Archives for posts with tag: heritage

I almost lost my shit last night when listening to an interview on Radio NZ with Scott Simpson, National MP. He is the chair of the select committee looking at toughening building standards, with respect to earthquake risk. Specifically this bit, from 1:30, in the audio here:

“If you exclude the fatalities that occurred in buildings like the CCTV building”

Firstly, he can’t even get the name of the building that collapsed correct. It’s the CTV building, not the CCTV building.

Secondly, and more importantly, you simply cannot exclude the CTV building. 115 people of the 185 people who died in the quake were in that building. A further 18 people were in the PGC building. Between those two buildings – one built in the 1980’s, the other in the 1960’s – more than 70% of the casualties occurred. If you choose to exclude the major part of the problem, then you have a different problem. You may come up with a valid response, but you are still ignoring the major underlying problem.

I am grateful for the tireless campaigning of Anne Brower. The 15 year time frame to fix buildings was far too long, and I think that this timeframe makes much more sense. But what are we doing to ensure that more people don’t die as a result of badly built or badly engineered buildings in subsequent earthquakes? Old dungers are part of the problem, but not the largest part. For the government to go after one small but easily scapegoated type of buildings, whilst excluding the major problem, is a dereliction of responsibility. To put an MP who doesn’t even know the name of the bloody building in charge of the select committee is an insult.

Yesterday, we had some rare good news about a heritage building: an independent business case supported the Council’s plan to restore the Town Hall. The numbers add up – in fact, it’s the best value proposition. That didn’t stop the sad but predictable chorus of opposition. Gerry Brownlee doesn’t think it’s a goer – but admits that he hasn’t actually read the report.

“It does have a ring of ‘it is too good to be true’ about it,” said Brownlee, who acknowledged he had not read the Deloitte report.

So the man responsible for the destruction of Christchurch’s built heritage doesn’t think the restoration is a goer, and he is basing that decision on literally nothing, as he’s too lazy to read the report. Why is his uninformed opinion even being quoted then?

But Brownlee’s opinion is uninformed and easy to dismiss. More concerning is the undying resolve of the Press Editorial to have the Town Hall demolished. In this editorial, they again question the decision, and back it up with a series of factual inaccuracies and half-baked agendas. Firstly, they muddy the figures about how much money is or isn’t available.

Under its insurance policy, if the building is repaired the council could get a payout of up to $68.9 million. If the building is not repaired, the payout would only be the indemnity amount of just over $32 million … But something other than full restoration may be possible. Restoring the auditorium and the foyer alone would cost $91 million. Restoring and reconfiguring the James Hay as a venue for symphony orchestra performances and the like would cost $109 million.

So the total cost for repairing the complex is listed at $127m – and yet the Press is advocating for two options which would see only half the building repaired, but cost much more than half of the full complex? This is also seems to be based on the assumption that if you knock down half the building, you get half the insurance money. If we’re generous, and assume that demo’ing the Town Hall but leaving the James Hay, results in a payout halfway between the repair and indemnity values, that puts the insurance payment around $50m (I think this is on the high side, but let’s play along). The council would still have to find $60m to restore the James Hay. Compare that with the difference between the full restoration cost ($127m) and the payout ($69m) and you find a similar sized gap ($60m). So the city ends up demolishing half of it’s best building for no apparent financial reason. This isn’t how the Press sees it:

Both of these lower-cost options would leave more for whatever is left of the idea of the performing arts precinct.

This seems to be the main reason for all these financial gymnastics.

The original plans for the precinct have long since evaporated but the council is still publicly committed to spending $30.5 million there. That is clearly not enough for any theatre or venue of any distinction, and probably would not be enough to lure the Court Theatre back to the centre of town.

So is the main goal of this exercise to “lure the Court Theatre back to the centre of town”? What no-one has sufficiently explained to me about the “Performing Arts Precinct” is why the ratepayer should be stumping up cash – in part generated by knocking down civic buildings – to try and lure a privately-run company to move their business back into town. The Court Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra might be Good Things®, but they are private businesses. Private businesses, which in the case of the Court, are doing very well in their new locations. The people who write the editorials at the Press, as well as the people who lobby for the Court like Felicity Price, don’t seem to think there is anything out of the ordinary about this.

More than anything, this reflects an ambition for those in power to see a privatisation of public space and the advancement of select private interests. The civic functions of the Town Hall complex – which was, on the 22nd of February, hosting two giant PPTA meetings – can be pushed to one side as the Right aim to frame this as an argument about “poorly used performance space”. The social and cultural benefits of a public space are near impossible to monetise, and thus don’t factor into the calculations of a Minister who will dismiss reports without even reading them.

I can only hope that the Council stays strong, and continues with the full restoration of the Town Hall this Thursday. Despite the best attempts of the Minister and the Press to make this a live issue, their arguments don’t stack up. A full restoration makes financial sense, it makes architectural sense, it makes cultural sense. More than that, it makes sense symbolically, in both showing that the Council still has the power to control the direction of this city, and that in the face of so much needless destruction of our built heritage, Christchurch can pull together to restore one of our greatest buildings.

It depresses me to be writing this piece again. I thought we had put all of this to bed last year. Unfortunately, after the council suggested that the project was on hold, the opinion pages of the Press were once again filled will ill-informed pieces calling for the Town Hall to be pulled down. Then, some sanity. Former Arts Editor Chris Moore wrote this piece in last Friday’s art section, which summed up much of what I had been meaning to say.

There’s a widely held misbelief that the cost of retaining the town hall will prevent the construction of a series of glittering arts palaces custom-made for individual organisations. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch … The sense of entitlement accompanying proposals for the arts precinct is mind-boggling. Some individuals and groups should remember that tooth fairies do not exist.

Richard Dawkins fills the Town Hall for a lecture on evolution in 2010

Gerry’s opposition to the building is well known. We don’t know reasons for his stance; he may just hate brutalism, or internationally recognised architecture, or culture in general. The most likely reason is that he wants to knock down the Town Hall and take the insurance money, then spend it on the Performing Arts Precinct (PAP). Spending money on PAP gives him another opportunity to leave a lasting memory of his magnificence; the CCC voting to save the Town Hall means that he can’t.

The PAP is weirdly considered to be a replacement for the Town Hall; it’s not. The Town Hall does play host to a lot of arts and cultural events, such as the orchestra, choirs, theatre and the like. But it is much more than that. It was often used for conferences, with the air bridge that linked it to the Convention Centre. It hosted speaking events; I remember seeing Robert Fisk speak in the Limes Room as part of the Writer’s Festival a few years back. It had a multitude of rooms, of a variety of sizes, that could be used by a whole range of people for whatever they might think of doing. The PAP doesn’t do that.

What we’re seeing with the PAP is a bunch of very specialised cultural organisations within Christchurch seeing the dollar signs in Gerry’s eyes and putting their hand up for a bit of it. They think that if they play their part, and whinge about how awful the Town Hall was, then when the money starts flowing, it will come their way. It ain’t gonna work like that. There is a chance that if the CCC does knock down the Town Hall, they may just use the money to pay down debt. No one gets a building.

The bizarre thing about this saga is how it has been reduced to a few voices from the arts community siding with Gerry against the Council and heritage advocates. If Gerry does win, and the Town Hall is knocked down for the benefit of a handful of commercial arts organisations, what does the council do without a Town Hall? I mean, we, as a city, are still going to have a Town Hall, right? They will have to find the money somewhere to build a new one. And no, an auditorium in a convention centre run by a casino doesn’t count. We are on the verge of losing the icon of our city – the Cathedral – and the symbol of our civic and cultural lives. The people who came before us in Christchurch had the foresight to leave us with two fantastic buildings, and yet we are on the cusp of watching the last of our cultural history disappear because we left a philistine the keys to the bulldozer.

This is the CPIT War Memorial Hall at approximately 2:30pm yesterday.


July 9th, 2:30pm

July 9th, 2:30pm

And here it is again at 11am this morning:

July 10th, 11am

July 10th, 11am

This building was of no immediate risk. It had been there since the quakes, not causing any harm. There was no need for the Section 38 powers to be invoked to demolish it. It is well beyond the time for these powers to be used.  That the demolition was done overnight shows that the people responsible knew that this was something to be ashamed, hence doing their dirty work under the cover of darkness. It’s a disgrace.

Jim Anderton writes in the Herald in a very strong column about saving the Cathedral:

The picture of the ‘ruin’ that has been put on television and on the front page of the Christchurch Press on dozens if not hundreds of occasions is a totally false perspective of the damage that the Cathedral has suffered.

Some of the most experienced and knowledgeable seismic and structural engineers both in New Zealand and, internationally, agree that the Cathedral has not been terminally damaged and can be both made safe for repair and totally restored to the highest building code justifiably required for public buildings. No similar building in any other part of the world that I have experienced, would remotely be a candidate for demolition.


Jim Anderton with Anna Crighton at the Cathedral last week

Jim Anderton with Anna Crighton at the Cathedral last week


I recommend reading it yourself. Labour’s policy announced last week was not one taken lightly; we recognise the significance of the Cathedral and the ownership of the Anglican Church. All that we have said is that if it is to be demolished, then it should not be under the provisions of the Section 38 powers. These powers were given to the government so that they could demolish buildings for public safety without going through an RMA process. More than 3 and a half years later, it is clear that the building provides no immediate hazard to the public. If the Church wants to demolish it, then they should have to go through the process of having it removed from the register of historic buildings. To do this would require a process under the RMA, in which all sides could present their cases.

If the building is to come down, then so be it. But it should only be through a robust process, not the abuse of extraordinary powers.

(I stole the blog post title from this Decemberist song)



Warwick Isaacs has finally responded to the council’s questions about the Majestic, but I can’t help but feel he is being less than truthful:

In a letter to the city council, Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) director Warwick Isaacs said he had not made the decision to demolish the theatre lightly or in haste. He went onto strongly reject the council’s assertion the planned widening of Manchester St was the main driver for his decision.

This final sentence seems to contradict the letter (Majestic CERA Section 38 full demolition) he wrote to Jane Parfitt, the CEO of the CCC just a month ago. I’ve attached the full letter, but here is the relevant part:

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 8.51.34 AM“Accessible City” is the CERA jargon for “transport plan”. So in this letter, from less than a month ago, he sited the transport plan as the first reason for knocking down the Majestic. The council then tried to respond to this, by ameliorating his concerns about transport. Isaacs then responded by claiming it wasn’t anything to do with transport. Unfortunately for him, the paper trail proves otherwise.

Given his predilection for massaging the truth, I think there is little reason to trust his claim that it would cost $18 million to restore. He provides no evidence for this, and will not release the engineering report which would allow for independent verification of the damage to the building. He also says:

“I am unable to halt the demolition as you have requested”

Unable? I find it hard to believe that someone with almost unlimited powers to destroy, acquire and re-zone can’t pick up the phone and tell someone that he has contracted to stop. No, I think he is completely able to stop the demolition, but totally unwilling.


I’ve covered the travesty that is the impending demolition of the Majestic on the blog a few times, but as I was walking past yesterday, realised that most people won’t be as familiar with the area as I am. The more you know about the area, the madder the decision becomes. I’ve made up a couple of maps, with three buildings highlighted on them: The Majestic, The Excelsior and Shooters.

2D majestic

The Majestic is on the corner of Lichfield and Manchester St. I and others have written about the history of the building itself. It is currently in the process of being prepared for demolition, with the main reason given being that the land is required for the “accessible city” part of the CCDU Blueprint. In other words, they want to knock down the building to widen the road by 9 metres. You could argue that in a 21st century city, creating a 20 metre wide road actually makes a barrier that is less accessible to the pedestrians who are meant to be living in the frame on the east of Manchester St. You could argue that, and you’d be making a good argument, but it would be an argument that would be ignored by the powers that be.

You could also argue that CERA seems to have an irrational grudge against the Majestic. For example, just 25 metres south of the Majestic is the facade of what was the Excelsior hotel. This building is now literally just a facade, propped up by stacks of shipping containers which stick right out into the eastern lane of Manchester St. As you can see from the photo, this is a current impedance to traffic on Manchester St, but CERA would rather concentrate their energy and wrecking ball on the Majestic, which poses a theoretical, future impedance to traffic.


Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see the Excelsior retained and rebuilt. It was a lovely old building, and the corner of High St in front of it was a pleasant, under-utilised part of town. However, I think it shows the lie of the CCDU’s actions; it is both a higher safety risk, and a bigger traffic problem than the Majestic, and yet there seems to be none of the hastiness to have its future resolved.

3D majestic

Just one block further up the street, on the corner of Cashel and Manchester, is the lamentable Shooters bar. Unlike either the Majestic or the Excelsior, Shooters has very few, if any, redeeming features. It is a fairly horrible tilt-slab building that used to be the home of one of Christchurch’s more notorious booze barns.


I can’t imagine anyone will be chaining themselves to the fake cattle skull on the front of this building anytime soon. However, I have heard nothing from CERA regarding their intentions for this building. Perhaps they are planning to widen the road by 9m where the Majestic is, then run a chicane down past Shooters? Or maybe they have some sort of grudge against heritage buildings, and they are using whatever excuse is convenient at the time to pursue their agenda?

At this point, it’s hard to argue that the Minister doesn’t have some sort of grudge against he he famously termed “old dungers”. There is a comprehensive list of Christchurch’s heritage buildings here, of which over 235 have now been destroyed. CCDU acquired the building, and then CERA used the section 38 provision to request demolition, which means that there is no recourse through legal means to object to this process. CERA have also refused to release the engineering report for the building, despite saying they would when asked by the CCC in December. An OIA request has now been lodged to try and access this information. The reason given for the building’s destruction – which I’d argue is a spurious one – is that it is required to implement the “accessible city” part of the Blueprint plan, but at this rate, one has to wonder whether there will be any city left to access when Gerry and his mates are done.




On Thursday, there was a very passionate, vocal protest to save the Majestic Theatre. Probably thanks to the presence of the Wizard, and two of his acolytes, it got good media attention – CTV news covers it here, and the Press has a video at the top of it’s piece as well. I gave a short speech in front of the Majestic, in which I covered off the main tenets of Those Left Standing: Repair, Reuse and Rethink.

Repair. These buildings, still standing, clearly aren’t an immediate risk of falling down and causing harm to people. They can be repaired, if there is the will and the money to do so. Reuse. The rebuild thus far has been a huge waste – both of materials, and buildings. We need to ask ourselves where that mass of concrete, glass and steel will end up if we pull it down. We can reuse – by repairing buildings and putting them back into circulation, we can reclaim the built environment whilst protecting the natural one.

Rethink. The CCDU want to pull down the Majestic Theatre to widen a road by 9m. It’s 2014, and we’re knocking down buildings to accommodate more cars. This is madness, and shows that parts of the Blueprint plan need to be completely re-thought. Instead of reassessing how the plan has worked in the almost 2 years since it was released, Brownlee and Isaacs are doubling down on the Blueprint, betting that it’s failures can be glossed over by putting the house on red. It’s a high-risk play, with a potentially disastrous legacy if it all goes wrong. This is planning by bluster and stubbornness, and now is the time to admit that we need a rethink, before everything is bulldozed by an outdated plan.

From the Save the Majestic facebook page:

ATTENTION ALL MAJESTIC SUPPORTERS: We are planning a demonstration for THIS THURSDAY AT 1PM, in response to the news of CCDU’s decision to demolish the Majestic. We will be stationing ourselves outside the Majestic Theatre, banners and placards in hand, ready to show that Christchurch wants to save the Majestic. Please come and show your support, your presence will make a huge impact, and spread the word as much as you can. The more people we can get along on the day, the more we can show that we will not take this decision lying down, and that the Majestic needs to be saved for the benefit of Christchurch! More details to follow soon.

Dr Ian Lochhead has written about the importance of the Majestic. Almost 50 years ago, on June the 27th, 1964, the Beatles played the last show of their one and only New Zealand tour at the Majestic. While “the Beatles played there” may not be the best excuse to save a building, it’s a million times better than “making the road 9m wider” – which is the reason being given to bowl the building. If you’re in the vicinity, I hope you’ll join me and others at the theatre, this Thursday at 1pm.

An opinion piece in this morning’s Press advocates for retention of the Christ Church Cathedral. It comes from British writer and heritage adviser Richard Terry, and again highlights the folly of the position taken by the Bishop and others;

Christ Church Cathedral speaks directly to us with an irreplaceable authority. It gives a voice to the remarkable historical and cultural movements that gave birth to its city and to Canterbury province. To lose this unique and singular voice would be a great loss, felt ever more acutely in the long term, which would prove detrimental to Christchurch. It should be spared from total demolition.

My personal preference would be to see the Cathedral rebuilt on the current site, using the wooden frame that was initially proposed by George Gilbert Scott, then revived by Sir Miles Warren. This ticks all the boxes – sympathetic to the heritage of the building, a very reasonable cost, and seismic stability. The Cathedral is the symbol of Christchurch, and if we don’t rebuild it, I think that says something very symbolic – and very sad – about the recovery as a whole.


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