Editorial: Cathedral demolition is sad news

Last updated 09:41 04/12/2013

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OPINION: The Anglican Church and its building trustees have won another court victory over the demolition of the Christ Church Cathedral, but this is no cause for celebration.

The church diocese confirmed yesterday that it now believes it is free to demolish the cathedral and move ahead with plans for a replacement. With the levelling of the building now looking so certain, it is time to ponder a sobering question: how are we going to feel when the demolition resumes?

Whatever your view on the building, that will be a sad day for Christchurch, and a sadder one still when the last of the old stone is carted away.

Bishop Victoria Matthews has promised that there will be a new cathedral within 10 years, but that seems like cold comfort right now. The published concept drawings for a new, contemporary design have been lacklustre. Even the new cathedral dean, Lynda Patterson, admits the concept is "not ideal". She wants the replacement building to be "very inspirational", and we haven't seen anything to inspire us yet.

With no real notion of what will occupy that space right at the heart of our city, the grief of the loss of the cathedral can only be intensified as its structure is reduced. Even the most secular of Cantabrians might then lament what is being lost.

There are still two outstanding legal challenges to be overcome before demolition can restart, but they are beginning to look like a forlorn hope for the old church's supporters. They are, if nothing else, chapters in an argument that began even before the cathedral was deconsecrated and will probably continue long after it is levelled. The central tenet of that argument is one two-part question: should the traditional cathedral be saved, and at what cost?

The second part of the question obviously predicates the first, and there is the rub. The lobbyists who would save the old building believe that it can be done at a reasonable price, and say they have backers lined up to donate. The bishop has said that she wants a new cathedral in a reasonable time- frame at a cost which will not be at the expense of the church's ministry.

Anything can be saved if enough money is thrown at it, and the Anglican diocese's costings of a full restoration (which not everyone accepts) run to between $104 million and $221m.

To put this in perspective, the Town Hall's rebuild, which both the old and new city councils have agreed to, is estimated at $127.5m.

The proposed Christchurch Stadium is likely to cost the council $253m, and the total costs of all the central city anchor projects will be $4.8 billion, with $2.9b from the Government and $1.9b to be funded by ratepayers.

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The highest estimated cost of fully restoring the cathedral is only slightly more than providing a metro sports facility in the rebuilt Christchurch - $217m, including land, split between the council and the Crown.

The cathedral, however, is not an anchor project and is not the responsibility of the council or the Government. It is only one of about 200 Anglican buildings affected by the earthquakes, 38 of which sustained damage of more than $50,000. The diocese's insurance shortfall could be $30m and it faces further costs of about $11m for earthquake strengthening in its properties. In light of all that, the preference for a quickly built contemporary cathedral at a cost of $56m to $74m is entirely understandable.

The fear is that whatever goes up in that central space will be a poor successor to what we're about to lose. Yes, the Anglican diocese is no doubt keen to get on now but, before it does, it needs to honestly reconsider the work it did which led it to the conclusion that the cathedral should not be saved. If it then believes that a new church is still the answer, it has to come up with a design which is worthy of its predecessor. The bishop has said she wants a cathedral that will invite the spirit of those who look upon it to soar and sing, even before they enter the doors. She must consider whether demolition and rebuild will achieve this.

- The Press

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