Christchurch’s heritage faces demolition
Authorities plan to knock down 50% of buildings within the business district, including historic properties
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 230, December 2011
Published online: 12 December 2011
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.”
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 www.change.org
To view the buildings most affected by the earthquakes, see our picture gallery
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