Christchurch needs more venues

01:16, Jul 17 2013
Christchurch Town Hall
TOWN HALL: The future of the city's premier concert venue remains uncertain.

We should know the fate of the Christchurch Town Hall soon. A decision has taken far too long. Whatever happens, the city needs a first-class performance centre, somewhere that sparkles and attracts both locals and visitors.

The CBS Canterbury Arena is incredibly versatile. But it is not enough.

Originally named the Westpac Trust Centre, the building was designed by architect Andrew Barclay, and constructed by veteran builder Charles Luney in 1998. It was intended to serve double duty for indoor sports, principally basketball and netball, and performances.

Since the earthquakes, it has hosted all sorts of events. We loved the Share an Idea campaign; we were wowed by a brilliant Chinese acrobatic troupe; enjoyed an Indian cultural day; and most recently, we heard a talk by the Dalai Lama. It has hosted a performance of Verdi's Requiem by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Royal New Zealand Ballet performing Giselle and the Christchurch City Choir.

Where the arena does not perform so well is for concerts. The reason is acoustics. The Town Hall knocked its socks off. Dr Ian Lochhead praised the acoustics of the Town Hall's Douglas Lilburn Auditorium. Gerry Brownlee said it was good for its time. But good sound remains good sound, and he should know (on which, more later).

Acoustics are complex. A few years ago, I had a behind-the-scenes tour of the Sydney Opera House for an American engineering magazine. Danish architect Joern Utzon's iconic design remains an architectural triumph. Some of its 1970s-era design cues, like the use of concrete and timber, reminded me of the Christchurch Town Hall. Supposedly inspired by palm fronds, the Opera House was once famously described as looking like "a nun's scrum".


Originally, the Concert Hall was intended for opera, ballet, symphonies and concerts. Sally, the tour guide, explained that acoustics make this difficult.

If you are singing, you need a short reverberation time. A big orchestra needs a long reverberation time. "If you put opera in the concert hall, Lucia di Lammermoor would sound more mad than usual."

One solution, used in the Meyerson Symphony Centre in Dallas, Texas, designed by architect IM Pei, is a roof that can be raised for symphonies and lowered for singers.

After some controversy, Sydney's solution was to have different performances in different theatres. Under the 10 sails of the Opera House, performances take place inside the Concert Hall (the largest space), Opera Theatre, Drama Theatre, Playhouse, and Studio.

Giant suspended acoustic "doughnuts" enhance sound quality in the Concert Hall. Under another, smaller sail, diners can enjoy night-time views over the harbour.

One venue cannot do it all. Acoustics matters not just for concert halls, but also for restaurants.

In Christchurch, we need several venues.

The Court Theatre's temporary home in Addington is a clever surprise. The Wigram Air Force Museum, designed by Don Donnithorne, reportedly makes an excellent and slightly surreal venue for concerts.

We heard Norah Jones at the CBS Arena and were disappointed by the muddy sound; those "sweet words" did not sound as sweet as they should have. She sounded better at the Town Hall. Jones felt overawed by the grandeur of the auditorium and remarked that it may have been more suitable for a large orchestra.

Perhaps she would have preferred the smaller James Hay Theatre. Aussie folk singer John Williamson found that venue "bonzer", and lit a (fake) campfire on stage.

It would be a shame to see the Town Hall demolished. The land is obviously munted, but can the building be saved? Cracks look serious.

Engineers could consider the foundation-raising techniques used to level buildings that were utilised by Japanese company Upcon Corporation and others.

We could rebuild the Town Hall auditorium in the new arts precinct. It could have a more interesting name, perhaps in Maori. Suggestions?

We could combine a performance centre with a convention centre in the same building. An outstanding concert centre would appeal more to Christchurch residents than a convention centre or sports stadium, although a stadium could also host large outdoor concerts.

Hagley Park is ideal for those, but building permanent structures would attract opposition. Why not have an amphitheatre in Cathedral Square or Victoria Square?

Another welcome venue would be a laidback, relaxing place for jazz concerts. One of the best I visited was Yoshi's, in San Francisco, where I heard the late Oscar Peterson.

After a meal in the adjacent restaurant, we sat at self-reserved tables while quiet and discreet wait-staff took drinks orders.

It strikes me that such a venue would suit the Manetti Brothers - Gerry Brownlee and Richard Holden's musical duo from the 1980s. Brownlee reportedly has a very fine singing voice. I challenge him to sing at Christchurch's new performance centre, wherever and whenever it opens.

The Press