Symbol of great innovation

IAN LOCHHEAD
Last updated 08:00 21/06/2013

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Rather than advocating the demolition of the Christchurch Town Hall, the Government should be nominating it for World Heritage status, writes Dr IAN LOCHHEAD .

OPINION: Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's statement that the Christchurch Town Hall should be demolished comes as no surprise. The minister had already expressed this view following the city council's unanimous decision late last year to fully strengthen and restore the complex.

What is more surprising is the context in which his claim has been made. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has made it quite clear that the decision on the future of the town hall is to be the council's responsibility and the Christchurch Central Development Unit blueprint for the central city also acknowledges that the final design for the proposed arts precinct is contingent upon whether the town hall is retained.

If the building is as damaged as the minister asserts, and if the geotechnical conditions are as problematic as he claims, why was the retention of the town hall even contemplated in the blueprint?

This is the plan for the city that the minister himself has signed off, yet he seems ready to pre-empt the council's legitimate decision- making process.

It is also worth noting that public submissions on the council's 2012 Annual Plan overwhelmingly supported the full retention of the town hall.

The most curious aspect of the minister's Perspective article (June 17) is his argument that because it has proven necessary to carry out extensive modifications to the Sydney Opera House, a building that is more or less contemporaneous with the Christchurch Town Hall, the town hall must itself be no longer fit for purpose in a 21st-century city.

Such an argument rests on even more shaky ground than that on which the minister alleges the town hall stands. It has long been recognised that the design of the Sydney Opera House was compromised even before the building was complete.

Conflict between the architect, Jorn Utzon, and the New South Wales government over uncontrolled cost escalation resulted in the architect's resignation and refusal ever to return to Australia.

Political interference in the design process resulted in the spaces of the two main halls being swapped, the opera theatre being squeezed into the space designed for the concert hall and the concert hall expanding into the more generous space intended for opera.

As a result the pit in the opera theatre is too small to accommodate the full orchestra required for some productions, the stage has limited wing and fly space and seating capacity is too limited to meet demand.

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All these problems were there from day one and the last 40 years has seen a continuing struggle to make the opera house work effectively. These problems are acknowledged in the self- deprecating claim sometimes heard in Australia that the "Lucky Country" has the world's finest opera house, the only trouble being that the exterior is in Sydney and the interior in Melbourne.

In comparison with the multitude of problems that beset the Sydney Opera House from the start, the commissioning, design and execution of the Christchurch Town Hall has always been considered exemplary.

It was completed on time and on budget and for a fraction of the cost of the Sydney Opera House's $120 million.

Moreover, it was a paradigm-shifting building that changed the way in which concert halls around the world were designed.

The New Zealand acoustic engineer responsible for the hall's remarkable sound was Harold (now Sir Harold) Marshall and it was he who developed the theory of lateral sound reflection that was brilliantly put into practice in Christchurch.

Marshall is convinced that the innovation he achieved in Christchurch, working closely with the architects, Warren and Mahoney, would never have been possible in Europe or America, where the inertia of received wisdom would have ruled out his radical and untried approach.

Yet the design team's willingness to innovate was brilliantly vindicated by the combined resonance and clarity of the hall's sound. Rather than advocating the demolition of the town hall we should take pride in this unique Kiwi success story.

Far from being out of date for a modern city, the Christchurch Town Hall set the standard that cities around the globe have striven to emulate ever since.

Australia has rightly celebrated the significance of the Sydney Opera House by nominating it for World Heritage status as a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture.

Rather than advocating demolition of the Christchurch Town Hall, Minister Brownlee would be serving the interests of Christchurch's recovery far better by advocating for its restoration and future nomination for World Heritage status. Surely the building's international significance is equal to that of the Sydney Opera House.

The town hall is one of the key buildings that help to define who we are. If Minister Brownlee succeeds in his desire to demolish it he will have erased part of our communal memory and obliterated part of our collective identity. We must not allow this to happen.

Dr Ian Lochhead is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury.

- The Press

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