Editorial: Fate of town hall divides

TOWN HALL: The future of the city's premier concert venue remains uncertain.
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
TOWN HALL: The future of the city's premier concert venue remains uncertain.

You wouldn't buy a house without at least attending an open home. Nor should Christchurch City councillors finally commit $127.5 million towards saving the Christchurch Town Hall without at least going to look for themselves at the damage that has been done to it.

They are to be congratulated for asking for a visit to the fenced-off complex so they can make a firsthand assessment of the complexity of the task ahead.

The fate of the town hall is divisive. Councillors have already voted unanimously to try to save it. Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee says the building is "broken and unusable" and should be torn down.

The Government's concept map of the new Christchurch has grass and trees in that space. In the recent divvying up of who pays for what in the city rebuild, the Government handed the town hall back to the councillors and effectively told them, if you want it, you pay for it.

For its advocates, the town hall is an architectural marvel with a concert chamber of superb acoustic merits, yet it is cosily and affectionately remembered as the city's living room.

One of its architects, Sir Miles Warren, points out that it has an international reputation and it is hard to spot the damage, even when inside. It houses the multimillion-dollar Rieger pipe organ, which is relatively undamaged.

For Brownlee and others, however, it is too badly wrecked, the foundations are askew, it sits on some of the most unstable land in the city, and fixing it would be an expensive challenge.

Brownlee's view is that Christchurch has a choice: Either it can try to "recapture the magic of the past" or it can build modern facilities and world-class venues within the proposed performing arts precinct, to be based around the rapidly re-emerging Theatre Royal, between Gloucester St and the Avon River.

In this, Brownlee has a point, and councillors should also take into account whether a town hall rebuild would in any way jeopardise the effort to bring diverse performing arts into a vibrant quarter closer to the city's heart.

Another complication is that the city is due to get a large new convention centre, probably with 1000-seat and 500-seat auditoriums.

At the moment, Christchurch doesn't have enough venues, but it has to be considered whether it can in future sustainably support the convention centre, a rebuilt town hall, a new Theatre Royal and several other smaller performance spaces all within a few blocks.

The thought of a potentially competing venue just across Victoria Square is likely to be off-putting to the private investors who will be needed to bring the convention centre vision to reality.

In some ways, this is becoming a classic Christchurch conundrum: past glories versus a modern future; pre-quake memories versus post-quake potential; spending money to rebuild the old, or using it to construct something new.

The earthquakes changed everything. Councillors might find that the town hall will cost too much to save.

The Press