In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit the New Zealand city of Christchurch in February 2011, the mayor, Bob Parker, vowed that the city’s famous cathedral would be rebuilt. Yesterday however, the Church authorities announced that they have decided to demolish the building completely.
Some could suggest that it is wrong for people to interfere in the business of a country they have never visited. Yet it’s worth remembering that Christchurch Cathedral was designed by one of the greatest British architects ever, Sir George Gilbert Scott. Despite having worked on the restoration of dozens of them, Scott never designed an English cathedral from scratch (unlike both his son and grandson). He did build two in Scotland, and design the ones in St John’s, Newfoundland, and Christchurch. The latter is probably the closest to how one could imagine a George Gilbert Scott-designed English cathedral looking.
There are, of course, many news articles covering the decision to demolish the building. Reading around, it becomes clear that, despite all the talk of safety, the main consideration of the Church authorities is money. They say restoring the existing building would leave a shortfall of NZ$50m after insurance payouts, while building a replica would leave a $100m shortfall. Yet they have turned down offers from city authorities to take over and repair the building, on the grounds that the land is consecrated, and that they want to build a new cathedral there. Unfortunately, I do feel that any replacement building would, due to the same financial constraints, be constructed on the cheap and would therefore not match the old one in terms of scale or quality. With a few notable exceptions, most modern church buildings are rather uninspiring. While the church may think such edifices are sufficient to allow their congregations to worship, they are not successful in providing a landmark for the wider community or as a means of attracting tourists. I’m sure far more people visit and photograph the cathedral as tourists than ever worship there.
It seems many experts don’t agree that the cathedral needs to be destroyed. Michael King, a leading structural engineer, has called the decision “criminal”. And Kit Miyamoto, California’s seismic safety officer, has said the cathedral could be restored and strengthened against earthquakes for $20m. He even offered free advice from partners in Italy who are experts in restoring buildings following earthquake damage. Yet these offers have been rejected by the Church. Religious people often have difficulty explaining why their God decides to launch disasters such as earthquakes that kill so many of His people. Could it be that church leaders are keen to submit to God’s wishes and finish the destruction of the building, rather than turn to modern engineering and technology in order to secure it?
While I think as much of the existing building as possible should be retained and restored, I don’t think it necessarily has to be exactly the same as it was before. Internally, the construction would probably need to be different in order to protect the structure from future seismic activity. But I would also be open to parts of the building that had been destroyed being replaced with sympathetic alternatives. For example, the spire could be replaced with a wooden structure. The top of the spire had already been replaced with a copper section following an earthquake in 1901. Many English cathedrals are a hotchpotch of different extensions and repairs carried out over the years. Scott himself would most probably approve, given his modern additions to cathedrals, some of which were later to be considered Victorian kitsch and removed, most notably the spectacular Hereford Screen now in the Victoria and Albert museum. What Scott didn’t do was demolish a cathedral and design a new one from scratch. I’m sure he would have considered that vandalism.
While the Church may have announced its decision, the issue is far from over yet. There is already talk of protests, and of alternative models for ownership and funding of repairs. Hopefully the people of New Zealand will not allow the total destruction of one of their best historic buildings, and instead see it restored as a symbol of recovery following the earthquake. Once everyone has come to their senses, they can count on by donation to the restoration fund. I’ll finish this post with a link to a blog containing some inspiring night-time shots of the cathedral.
Other articles used as references for this post:
- Christ Church Cathedral condemned, stuff.co.nz
- Earthquake-ravaged Christchurch Cathedral to be demolished, The Daily Telegraph
- Parker’s Cathedral plea spurned, stuff.co.nz