The Christchurch Orphans

I want to write about the orphans of Christchurch architecture that I documented in January this year, just weeks prior to the February earthquake. By orphans I’m referring to heritage buildings that individually don’t deserve attention, but that in unison create `character’ in the area. These buildings are often given a Category 3 or 4 classification if they are registered with the Historic Places Trust. What this means is that they create a “sense of place’, (a planning term) and a connection with the city’s Victorian past. However as a result of the earthquake, the damaged survivors of this group might quietly disappear altogether.

One of the good things about being freelance is that when you get called to crew on a sailing ship, sometimes you can say yes. On January 20th I jumped aboard Mattijs’ boat Tardis III and made my way down to Christchurch the old-fashioned way; by wind and by a motor that leaked gas into the cabin where I spent most of the trip horizontal. I never quite recovered from the gale that blew us through the straight. But the arms of the harbour welcomed us early Saturday morning, and a few Lyttelton lights twinkled.
I was relieved to moor at Diamond Harbour, Banks Peninsula for engine repairs, (and the hospitality of Anne and Jim Thornton, grandparents of one of the crew.) I stayed a night at their idyllic house on the bluff, with a view back to Tardis III and the port beyond. Anne discovered my interest in heritage architecture and kindly handed me phone numbers, books, maps, bus timetables and newspaper clippings.

The next day I said goodbye to the crew, and caught the ferry to Lyttelton. I saw how the historic port village had weathered the earthquake in September and took coffee in a cafe on Oxford Street. Inside was a blend of blackened weatherboards, old photographs, designer chairs and the posters of vanished Wellington bands. Lyttelton is enriched by living close to its past and it’s not precious about it. Weeks later a 6.3 earthquake was centred under the town, and the same cafe featured in a photograph taken by Jason South for the Sydney Morning Herald. (on the right, above). Other causalities included the Time Ball Station, the Lyttelton Lounge building, the old library and post office, the museum, the Lyttelton Times building, the Canterbury Hotel, the Forbes building, the Royal Hotel and the Harbour Light Theatre.
In 1850, the settlers from the First Four Ships climbed over the notoriously steep Bridle Path to found the city of Christchurch on the plains. My arrival was also painfully slow via the number 28 bus. I alighted as soon as I saw a landslide of brick on a corner of Manchester Street. Without strengthening many brick buildings had gaping holes, but as well as the earthquake damage their condition spoke of aimless years of seedy adult shops and antique dealers. They had been neglected, then vacated and fenced off after the first quake, and now these orphaned Victorian streetscapes are in ruins, as photographed by Martin Hunter, Getty images (on the right, below).

It was difficult to find any professional opinions on the fate of these less important buildings. I visited a disheartened Robin Gibbs at the historic places trust; the Boxing Day aftershock had resulted in more demolition consents for her to process. She gave me a street map marking the worst affected areas, which I used as a guide. Architect and heritage advocate Peter Beavan wasn’t in his attic office in the Provincial Chambers, but in the article titled `Beavan’s bold view for a city,’ The Press, January 26th, were his opinions about restoring Victorian streetscapes for mixed-use development.
I was expecting wide, empty shopping streets and a lonely crossing of the square, but as I walked into the central city, I joined a stream of tourists and sporty looking people in wheelchairs. The Buskers festival and the Special Olympics were on in the same week. I was never lonely. When I got tired of photographing one injured building after another, I would flop down in the sun with everyone else to be entertained. The international performers got the tentative crowds enjoying their public spaces again and laughing at themselves (and also at middle aged white men who couldn’t dance).
I wandered. Across the road from the supermarket zone I saw yet another corner hotel in a green shroud, but this one had a For Lease sign. In the darkness I saw steel strengthening on the inside walls. Ian the builder explained that this was in fact put in after the quake, but because the building was sitting in a dug out trench it had been able to flex. The upstairs was open and light and contained Merve Cooper, the owner, a retired builder who had the grit to work through two major earthquakes.

I got the whole story, so I guess there are benefits to being a skirt on a building site. The Grosvenor Hotel was built in 1870 and was previously owned but neglected by the neighbouring polytechnic. Sometime in the 1970’s it gained a `sweatband’ of concrete that wrapped around the original moulded cornice. This was ugly, but held the building together during the earthquake. The building had a category 3 rating, which allowed Merve to remodel, rather than restore. He gutted the interior partition walls and stairwells to create an open plan multi-use space. He then inserted a masonry core stairwell, plywood floor & ceiling diaphragms, poured a polished concrete ground floor and applied a waterproof plaster layer over original exterior brickwork. And all done to budget.
Owners like Merve develop for the love of it. They also have strength of character. This bridges the gap between the cost of the reconstruction and the value of the completed building. There is no incentive for restoration available from the Government in New Zealand, and our Historic Places Trust is just a regulatory body, and so offers no financial assistance. The current restrictive council requirements for quake-strengthening, combined with heritage preservation standards, pose a risk to character buildings. And if they’re not registered with the trust, they can be easily demolished for their speculative land value.
After the site visit, Merve whisked me away by car for an overview of heritage buildings in what was, in his words “the best city in New Zealand”. They were damaged, but he was optimistic that they would be repaired. We then had a cup of tea in the boardroom of his family’s new mall, and I pored through the original photographs and drawings of the hotel.
After the February earthquake I searched online for the iconic buildings of Merve’s tour. Among the fallen were the former University buildings, the Knox Church, Christchurch Girls High School, the Oxford Street Baptist Church, and the Provincial hotel.. I later spoke to Merve as he was waiting for his heritage approved paint to dry. His pragmatic approach had guaranteed the standing of the hotel for at least another 50 years.

I returned to Wellington from Christchurch by train. In the travel section of the Wellington library images of `English Christchurch’ and Merve’s hotel could be seen in `A Picture Book of Old Canterbury,’ Ken Coates, Halina Ogonowska-Coates.’ The city was rapidly planned in a new world modified grid pattern, financed by the coal and wool boom of the 1860’s and 70’s. Eric Pawson wrote of the colonial habit of calling the swamps `wasteland’ in his article `Confronting Nature’, included in the book `Southern Capital Christchurch.’. It explained how Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the founders of the Canterbury settlement, who included Anglican ministers, worked on a bias between the `barbarism’ of the `wastelands’ and the `civilisation’ of a chief town.
I was intrigued by a map of these natural wetlands that had been drained to create significant flatlands. This made me think of liquefaction problems even at the time.

I was contemplating going back down to Christchurch for a second visit around the time of the February earthquake. Then I got involved in set-dressing a shipping container for the Performance Arcade, a public art event on the waterfront, curated by Sam Trubridge of the playground Collective. The evening of the earthquake, the bicycle powered chandelier of Marcus McShane’s work `Nag’ looked so homely against the sky and the city that it drew in a group of Christchurch refugees who asked if they could stay the night. That weekend I had the opportunity to show slides of my visit at the Pecha Kucha evening held in the arcade, and so perhaps bring the Wellington audience closer to the event.
It’s reported that about 800, or roughly half of Christchurch’s heritage buildings, have been red stickered, many of which I managed to capture during my visit. Some were strengthened, but then got red stickered because neighbouring buildings were badly damaged. Owners who had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars are holding vigil against the clean-up. They face Gerry Brownlee’s comments to “pull the old dungas down,” and some are not informed of demolition until it is too late.

The ruined brick buildings of Christchurch reminded me of the images of the Napier ’31 earthquake I had seen on class trips to the museum there. Students from the University of Auckland were among the architects called in to help re-build the city, and they championed the Art Deco style. It was strange and modern, but must have been convincing as a cost-effective solution whose smooth surfaces were free of deadly decoration. Back then a moratorium was placed on the rebuilding of any business premises until further notice, in order to allow time for the rational planning of a new CBD for Napier, written about in an article by R. McGregor, 1998.
Global cities gain their culture through a process of natural growth and adaptation. Perhaps it would be rational before wildly red-stickering, to find out if there are any heritage streets that remain mostly intact. It may be the case that on some streets in central Christchurch only one or two buildings in a row need the attention of reconstruction. Reconstruction provides skilled craftsmen with an income, which in turn helps the local economy. And for the streets that are beyond saving, we should take the time to reflect on the qualities they possessed in their lifetime: proportion, decoration, human scale, individuality and variation and soaring ceilings that you could really dream in.

Chucking Bricks in Christchurch

Christchurch has lost it’s chimneys. Perhaps it should have lost them before this. Tens of thousands of homes now have holes in their ceilings after their chimneys collapsed in the feburary earthquake, and now residents can’t light fires when they need them most. I am not a great fan of chimneys anyway. We don’t live in the stone age, and just plain burning stuff is a stone age way of heating, no matter how romantic it may be. If going to the toilet on the footpath was romantic, then it’d be behaviour on a par environmentally with heating your home by using a fire.

But Christchurch was a city built disregarding it’s environment anyway. Someone just let a town sprawl out over a shallow windless depression of drained marshland, and then let people heat everything in it with coal and wood. Many of them still did until a few weeks back. I used to live in Lytellton and cycle to work in Christchurch over the bridle path track. I’d crest that hill, sweating, at 8.30am of an autumn morning, and ahead would be a lake of coal smoke with a few tall buildings poking up through it. I’ve commuted by bicycle in Los Angeles and London as well, and Christchurch was worse to ride in than either because of it’s dependence on this insane victorian style of heating.

I like a room with a mantlepiece and a fireplace, but I really just like leaning on the mantlepiece and pretending to smoke a pipe. A fireplace nicely breaks up a boring wall, and is handy for putting bookshelves up on each side of, but actually lighting a fire in an open fireplace isn’t something that happens much in my experience. Uncontained wood burns with amazing swiftness, and almost all the heat produced by it goes straight up the chimney and warms the globe rather than warming you. Woodburners of course aren’t quite so inefficient, and they don’t need those two or three metric tonnes of brick that you can feel hanging over you in these shakey isles either. Woodburners just need a shaft of pipe, and that isn’t going to collapse and hurt anyone, or take a large chunk of roof down with it either.

I’ve lived in many old houses with chimneys, and I’ve liked all those houses, so it’s odd that I should be arguing against a part of them, but I just can’t help myself. Chimneys are inefficient, and whilst I love old buildings, I’ve never seen chimneys as being defining points of their character. If you’ve ever looked across the London rooftops, out over that sea of grotty victorian and edwardian sprawl that ends in an assault of brick on the sky, you’ll know that it’s one of the most sordid and grimy views that the world has. All that those ranks of chimneys speak of is the bad old industrial revolution. Child labour, coal smoke, the mill-worker’s failing lungs, the seamstress’s clouded eyes.

I haven’t liked the old houses I’ve lived in because they’ve had chimneys, but because they’ve been beautiful houses, even if sometimes their charm has been that of decaying grandeur. One house in Aro Valley had two chimneys that were unusable and lacked witches hats, but also had a peaked roof with a fine view. We ran left and right speaker cables down the chimneys and set a waterproofed speaker atop each, and lo, with the addition of a decent ladder a summer of fun afternoons was born.

There was another hatless chimney which used to moan oddly on windy nights. When it started to smell as well as moan I excavated it and found a dead possum atop of a lot of wet 80’s newspapers that were stuffed up there. I buried the possum, gave up on heating the room, and just put some ferns in the fireplace to catch the drips. They thrived. I didn’t.

An issue like redundant chimneys in New Zealand feels a very small thing to be concerned about in respect of the serious devastation in Japan, a country that’s never been cursed with these weighty pieces of victorian architecture. In the context of Japan’s earthquake I could grumble about nuclear power, or our insane reliance on oil, and what is more I could argue with much more force and vigour about these things than I can about chimneys. But people have long been talking about the problems with nuclear power and with oil, and no-one’s listened, and nothing’s changed, and in the mean time I might as well make an argument for getting rid of these mildly dangerous and mostly obsolete structures all around us. I doubt that the powers that be have much vested interest in chimneys, so here we might actually make a difference.

I just feel that rooftops are prime places for better things. All of our energy comes from the sun in some way (except for geologic energy and nuclear energy, and we’ve had enough of those), and rooftops are sun-traps. Brick chimneys aren’t hard to dismantle either if you tackle them carefully in a top-down fashion. I feel more people should get up there and do things with all that sun-drenched space.

You could divert your guttering to collect rainwater for the garden, or throw up a solar water-heating panel. I know of people who’ve successfully dissembled their chimney down to the mantlepiece without even putting up scaffolding.   Sure, a non-structural chimney is work to remove, but it’s not difficult work. And then you’ve got a fine hole just waiting for a skylight.

And a pile of bricks for the garden.


Marcus McShane



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