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Friday, April 15, 2011

Victorian legacy worth restoring

Victorian legacy worth restoring

Last updated 08:15 13/04/2011
Dr Katie Pickles' implication (Perspective, April 8) that we should welcome the toppling of statues commemorating our founding fathers suggests our city's three disastrous earthquakes have liberated us from the historic influence of tyrants.

While it may have been appropriate for Russians to celebrate the fall of Stalin's and Lenin's oversized statues at the end of the Soviet era, the situation in Christchurch is in no way comparable.

Christchurch's mid-Victorian origins are unique because they are largely values-based. The city was not, as common to the times, primarily founded for military or trade purposes, but more in order to preserve and disseminate liberal ideals held by men who felt their vision of a decent, inclusive and democratic society to be under threat in England as a result of Napoleon's despotic actions in Europe.

Central to their Utopian vision were Christian values typical of their time.

No-one need apologise for the Anglican values that shaped this city as many of these driving principles were also non-denominational humanist beliefs promoting the greatest good for the greatest number.

This founding value system that placed high regard on education, social justice, health and respect for the individual is inextricably linked with the Gothic revival style of architecture that characterises our city.

Gothic revival, known also as Christian or Pointed Architecture, is a style which, according to 19th century philosopher John Ruskin, is associated with the work of free men (Freemasons).

He compares them with the slaves who toiled on Greek and Egyptian buildings, tasked with making uniform decorative features with no scope for individual variation.

Gothic revival on the other hand is a style synonymous with the stonemason's expression of individual artistic freedom; a style inspired by nature, following organic forms and embracing diversity.

It represents the very antithesis of mass production and conformity we see in so many aspects of our lives today.

We should retain as much of our heritage architecture as possible, as well as the statuary that surrounds it.

I agree with Andrew Wood's earlier assertion (March 12) that "Cantabrians are unlikely to settle for anything less than a meticulous and exact restoration" of Christ Church Cathedral.

Wood is also right to say we have the skilled stonemasons, the technology and the will to do this. The support will follow and already millions of dollars have been donated from an English philanthropist towards our cathedral's restoration.

I believe we have the capacity to attract the additional international support that will be required to complete a large-scale heritage restoration project, even if it takes many years. All our iconic heritage buildings are due the same exactitude of restoration, particularly those designed by Canterbury's master provincial architect Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort.

He was a disciple of the brilliant, eccentric English architect and designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) who initiated the glories of Gothic revivalist architecture when he designed the celebrated Palace of Westminster.

Pugin was described by his peers as "the architectural genius of the [19th] century" and we in Christchurch share his legacy in the form of our iconic Mountfort buildings.

It is remarkable to think that Mountfort arrived on the Charlotte Jane in 1850 and within a mere 40 years was, in the face of professional isolation and a lack of adequate materials, responsible for the realisation of so many splendid colonial stone buildings - among them the cathedral, Canterbury College (now the Arts Centre), the Provincial Council Buildings, Canterbury Museum and numerous stone Gothic revival churches.

Does this achievement not show a tenacity, energy and determination we would do well to emulate in the rebuilding of our city today?

I do not agree with Arts Centre director Ken Franklin (March 15) that the old observatory should be left for future generations with "a new modern tower on the crooked stump of the Observatory".

Franklin has stated that the Arts Centre has "the resolve and the insurance cover to restore and rebuild the historic complex", so why not faithfully restore all Arts Centre buildings to their original form and revisit earlier attempts to have the complex accredited as a World Heritage Site?

The positive implications of this for the future of heritage and the arts in Christchurch are enormous.

In addition to their intrinsic value as objects of architectural beauty and accumulated cultural capital, unique heritage buildings and the statuary that surrounds them also have a commercial value in today's world and can be an important part of modern life.

Heritage precincts that have preserved their integrity are known to be key tourist attractions internationally.

At a recent meeting I heard how highly Asian travellers value our stone Gothic revival buildings and that these have been identified as a specific reason for their desire to visit Christchurch.

In many European cities heritage buildings and the arts complement each other, with the Old City or Altstadt acting as a cultural hub attracting theatres, bars, galleries, cafes, restaurants, specialist shops and fashion boutiques.

I noted with interest that the new London and Partners flagship tourism agency, which has swung into action to promote London's opportunities for attracting investors and the arts prior to the Olympic Games, has illustrated its website with an ancient stone castle, while also promoting the city as a vibrant meeting place alive with modern arts and cultural activities (the latter showing a very wide range of cultural and ethnic diversity).

If London can integrate its authentic heritage identity and acknowledge its debt to history while at the same time promoting itself as a creative city with a heart driven by the dynamics of inclusive, complex contemporary 21st Century life, can Christchurch not do the same? I believe we can.

As Dame Judith Mayhew-Jonas, chairwoman of London and Partners, has observed: "We owe so much to the Victorians."

* Lorraine North chairs the Canterbury Arts and Heritage Trust.

- The Press

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