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Sunday, March 20, 2011

New city must inspire its citizens

New city must inspire its citizens

Last updated 10:31 08/03/2011
Is Gerry Brownlee right? Should we bulldoze the slate - and all that beautiful blue- grey masonry, stained glass and varnished woodwork - clean?

Should Christchurch start again with architectural blueprints more akin to the aspirations and values of our own age?

These are reasonable questions: and I take my hat off to Brownlee for possessing the political courage to raise them. He also deserves our praise for his gruff honesty in so firmly declaring his preference for the bulldozer.

Whether Brownlee was simply displaying the instincts of a practical politician when he called for all but the two great cathedrals, the Provincial Chambers and the Arts Centre to be cleared away, or voicing his support for a new architectural vision of Christchurch, I cannot say.

My suspicion is that, like so many Cantabrians, his eyes and his heart have grown weary of the rubble and the ruins. A dusty vacant lot pregnant with the hope of something new would please him more, I think, than being reminded constantly of the old. The longer these tombstones to the Christchurch that was remain standing, the harder it is to imagine the Christchurch that will be.

But simply bulldozing the heartbreaking remnants of 19th and early-20th century Christchurch flat is not a sufficient answer to the painful sense of loss that they inspire. If there is no clear commitment from local and central government to a creative, generous and - most importantly - long-term plan for the reconstruction of Christchurch, then, for the sake of all Cantabrians, let the ruins stand.

At least while the ruins remain in place, the sites they occupy cannot be filled with graceless, lowest-bidder structures dedicated to nothing more uplifting than the crass utilitarianism of bureaucratic administration.

The last thing Cantabrians need is for their once-beautiful neo- Gothic city to be transformed into an antipodean version of Europe's post-war urban landscape: an environment of rigid right angles, reinforced concrete, stainless steel and glass.

This would add to the disaster that God made; a tragedy for which no-one but ourselves will be held responsible.

It is easy to understand why the founders of Christchurch built their new city in the neo-Gothic style. Not only was it the architectural fashion of the time, but the resulting structures conferred upon the city's emigrant population all the reassuring lines and forms of the towns and cities they had left behind. Their civic buildings and places of worship were conceived in the same spirit as Christchurch's spacious parks. They were the architectural equivalents of English oaks and elms.

Is that what we want the new Christchurch to be? A city (and a community) built in a quite conscious imitation of England? An exercise, it should be remembered, that extended well beyond mere architectural imitation. Canterbury was not only to boast the spires and towers, trees and flowers of Mother England, but also her rigid class system and all the social deformities it engendered.

The neo-Gothic architecture for which Christchurch is so rightly famous also has its disreputable side. For let us not forget that its great masterpieces - of which the Westminster parliamentary complex is undoubtedly the greatest - were constructed in the midst of industrial and political revolutions.

All architecture is political. The ideological impetus behind the Gothic revival reflected the nostalgia of a beleaguered ruling class for the political and religious certainties of the Middle Ages.

Had history taken a slightly different course, the built environment of 19th century London (and Christchurch) could just as easily have been inspired by the democratic values and revolutionary construction techniques of the ultra-modern Crystal Palace - home of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This is why Cantabrians must quiz Brownlee much more closely about his intentions. Because the future shape of Christchurch is an inescapably political question.

If it is conceived in an atmosphere of crude austerity - where cheapness is the highest virtue - not only Cantabrians but all New Zealanders will be the losers.

This past dreadful fortnight Christchurch mayor Bob Parker has acquitted himself with real distinction. Now he must turn his attention to the all-important question of how the future shape of the city will be decided.

If the process is not democratic, if the people (and that includes the people of Bexley and Aranui every bit as much as the people of Ilam and Fendalton) are not drawn into the process - and kept there - then Christchurch's reconstruction will default to the blueprints of cash- strapped central and local government politicians and profit- driven private-sector property developers.

The result will be a Christchurch configured not according to the imaginations and aspirations of its citizens, but to the cost-accounting imperatives of bureaucrats and businessmen.

If that is allowed to happen, Cantabrians will have no stake in their new city. The past, they'll recall with nostalgic affection. The future will happen somewhere else.

- The Press

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