Rebuild the Christ Church Cathedral with modern materials to make it sound sweeter

An artist's impressions by Sir Miles Warren showing a restoration of the earthquake damaged Christ Church Cathedral. The ...

An artist's impressions by Sir Miles Warren showing a restoration of the earthquake damaged Christ Church Cathedral. The design keeps the original form but uses wood and copper to replace stone and slate making the proposal lighter and more ductile than stone.

OPINION: From my perspective, the cathedral was often a frustrating building to work in.

The biggest problem was the 10 massive pillars traversing the length of  the nave, restricting and preventing sight lines to the front of the building for anyone seated in the side aisles (that was half the attendees /congregation at a major event).

The lack of administrative space for the staff and volunteers was extremely frustrating and inefficient. Offices and work areas tucked into every nook and cranny – in the damp basement, in garrets, in the tower. Store rooms were inconveniently far from access.

Detail of Sir Miles Warren's wooden cathedral design.

Detail of Sir Miles Warren's wooden cathedral design.

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The magnificent organ was jammed into a corner of the sanctuary where the sound was trapped and the instrument could never be heard to its full advantage by the congregation.

These were frustrations we lived with and accepted. The building was so central and integral to the City the any thought of change or modernising was out of the question.

At this moment in time, however, there is a chance to rectify these defects. The idea of exactly copying the building warts and all seems wrong and impracticable.

What we need is a compromise – a building that from the exterior is a verisimilitude of the original, and internally, while retaining the feel and history of the 19th century building, is adapted for 21st century use.

I have on my wall a framed copy of the renowned English architect George Gilbert Scott's original design for the building (submitted at the request of the Provincial Council) in 1853. Interestingly it was designed to be built largely in wood, not stone, with internal wooden columns. However Bishop of Christchurch Harper insisted that Scott modify his design to make it in stone in the  Neo Gothic style, in fashion in Victorian England at that time.

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Externally Scott's original plan looks almost identical to the stone building eventually built.

Soon after the earthquakes, Sir Miles Warren re-examined Scott's original design and thought about adapting this original wooden  plan. He placed this plan on the exact footings and dimensions of the  present  cathedral, but with stone walls and restored stained glass up to the clerestory; from there upwards it is of wood with a copper roof  (replacing the original heavy slate).

The walls will have  all the plaques, memorials  and history of the City returned as before. 

The 10 massive pillars in the nave are replaced by slender wooden columns, as in Scott's original design, alleviating the sightline problems and making the building immediately more functional.

An added benefit of the Warren plan is the cost. Even allowing for inflation, this project would be largely achievable with the insurance proceeds the Church has on hand.

A glance at the accompanying photo, I suggest, will challenge anyone to notice the difference between Sir Miles design and their recollection of the original.

I remember my first impression of the building when I emigrated to NZ over a quarter century ago. Externally the building was of a modest size, somewhat dwarfed by its 20th century neighbours, It was not grandiose or ostentatious, it sat comfortably on the Square at the hub of the City. And that is what most Christchurch citizens noticed as they went about their daily lives.

It was when you entered the building that you were immediately touched by its warm inviting ambience.  You felt the one hundred and thirty years of Christchurch history etched into every surface.

It would be nice to have that building back, returned to us exactly as it was, but we know that is impossible. That option is not available.

That building as it was, cannot be recreated. The building can be taken down and put back up, but it will be with new stones, new mortar, new paint:  the cracks in the floor, the patina of a century on wood and stone, that which made it so hospitable and unique has already gone. It cannot be brought back. 

A bright new earthquake proofed sterilised copy for the 21st century is the best that could be achieved. The "experience" of the Cathedral cannot be retrieved.

I hope that the Diocesan Synod in September may again look at Sir Miles' plans.  I also hope that should the Synod go down this path, Christchurch will applaud the decision and tolerate no further delay.

- Brian Law was the Christ Church Cathedral director of music from 2004 until retirement in 2014.

 - Stuff


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