Christchurch: nearly a Gothic Revival UNESCO World Heritage Site

web museumAbout two months before the September 2010 quakes, a Christchurch mayoral candidate, Jim Anderton, said if he became mayor he would push for Christchurch to have World Heritage Status for the city’s unique Gothic Revival buildings. It appeared that no city in the world had a more complete collection of Gothic revival buildings of such high quality and so well-preserved.

I attended a meeting, in the Gothic Arts Centre, to hear about such a proposal. He said, “these Victorian buildings date back to the 1850s and, as a group, are of enormous international significance. They represent the outcome of the furthest migration of any group of people in human history.” Apparently, Canterbury was the last and most successful of the colonisation schemes of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Anderton continued, “They are more than bricks and mortar, they are at the heart of our city and remind us every day of those pioneers searching for a better world on the other side of the globe.” I left the meeting having decided to vote for Jim because of this proposal.

Repairs and strengthening well underway
Repairs and strengthening are well under way

Early European settlers of course bought their values with them and expressed some of that in their architecture and appreciation of open spaces – which was also happening in New York where Central Park was just being established too.  [interestingly, and nothing to do with the meeting or the Gothic buildings, I believe the land which became the Botanic Gardens was given to the city by the Scottish Deans brother’s – they wanted a barrier between them, and Riccarton, and the new English arrivals – I’m sure many of the local tangata whenua would have liked the same.]

Over three decades many Gothic revival buildings – built in local grey stone – and none of which were exact copies of the English versions . This and the scale as well as the use of timber, started a city with its own characteristics, not a replica of what they’d left.

The Canterbury quakes (2010/11) of course put this UNESCO proposal on the back burner, however, many of the proposed sites consist of the most significant 19th century public buildings associated with the founding of the city have not been demolished because of the quakes: these include Christchurch Cathedral, (although still under review) the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, (the only complete surviving examples of government buildings from the provincial period of colonial society in New Zealand) and the former Canterbury University, previously Canterbury College and now the Arts Centre, and both are now being restored and quake-proofed.

The Canterbury Museum had received a lot of quake strengthening work and it suffered minimal damage during the quakes.

Council Chambers
Council Chambers

The 1865 Council Chambers is internationally recognized as an outstanding example of High Victorian Gothic architecture, and on a personal level, is where my first book launch was held and is on the list to be restored, as is the old Presbyterian Trinity Church which for many years has been a restaurant.

St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (now at Rangi Ruru School), built in a simple, and wooden, Gothic style in the late 1800s: my parents, grandparents, and many more of my ancestors  married in this church – a reminder that not all Christchurch settlers were English.

Other inner-city Gothic buildings surviving the quakes include Christ’s College, and sort of surviving, the facades post office in the square and the former A.J. White’s building in High Street.

Not in the city, but Gothic nevertheless, was a prosaic Gothic building, the old Addington Prison which is now backpacker accommodation known of course as the Jailhouse! Naturally, with my ‘colourful’ background, I have history here too – having picked up people there, who were no longer guests of the state, and have stayed in the backpackers.

*See recent posts about the quakes – an elephant in the room and one about Christchurch as it is.

 

Should Christchurch rebuild exactly as it was pre-quake? Warsaw, Poland, did.

Christchurch Art Gallery --
Christchurch Art Gallery

As a travel writer, I was puzzled as I walked through the historic centre of Warsaw, Poland just a few weeks ago.  Why? Well, I’d read that during the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) over 85% of Warsaw’s old centre was destroyed by Nazi troops, but my eyes could only see 13th to 20th century buildings.

The beautiful old town, Warsaw

 

Apparently after the war, a five-year reconstruction campaign began, resulting in the meticulous restoration of the Old Town which is what I could see.

 

According to the United Nations World Heritage website, It is an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.”

 

old or rebuilt ?
Another fabulous building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder as one of our clichés say, but for me, the beauty of European market places, churches and palaces is in their age.  I kept looking at buildings wondering is that rebuilt or is it old; five hundred years or fifty?  Actually, what I really was thinking ‘real or fake’; it felt Disney or Vegas-like. In fact, at the top of my mind was, ‘I’m so glad Christchurch is not doing that.’

Born, schooled, and living in Christchurch for most of my life, I have been devastated by the destruction of so many of our buildings, and much of my history. All my family arrived in Otautahi between 1862 and 1873 so our roots are deep in this flat, swampy, shaky region, and although I grieve for what was, I also welcome what will be.

During that fateful first quake (September 2010), lying in bed clutching my mattress so, if my 3rd floor apartment building collapsed I’d land on something soft, I had no idea what was to come. How relieved were my tweets and texts on that first day. It never entered my head we would eventually, like Warsaw, loose most of our inner city, my backyard. But we did – about 80% of our inner city.

And today I see on Facebook, that the beautiful Press building could be rebuilt, a replica on the same spot, for a hotel. That would be an asset to the city; it would give us back the appearance of still having one of our old buildings, but please make sure people know it’s a reproduction of a loved building. Don’t have tourists stand and wonder, real or fake, old or new?

Polish people are proud of how they defied the punishing German bombs by rebuilding exactly as it was, and the historic centre is full of tourists most of who love it as it is. However, for me, I’m just relieved my beloved Christchurch is, apart from key buildings that can thankfully be repaired, is arising as a new Christchurch: honouring the past, while welcoming the future.

(The Kiwi Travel Writer now lives in Wellington, but not as a quake survivor – she had begun apartment hunting some months before the quakes)