Let our public living room live again

Dr Ian Lochhead argues for the retention and restoration of the quake-damaged Christchurch Town Hall.

Anyone who has attended an annual Christmas concert or performance of Handel's Messiah, or perhaps a school prizegiving or university graduation ceremony, or a Christchurch School of Music children's concert, will know the Christchurch Town Hall is more than just a building.

It has become for thousands of people in Christchurch and Canterbury our public living room, the place where we come together to share and celebrate the important events in the lives of families and our community as a whole.

The oval shape of the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium (named for our most illustrious composer) contributes to this sense of community togetherness. It is a democratic, not a hierarchical space, in which everyone has an equal share in the proceedings.

For these reasons alone the Town Hall is worth making every effort we possibly can to save.

But for Christchurch and New Zealand the building represents many things, although these may not be readily apparent to those who have visited the building over the last 40 years.

In architectural terms it is one of this country's most important buildings of the last century. It resulted from one of the largest architectural competitions ever conducted here and Warren and Mahoney's winning entry was immediately accepted as the design that most effectively addressed the multiple requirements of the brief.

Unusually for such a complex building, it was completed on time and within budget. Almost from the day it opened it was recognised for the efficiency and clarity of its planning, the elegance of its spaces and, above all else, the excellence of its acoustics.

Reviewing the newly completed complex, the Wellington architect W H Alington observed that the concert hall had created "a space that will be quite a new experience for a New Zealand audience", and concluded that the building "will take a prominent place in the history of New Zealand architecture".

He also recognised that the Town Hall belonged to an ongoing tradition of Christchurch building; the new structures, in their "mass, colour and texture have accepted the precedent of the 19th-century examples that grace the west side of [Victoria] square".

Some people have never warmed to the fair-faced concrete columns and aggregate panels of the Town Hall's exterior, and reference to the New Brutalism of post- war British architecture has probably not helped its acceptance.

But the extensive use of timber in both the main auditorium and the James Hay Theatre, as well as the ebullience of Pat Hanley's mural, give the interior spaces a warm and festive feel that few modern buildings in New Zealand can rival.

The interiors are also meticulously crafted and detailed. All these features make the building special and contribute to our enjoyment of it, even if we are conscious of these aspects of the building at a largely subliminal level. After 40 years of use the essential qualities of the building are all intact; it has worn exceptionally well.

These are also excellent reasons for retaining the Town Hall, but there is a further, and even more compelling reason for ensuring that it is remediated, restored and brought back to use.

This is the excellence of its acoustics and its historical importance in the development of modern concert hall design.

Few New Zealand buildings have had a significant impact on the development of architecture beyond these shores.

The Christchurch Town Hall, however, was a paradigm-changing building as it demonstrated that an oval or egg-shaped plan was compatible with acoustic excellence.

Traditionally, concert halls had been rectangular in plan, following the example of the Musikverein in Vienna, which was renowned for its fine acoustics.

The limitation of this kind of shape was that the audience was placed on a flat floor with narrow galleries on the upper level, meaning that only those in the front seats had a sense of contact with the performers and sightlines were restricted.

An alternative approach was offered by the Albert Hall in London - a circular space with multiple galleries - a building that Sir Miles Warren acknowledges as an influence on his own design. The problem with the Albert Hall was that its acoustic was excessively reverberant.

As the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously remarked, young composers were fortunate to have their works performed in the Albert Hall, because they had the opportunity of hearing them twice.

During the 1950s and 1960s architects and acoustic engineers around the world were experimenting with new forms of concert hall design, with varying degrees of success.

Neither the Royal Festival Hall in London, or Avery Fisher Hall at New York's Lincoln Centre - prestigious venues in major cities - can be considered acoustically successful, and many millions have been spent on remedying their defects.

Finlandia Hall in Helsinki has proved so problematic that it is now being replaced, even though it is the same age as the Christchurch Town Hall.

The concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, also contemporaneous with the Town Hall, is another acoustically compromised venue.

Some years ago I heard performances of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in Christchurch and Sydney within a few months of one another; the impact of the work's finale in Christchurch was overwhelming but in Sydney it seemed muted in comparison.

The acoustic success of the Christchurch Town Hall is directly attributable to the creative partnership between the architects and the New Zealand acoustic engineer Harold Marshall.

The problem of the uncontrolled sound reflections within an oval space was solved by the use of angled reflective panels around the sides of the building that created a room within a room. This produced a sound that was resonant but also preserved great clarity of detail.

Some of the world's greatest musicians have performed in the Town Hall and they have been unanimous in their praise. When Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in Christchurch in 1975 he would have been reminded that there was no modern concert hall of comparable excellence in New York City.

International commentators on concert hall design all acknowledge the significance of the Christchurch Town Hall. A typical comment is that by John O'Keefe in a 1998 article entitled "The New Understanding of Acoustics".

O'Keefe noted that "if there is a new confidence in room acoustics design, the turning point would probably be found in Christchurch, New Zealand, circa 1972. Its 2650-seat arena-shaped Town Hall was the first room to be designed using the 'sound from the sides' theory; it is renowned for its good acoustics. After Christchurch, most of the rooms designed to promote good lateral reflections have met with success".

During the interval of a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert at the SBS Arena last year I had a conversation with Dr Peter Walls, the orchestra's chief executive.

After bemoaning the inadequacies of the venue, he acknowledged that we have come to take the outstanding acoustics of the Christchurch Town Hall and the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington (designed by the same architects and acoustic engineers) for granted. This is something we should never do.

Even the same designers could not achieve quite the same level of overall excellence in Wellington as they did in Christchurch, and although concert hall design has advanced since the 1960s, it remains as much an art as a science.

Although a high level of success in acoustic design can be more reliably achieved now than 50 years ago, truly exceptional concert halls remain comparatively rare.

Christchurch has such a rare concert hall but it is damaged and repair will be both technically challenging and costly. The cost of repair may even exceed the sum for which the building is insured.

Yet if we demolish our existing concert hall of known excellence, can we be certain of building a new one that will be better and for a cost comparable to that of fixing the existing building? The answer to both these questions is almost certainly no.

Not only can we not guarantee the acoustic performance of an unbuilt design, past experience has shown that large and complex buildings very often exceed the stipulated budget.

While the temptation of commissioning a glossy new town hall will no doubt be attractive to our city councillors, they should resist the blandishments of consultants eager to sell a dazzling new concept and remember that we already have a world-beating concert hall, if only we have the courage to fix it and make it live again.

*Dr Ian Lochhead is associate professor of art history at the University of Canterbury and chairman of the heritage advocacy group Iconic.

The Press