave $58.5m to be found, which the council intends to spread over four years.
There are many who do not believe that, with the council's finances in a far from robust state and heated arguments already occurring with the Government over spending, this would be the wisest use such a lot of ratepayers' money.
There also appears to have been little thought given to how repairing the town hall would fit into the blueprint's plans for a new, grand arts and cultural precinct. A new auditorium, using the latest in computer-aided acoustic design and built to a size more appropriate to Christchurch could be included there to give the city a world-class amenity once more.
Brownlee and the Canterbury Earthquake Recover Authority will be reluctant to over-rule a unanimous decision by the city council, but in this case they could well be justified in doing so. With so much still to be determined, it is certainly a decision that needs to be carefully and coolly reconsidered when all the relevant factors are finally known.
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