Demolishing half of CBD 'unbelievable'

SEEING FOR HIMSELF: Dr Kit Miyamoto at work in Christchurch's wrecked central business district.
SEEING FOR HIMSELF: Dr Kit Miyamoto at work in Christchurch's wrecked central business district.

Dr Kit Miyamoto has provided an international perspective on preserving Christchurch's heritage after the quakes. LORRAINE NORTH writes in his support.


Relief and a sense of encouragement were common responses by many people who attended the presentation by Dr Kit Miyamoto, chief executive of international earthquake and structural engineering firm Miyamoto International, at the International Speaker Series on August 30.

Since then he and Miyamoto International's senior associate, Michael King, have been working in the city to assist groups and individuals structure their earthquake recovery responses around creative options and to encourage the retention of as many buildings as possible in the inner city, especially heritage buildings.

An important part of their work is to help communities identify and mobilise their own resources and to recognise how much power resides in them to take positive action without necessarily waiting for support from local or central government.

Over the past 30 years Miyamoto International has assisted cities recover from more than 100 natural disaster events such as hurricanes and major earthquakes. Included in these are the Haiti earthquakes in January 2010 and Kobe in 1995, as well as those in Istanbul, Romania, and Mexico. Recently Christchurch was added to their list.

It has become clear since the public lecture that Miyamoto's central assertion that far too many buildings are being demolished in Christchurch reflects an opinion held strongly by not only concerned Christchurch citizens but also professionals in heritage preservation, architecture, engineering, property development and urban planning. Dr Ian Lochhead, art historian, expert in Gothic Revival architecture and co-chairman of IConIC (Interests in Conserving the Identity of Christchurch) is very positive about Miyamoto's position: "He has told the public, as an international expert, exactly what our local IConIC group has been saying since we first started our weekly meetings a week or so after the February earthquake," Lochead says. "We should be trying to protect the existing character of our city as much as we can, and especially our built heritage. It is irreplaceable and it's what makes us unique."

Miyamoto is urging Christchurch not to make the same mistakes as other cities which now regret the hasty destruction of heritage buildings. He explained that in his home country of Japan, for example, there exist now only two extremes of building style: the very ancient (more than 1000 years old) which were considered worthy of preserving, and the very modern. Many "really beautiful buildings" built in the 1800s and early 1900s, are gone now because they were "not considered old enough to be worth saving". He believes their loss has left a big hole in Japan's cultural fabric. He sees much of Christchurch's High St area as "wholly repairable" and believes for around 20 per cent of the replacement cost it could be repaired and strengthened.

"A lot of buildings slated for demolition should be considered for repairs and strengthening, particularly heritage buildings," Miyamoto says. "No more than 10 per cent of buildings in the CBD should come down. To be saying 50 per cent should go in Christchurch - that's 1200 out of 2400 buildings - is unbelievable. I don't understand why this should be. In general your building stock has stood up very well in comparison with other cities and you have good codes and excellent engineers."

Miyamoto sees bringing down the Grand Chancellor to a safe level and opening up the Red Zone as a top priority. The longer the central city stays shut down the higher the risk it will suffer from the "doughnut effect" which has blighted so many North American cities left with abandoned inner city areas that fail to attract new investment. According to Miyamoto, almost any building is repairable - it's a question of feasibility and the importance attached to it by the community. Buildings function strongly as cultural markers with which people often closely identify in terms of both community and national identity.

Although the Haiti Palace was badly damaged, it was fully restored because it was regarded by the people as a "national treasure", despite being in a very poor country. In Istanbul the same attitude prevailed because of the commonly held belief that "heritage buildings are priceless".

Our regard for heritage in New Zealand at a national level falls well short of this position. Total funding for "heritage" from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in 2009-10 was a mere $17.5 million (only 14 per cent of the $350m total fund). And this from a fairly small Arts, Culture and Heritage vote, one which allocated 20 per cent of its total funding to sport. There has been a lack of leadership in favour of heritage retention in Christchurch at a national and local level.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's legendary description of Christchurch heritage and character buildings, as "old dungers" which should come down as soon as possible has led negative public opinion about heritage preservation for Christchurch. There has been an absence of pro-active initiatives from the government-funded New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Locally there has been no strong leadership statement from Mayor Bob Parker about the city council's commitment to saving as much of the city's built heritage assets as possible, including its own iconic heritage buildings Our City and the Provincial Council Chambers.

The good news is that Miyamoto believes it is not too late for Christchurch. New Zealand's EQC insurance structure is very good and is an exception globally. "It gives you a lot of options other countries don't have," he says. The city still has the potential to become an international model and provide a blueprint for earthquake recovery. If further demolitions are halted right away he could see as a part of that model the city could distinguish itself with a high retention rate of its unique character base. Although Dr Miyamoto has not examined Christ Church Cathedral in close detail, from what he has observed he thinks the intense damage seems isolated and can see no reason for this iconic Christchurch landmark from which the city takes its name not to be fully restored.

"Sure heritage restoration can be expensive," says Michael King, "but there are a lot of case studies from around the world where cities have been creative in how they raise funds internationally."

He believes Christchurch can become one of them. "Focus on specifics, for example, like restoring your Gothic Revival architecture, and look for backing from overseas. There's a lot of philanthropic generosity out there to help get you started if you know how to look."

King does not agree with statements that have been made about the extent of liquefaction being unprecedented worldwide: "There were significant areas of liquefaction here in Christchurch, but it was actually not as bad as people say when compared with Japan for example."

When asked his opinion about the compulsory evacuation of the eastern suburbs, Dr Miyamoto says he thought it was "outrageous" to close down whole suburbs against the will of residents, and although there was a lot of damage many of the homes he saw he considered fixable.

He does not know of any country in the world that might do this, "with the possible exception of China".

King believes that creative restoration programmes could attract world attention, bring in tourists, train future generations in heritage craft and other building skills, create jobs and make money. "The possibilities and opportunities are endless."

* Lorraine North is chairwoman of the Canterbury Arts and Heritage Trust and managing director of Professional Arts Services.

The Press