Quake memorial must be 'commanding'

Someone in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage knows their Christchurch history. In announcing the plan for an earthquake memorial, the department has avoided some of the pitfalls that have derailed memorialising in this city's past.

The deepest of those has been siting. The Godley statue has been repositioned several times and might be again; the citizens' war memorial was nearly not built because of the intensity of the dispute about where to put it; the FitzGerald monument is scheduled for a shift to Latimer Sq; the busts on Worcester Blvd of leading personalities have been the target of as much derision as praise partly because of their disturbing position as onlookers at the passing parade.

Almost every other Christchurch memorial has attracted controversy, as have the city's key public buildings, which is not surprising given the strong feelings residents have about their city. Christchurch people from the beginning of the colony have had ideals about how the city should look and how it should commemorate its leaders and great events, and the earthquakes have been the greatest of events.

The Press from a few days after February 22, 2011, has been printing correspondence about how to remember the victims, and opinions are divided. They will become even more divided as the ministry's memorial plan progresses.

What will not be debated to any effect will be the siting, because the Government has taken that decision upon itself, presumably knowing that public debate about the site could stymie progress. But it is a risky manoeuvre. A site out of the way or seen as inappropriate would attract a torrent of disapproval.

The Government's powers to take land for the memorial without obstruction gives it the chance to choose a site that appropriately commemorates the dead and adds to the Christchurch cityscape. What should guide officials is that the monument needs to be at the city's heart, available to as many people as possible and in their sight, because of the magnitude of the quakes' impact on the lives of citizens and the look of their city.

The revamped Square, enlarged and opened up, surely is the place for the monument, particularly because the cathedral as the dominant feature of that place is in doubt.

With such a central position and commemorating such a central event, the monument will have to be commanding - a powerful expression of the city's grief and confidence in its power to rise from the rubble.

Knowing that, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is opening the design to international talent, in the form of a competition. That will allow the world's most creative designers, sculptors and architects to use their talents for Christchurch's benefit in creating a structure that moves the onlooker and attracts attention.

Such qualities can be achieved by someone from outside Christchurch and who did not experience the catastrophe, such is the power of great artists, so it would be a mistake to insist that the design be restricted to New Zealanders.

The same mustering of international talent needs to take place in the design of other key buildings proposed by the blueprint. The pool of architects in this country is small. New Zealand architects must play a central role, but let's also embrace the best from elsewhere on the globe.

The Press