Spare Cathedral from total demolition

IRREPLACEABLE: 'To lose this unique voice would be a great loss'.
IRREPLACEABLE: 'To lose this unique voice would be a great loss'.

British archaeologist, heritage adviser and writer RICHARD TERRY visited Christchurch recently and says Christ Church Cathedral has an irreplaceable authority and total demolition would be a great loss for the city.

Why squander public money on heritage conservation when there are so many other calls on our resources?

It's a reasonable question - to which one response would be that it's because historic places speak directly to us, conveying powerful, complex and highly poignant narratives.

As an English visitor to some of New Zealand's historic sites and buildings during the new year, I was enormously impressed by the breadth and richness of the stories they reveal.

From the elegant mission houses and impressive Maori fortifications of Northland, to the rugged simplicity of the shacks of Chinese goldminers in Central Otago - everywhere voices from the past, yearning to be heard.

These places encapsulate New Zealand's rich and densely textured history, relating it in a way that everyone can appreciate, no matter their culture of origin. Places can be just as effective at spinning a compelling yarn as Kiwi storytellers of international repute like Jane Campion and Eleanor Catton.

This telling of tales is central to our sense of kinship as human beings. It's why millions of people visit historic places all over the world - a feeling of discovering insights into the shared human condition.

That's why I would suggest, as others have done, that what happens to Christ Church Cathedral affects us all in some way. In the light of the ongoing debate - whether to rebuild, partially retain or completely demolish - it's interesting to bear in mind the cathedral's origins, and that of the city of Christchurch itself.

The Maori origin myth tells of people making landfall on Aotearoa, voyaging in eight legendary canoes from far off Hawaiki. Christchurch itself treasures its own memory of origin - the four ships that arrived in December 1850. Christ Church Cathedral is one of the most potent symbols and reminders of this illustrious event.

The short-lived Canterbury Association was a motley group of idealists from the upper levels of English society. They shared a vision of an Anglican utopia on the other side of the world. It would be an idealised English society, far from urban slums and political strife.

The settled area would be furnished with a cathedral city - Christchurch - at its heart, and an Anglican bishop. The model for this grand scheme was the city of Oxford, where the cathedral of Christ Church is surrounded by college buildings - these Victorian Cantabrians believed religion and education were inseparable.

They also had the finance to make it happen. The religious nature of the settlement was given further guarantees: the "good character" of would-be settlers was vouched for by their parish priests; one-third of land sale value was earmarked for endowments to the church. Some of this money was set aside to build the new cathedral.

In 1859 the Christ Church Cathedral Commissioners approached architect George Gilbert Scott, a leading light in the Gothic Revival movement in Europe. Gothic Revivalists believed that medieval architecture embodied "pure" Christian values that had since been all but destroyed by the evils of industrialisation.

Scott had recently been appointed Westminster Abbey's in-house architect, responsible for conservation work on the great medieval edifice.

He was also becoming one of the most prolific and influential architects of the age, with a meticulous and sympathetic understanding of medieval Gothic. This sensitivity found its way into his design for Christ Church Cathedral.

If Scott were alive today he would doubtless be unsurprised by the controversy engulfing the proposed demolition. When he first drew up plans for a magnificent timber Gothic building, Henry Harper, first Bishop of Christchurch, rejected them out of hand. Harper insisted on using stone as the primary material, befitting the cathedral's status.

Scott was not so easily dissuaded. His second plan involved a wooden frame and a remarkable timber interior - he included stone only as an exterior cladding. With an eye on the budget, Scott reasoned that local timber was the better material, and more in keeping with the skill-sets available in the newly founded province.

Harper and the cathedral commissioners once again rejected his proposals, and informed Scott that several sources of good-quality masonry stone had been discovered locally. Scott gave way, and in 1864 his final design was for an early English Gothic-style stone structure.

More consternation followed. Scott wanted his former pupil Benjamin Mountfort, now Provincial Architect for Canterbury, to supervise the construction. Mountfort had trained for five years with Scott in London, and had arrived in Canterbury as an enthusiastic migrant aboard the Charlotte Jane. He was one of thousands of ordinary men and women who had arrived from England in those first few years of the province's existence.

Mountfort had already proved himself a skilled exponent of Gothic Revival architecture, and Scott trusted his judgment. The commission once again chose to ignore Scott's advice, appointing Englishman Robert Speechly as supervising architect. Barely a year later, in 1865, the funds ran dry and work on the cathedral ground to a halt.

When construction resumed in 1873, Benjamin Mountfort was at the helm. Under his charge a cathedral with an elegant, restrained and symmetrical simplicity rose above the skyline of the new city in a mere eight years. In the very year of its consecration in 1881, an earthquake ominously toppled the upper portion of the bell tower. This was to be the first of several blows delivered by earthquakes, culminating in that fateful day in February 2011.

Despite awesome and terrifying forces of nature, the cathedral has survived as the focal point of Mountfort's Gothic Revival designs for Christchurch - a landscape without parallel anywhere else in the world. It is a building of real historical and architectural significance that bears witness to the vision of George Gilbert Scott and Benjamin Mountfort, two of the finest Gothic Revival architects of the period.

Christ Church Cathedral speaks directly to us with an irreplaceable authority. It gives a voice to the remarkable historical and cultural movements that gave birth to its city and to Canterbury province. To lose this unique and singular voice would be a great loss, felt ever more acutely in the long term, which would prove detrimental to Christchurch. It should be spared from total demolition.

Richard Terry has a master's level qualification in archaeology. He has previously worked as an historian and archaeologist, advising national agencies such as English Heritage and the Historic American Engineering Record (US) on the historical and archaeological significance of landscapes, sites and buildings. His current work is in higher education and also in freelance writing on the subject of historic places and heritage. He travelled in New Zealand in December and January 2013-14.

The Press