We don't want ugly or boring buildings

01:39, Jun 19 2013
Cardboard cathedral
COMING ALONG: Only a rare few special buildings stand out and become architectural gems. The cardboard cathedral, by Shigeru Ban, has already put Christchurch on the architectural world map.

Architecture can inspire and bedazzle, delight or infuriate. What do you think of the plans so far for Christchurch?

Critics have lambasted tilt-slab concrete boxes, walls of glass and high-rise towers. Some people want to see ornamental facades restored. Some have called for more visionary and imaginative buildings.

People will have the chance to hear from architects and also to ask questions and share their views at a discussion evening to be held at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology tomorrow.

Architects will explain the factors that shape Christchurch's contemporary, post-earthquake buildings, says David Hill, of Wilson and Hill Architects and chairman of the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

"New buildings in Christchurch don't look like the old buildings did, and it's understandable that some people aren't happy about that," he says.

"Change is easier to handle when it's small and gradual, but, of course, the change to the fabric of our city has been big and sudden."


He's not kidding. We are still uncertain what the new city will look like. New buildings are supposed to be better than old ones. They should be safer, stronger, more comfortable and more energy-efficient.

The quality of construction and how a building functions are paramount, but people also want buildings to look good. We don't want an ugly or boring built environment.

So why not design buildings to look the way they did before, but build them better?

I asked a young Italian architect, Caterina Steiner, who recently helped judge the Architectural Designers of New Zealand awards, what she thought.

Steiner, who grew up and studied in Siena and Florence among the world's finest historic architecture, was adamant. We should build new, she believed. Rome, for example, is a city built of many historic layers.

Not everybody will agree. Historic buildings in many European cities, especially in Germany, were restored after World War II.

Some of Christchurch's historic buildings can be restored, such as the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, the Arts Centre and, arguably, Christ Church Cathedral.

So can some facades. The restored Strategy Building and Monday Room cafe in Moorhouse Ave looks superb.

But the vast majority of old buildings were not in great shape. The city council failed to persuade or enforce owners to maintain and upgrade them.

Why rebuild a whole city in the style of 100 years ago when we can have more exciting, modern designs?

Many old and some not so old buildings are plain ugly. Drive along most Christchurch thoroughfares and you are greeted by a uniform outlook of slab-like single or two-storey warehouses, stores and supermarkets.

On a grey winter's day, they look depressing. Few, if any, have been designed by architects. Better designed ordinary buildings would create a harmonious, pleasing environment.

Buildings need not be boxes. Curves, varied roof forms and balconies and outdoor areas add drama and visual relief. Walls of glass can make a building light and airy, but unless designed skilfully, can cause glare and overheating.

Only a rare few special buildings stand out and become architectural gems. The cardboard cathedral, by Shigeru Ban, has already put Christchurch on the architectural world map.

It looks delightful and original. Perhaps we need another top name to design a building. The convention centre, for example. Why not combine it with the town hall or a concert centre?

Internationally, energy efficiency and eco-friendly design are increasingly important. As Philip Jodidio writes in 100 Contemporary Green Buildings: "The most exciting new buildings in the world are now almost all environmentally aware, sustainable and conceived to consume far less energy than ever before."

Visiting Canadian architect Tye Farrow spoke of "salutogenic" architecture - buildings that are literally good for your health. The use of natural, non-toxic materials and a clean indoor environment are essential. Good-looking buildings and landscaping simply make you feel good.

Architect David Sheppard believes architects can be trend-setters but he also cautions that the main driver is the client. Some clients may actively seek to create an aesthetically pleasing building, while others are concerned purely with cost.

Of course, cost and returns are crucial, but increasingly businesses are recognising the need to look at the social and the environmental bottom lines, too.

Historically, Christchurch people have not been bashful about saying what they think about architecture.

"The city has a fine architectural tradition and a great architectural lineage stretching from Benjamin Mountford and Samuel Hurst Seager to Cecil Wood and Sir Miles Warren and Peter Beaven," Hill says.

"Christchurch architects are very conscious of their responsibility to renew that legacy. Like everyone else who lives in the city, we want Christchurch to have buildings future generations can be proud of."

The architectural evening will be held tomorrow, June 20, at the DL Lecture Theatre, CPIT, Madras St, at 6pm.

Have your say on architecture and the Christchurch rebuild. Email david.killick@press.co.nz or letters@press.co.nz.

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