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.
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.