Conservation Disasters New Zealand

Christchurch’s heritage faces demolition

Authorities plan to knock down 50% of buildings within the business district, including historic properties

Christchurch Cathedral, designed by Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott, is to be partially demolished

Conservation societies are up in arms over the widespread, and in many cases unnecessary, demolition of historic buildings in Christchurch, New Zealand, following a series of earthquakes in the region. The government’s plans to demolish 50% of buildings within the city’s Central Business District (CBD)—30% more than in poverty-stricken Haiti—has experts questioning the government’s commitment to heritage and the competence of the bodies tasked with safeguarding these properties. Campaigners say that new disaster recovery legislation supersedes laws designed to protect historic structures, leaving them vulnerable to property owners who may opt to start from scratch rather than restore. They also say that this destruction will have a knock-on effect on historic properties throughout New Zealand as insurance premiums skyrocket.


Three large earthquakes have struck the region in the past 14 months: in September 2010, in February 2011, and in June 2011. Christchurch’s CBD was the hardest hit area. The February quake toppled the tower of one of the most historic structures in the centre, Christchurch Cathedral, a mid-19th-century gothic revival building designed by George Gilbert Scott. Its rose window was destroyed in June. The church was deconsecrated in November following a decision to partially demolish the structure. Plans to rebuild the cathedral are being discussed, and Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has proposed a temporary 700-seat cathedral built from cardboard. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), established in February, is co-ordinating the rebuilding of Christ­church. Although the authority works with heritage bodies such as the government-run Historic Places Trust (HPT), as well as the building’s owners, the decision to demolish is ultimately Cera’s. So far more than 1,200 buildings have been slated for full or partial demolition.

“It’s incredible,” says Kit Miyamoto, a leading structural engineer who has worked in several earthquake stricken regions, of plans to demolish 50% of the CBD by April 2012. “There hasn’t been this level of demolition in Haiti. They have a total loss of not more than 20% and this is with the worst conditions in terms of construction quality and seismic activity.”

Hasty decisions

So far around 130 historic properties have been demolished or are slated for demolition and experts expect that figure to grow. Among these is the Manchester Court building. “It’s a crime against humanity,” says Miyamoto.

Many also feel that decisions are being made too hastily. “A determination has been made that all heritage must go other than a few key buildings, the selection of which seems to be largely ad hoc and a political one,” says Jenny May, the principal heritage consultant to the city council’s heritage earthquake recovery team. “There are buildings that have had to go—but it should not be viewed as an opportunity to provide a blank canvas and start again,” she says.

“We have been left with no advocacy for public interest in the retention of heritage,” says Ian Lochhead, a professor at the University of Canterbury. “Disaster recovery legislation overrules all existing planning regulations,” including the Resource Management Act, the principal means by which heritage is protected. “Support has not been forthcoming from the government,” he says.

Christchurch MP Brendon Burns agrees. He was reported in national papers in September as calling the HPT “gutless” for not fighting to save more historic structures. As we went to press, the HPT released more than 100 reports to the local newspaper, The Press, showing that 27 heritage properties, including the Regent Theatre, were demolished against its advice.

Speak­ing to The Art Newspaper, Lewis Holden, the ministry for culture and heritage’s chief executive, says: “We are keenly aware that the people of Christchurch have strong feelings about the future of the city’s heritage. Working towards potential preservation of these buildings is a group effort and must be done in an organised and coherent way with other ministries and stakeholders.”

Insurance companies are playing a key role in deciding which structures to retain. “The cost of insurance for heritage buildings has skyrocketed. Premiums have gone up in some cases by 500%, which is influencing the decisions of building owners,” says Lochhead, who adds that a number of damaged churches, including Holy Trinity Avonside, were demolished because the Anglican diocese was under-insured. Ansvar New Zealand, a major insurer of churches, has announced it will no longer provide earthquake cover after receiving $700m in claims since September.

Lochhead notes that Christchurch boasts a distinct style of architecture known as the “Christchurch” or “Canterbury” school, which dates from the 1950s to the 1970s and grew out of the brutalism of postwar Britain, citing Christchurch’s town hall as an example. “We are not just losing 19th-century buildings but the next generation of heritage buildings to be identified—those from the mid-20th-century,” he says.

A petition to save Christchurch's remaining heritage is online at

To view the buildings most affected by the earthquakes, see our picture gallery

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24 Dec 11
14:58 CET


Since my comment, barely a week ago, it has been announced that two significant historical buildings in Masterton, a typical regional centre in New Zealand are to be demolished immediately - a former Opera House from the late 1800s and early twentieth century Catholic Primary School. New Zealand is looking likely to lose a huge percentage of its old architecture, especially commercial and public buildings, in a matter of years, if not months.

16 Dec 11
15:37 CET


I think the "enthusiasm" to destroy New Zealand's architectural heritage (for this is what it almost amounts to) must be seen in a political context. The present National Party-led government has over the past three years had a blithe attitude towards democratic processes. The powers given to CERA are only one example of this. One of the government's most influential politicians, Gerry Brownlee, has gone so far as to say he would like to see most of the old buildings in Christchurch pulled down. The impact is being felt throughout New Zealand with virtually all heritage buildings under threat, partly driven by the huge increase in insuring buildings since the earthquake as well as national and local government demanding buildings comply to much stricter standards. This is equivalent to Italy demanding all its historic buildings be earthquake strengthened or pulled down within a matter of only a few years. Also, NZers in general have never valued their architectural heritage.

13 Dec 11
16:43 CET


The vertical acceleration recorded in the Christchurch Feb earthquake was the highest ever recorded. Our Heritage buildings were trashed and would have killed many more people if there hadn't been the earlier earthquake that moderately damaged most of them making them uninhabitable. I loved those buildings, however I don't want debate over saving them to delay returning to the CBD. Having been through 8000 aftershocks we will be wary of stone buildings for a long time. I think most of them need to go and we will treasure the few that are left.

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