Modern city needs new town hall

BROKEN GROUND: The Christchurch Town Hall is badly torn apart and sits on damaged land.
BROKEN GROUND: The Christchurch Town Hall is badly torn apart and sits on damaged land.

The Christchurch Town Hall is broken and unusable, and fixing it would be an expensive challenge, says the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee.

Not many communities are given the opportunity to start major elements of their infrastructure from scratch.

As a consequence of the seismic sequence that began in September 2010, Christchurch has just that opportunity.

In July 2012, we launched a blueprint with several anchor projects that a team of highly regarded designers and urban planners recommended for rebuilding Christchurch as a thriving, liveable city.

Contrary to misleading statements from our political opponents that the people of Christchurch never got a say on the blueprint or the anchor projects, and the suggestion that they are a whim of central government, it is important to note a bit of history that proves such a proposition quite wrong.

Many of you will have taken part in the Christchurch City Council's excellent Share an Idea consultation process, which asked you what sort of city you wanted to live in, and what facilities and amenities it should have.

Your feedback became a draft council plan, which the council presented to the Government for review in December 2011.

In April 2012 we established the Christchurch Central Development Unit, of which the Christchurch City Council is a part, with the Crown and Ngai Tahu.

Council staff advised and played a significant role in developing the blueprint, ensuring it reflected what Christchurch residents told them. There was strong community support for a performing arts precinct, which was developed into an anchor project.

In 1974, Christchurch opened the premier performing arts facility of its generation.

The Christchurch Town Hall was state of the art for its time. The ultimate compliment was paid when in 1975 the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington was commissioned using the same architects and acoustic engineer.

Today the Christchurch Town Hall is badly torn apart.

What is left of it sits on some of the worst land from the geotechnical perspective in the central city - in part why it is so seriously damaged. It lies broken and unusable, and fixing it would be an expensive challenge.

We have a clear choice: try to recapture the magic of the past and patch up the town hall, as some want to do; or deliver modern facilities that could again have Christchurch leading the world for quality performing arts spaces.

The blueprint proposes developing an arts and entertainment complex with multiple theatres and performing arts spaces.

It would deliver auditoria of differing sizes, for multiple purposes, across a range of entertainment genres and with the performing arts community's needs in mind.

This proposal encompasses the things Christchurch residents told the city council they wanted through the Share an Idea process.

It would incorporate space for our music schools.

It would have space for art house cinema and documentaries.

Performance spaces of varying sizes would take some risk out of mounting shows; if more seats were required, they would be at the same venue.

A shared box office and reception plaza would mean a shared cost base, and a chance to have a variety of entertainment choices.

The Court Theatre deserves a home in the heart of the city and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra needs a place to perform. Their home would be in the performing arts precinct, which would also link into the Isaac Theatre Royal.

At this point I think it is helpful to look at what is happening with another performing arts facility close to our shores - the Sydney Opera House, which opened a year earlier than the Christchurch Town Hall.

It is rightly considered a heritage asset but it is one that has changed much since it opened; the sort of change that never occurred at the Christchurch Town Hall.

It may surprise readers to learn that the Sydney Opera House has become more of a precinct than an opera house, generating 85 per cent of its operational funding through commercial and other ventures - food and beverage, ticket sales, venue rentals and associated business, retail, tourism and fundraising.

When it was built the Christchurch Town Hall was the envy of many cities.

I often hear people say it had the best acoustics in the world. The operative word is had, given its present state, and while that may have been true in 1974, changes now being made to the Sydney Opera House give a good signal that these older buildings have great limitations in the modern day.

As the Sydney Opera House Trust puts it: "The trust believes that after 40 years of use, the opera house has some major flaws that present health and safety, operational, artistic and commercial challenges."

Notably, the trust says "advances in theatre technology and design innovation" have "far surpassed the condition of the building". It concludes: "There is an urgent need to address these deficiencies if the opera house is to remain relevant and competitive in a global market." Sydney has taken an incremental approach to changing appetites and business models, and still finds major change is required.

Christchurch has the opportunity to have a fully functional precinct that allows us to be as proud of, and participate in, the arts as it does in sport. We know we can deliver a cultural heart for our city - after all, we are not short of people who want to participate at all levels of the performing arts.

This is the sort of infrastructure that meets the needs of a modern city.

With respect to the old town hall, it did not, and had not for some considerable time.

The Press