OPINION: Clever spaces, eye-catching looks, and innovative, environmentally friendly features, including solar power, make new buildings at Rangi Ruru Girls' School in Christchurch a splendid showcase for exciting, contemporary architecture.
They also offer a tantalising glimpse of what could be possible on a larger scale for Christchurch - if only we seize the opportunity.
Three buildings have been completed so far as part of Rangi Ruru's Project Blue Sky redevelopment: The Science Building and the Gibson Centre (the library, named for the sisters who founded the school in 1889), opened by Cera CEO Roger Sutton last month; and the Student Services and Social Services building, named Mana Wahine (Strong Women), to be officially opened by Sir Tipene O'Regan on May 29.
Art and Technology faculty buildings will re-open later this year, and plans for a new Music and Performing Arts Centre are being finalised.
The beautiful old historic wooden Te Koraha, which dates from the 1880s, has been fully restored, with unsympathetic additions removed. The 1940s Science building will also be restored.
The redevelopment comes as Rangi Ruru celebrates its 125th anniversary.
Principal Julie Moor is delighted.
"These are quite simply exceptional buildings which have been designed specifically for girls," she says.
She was determined buildings should be inspiring. Curves were important.
"We didn't want something square and industrial. This is a school for girls."
As she shows me around during lunch break, I get what she means. Girls kick their shoes off and sprawl out, relax, chat, and study at the same time. A surprise: Excellent acoustics keep sound levels down. The buildings, with their curves, sloping ceilings, and free- flowing spaces designed for social interaction are light years away from the formal, no-nonsense institutionalised educational structures of bygone eras.
Melbourne-based McIldowie Partners Architects were chosen for their expertise in designing educational buildings. Director, architect Craig Brown, describes the Science Building as "kind of like a living, breathing giant science experiment".
"It's a living building that will actively engage the students by being the very latest, environmentally responsive building that uses natural ventilation for both heating and cooling (which might indeed be the only one of its kind in New Zealand), together with things like displays of how systems work, green walls, and weather stations. The master plan has focused on the Rangi Ruru campus being an evolving, vibrant learning environment specifically designed for girls." He says digital displays can be incorporated into learning about such things as water use, solar power, and energy efficient design.
Colourful materials reflect the Canterbury landscape (the upstairs level of the Science Building represents the New Zealand Alps; downstairs the Canterbury Plains). Cloud- shaped lights are by designer David Trubridge.
A large overhead "occulus" in the Gibson Centre opens when needed for cooling. Girls can uses solar- powered charging stations to re-charge devices.
One wall in Mana Wahine is lined with doors recovered from the old building and signed by girls who were at the school during the February 22, 2011 earthquake. Names of rooms celebrate strong women. They include Helen Clark, Kate Sheppard, Dame Atarangikahu, and Malala.
Girls, staff, and visitors clearly love the new buildings. Their smiles say it all.
"It's magic," says Julie Moor. "The girls when they came here were so excited. This is the future. They have got space to move. It's energising space, about socialising as well as learning.
"We lived with broken buildings, then suddenly this release: something beautiful has come out of it. The dream has become a reality. There's new energy, hope."
The Rangi Ruru project successfully combines the best of the old with the best of 21st century architecture, preserving history and a connection with the past while offering opportunities for the future.
Could the project be a microcosm of redevelopment in Christchurch? The possibility looks attractive; however, to be successful, the stars would have to align in three main spheres:
Economic. Rangi Ruru's rebuild has depended on adequate insurance and a timely payout. That is not the case for Christchurch public buildings and infrastructure, which were woefully under- insured. For that, blame the previous city council. Insurance issues bedevil the rebuild.
Efficiency. Getting everybody to agree and work together on any project requires considerable effort and real leadership. Squabbles among main players in the Christchurch rebuild make consensus and progress that much harder.
Design-led. From early on, Rangi Ruru recognised the difference good design makes to the final project, in terms of aesthetics, practicality, and future proofing. The lesson has been lost on some in Christchurch as the rebuild grinds on, at a glacial pace.
While Rangi Ruru scores tops marks in all three categories, the city struggles to merit a pass mark for any of them. "Could do better" is the inevitable report card.
Yet the potential is still there for more innovative architecture. It can be done.
- The Press