Architectural Alzheimers

by Rebecca Macfie, The Listener

With many of Christchurch’s heritage buildings suffering from “demolition through neglect”, the post-quake task of saving as many as possible remains tricky.

Eleven historic Christchurch buildings have been flattened by bulldozers since the September 4 earthquake and many more are poised to follow, causing architectural historian Ian Lochhead to fear the city will end up with “architectural Alzheimer’s … we don’t want a city with no collective memory.”

Lochhead, an international expert in Gothic Revival buildings, was in Auckland when the earthquake struck. He returned home to Christchurch later that night filled with trepidation, but was relieved to find landmark buildings – such as the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals and Provincial Council Buildings – still standing, thanks to earthquake strengthening.

But huge damage has been inflicted on Christchurch’s ubi­quitous heritage and “character” brick buildings. Christchurch City Council estimates prepared before the quake show the city had 1000 unreinforced masonry buildings likely to fail in a moderate earthquake, and 490 earthquake-prone heritage buildings.

Many have been suffering for decades from what Holmes Consulting engineer John Hare calls “demolition through neglect”. Static building values and the running down of the city centre have made it hard for owners to justify the cost of strengthening, and successive policymakers have delayed imposing a legal requirement to do so – although a few days after the earthquake the council lifted the target for strengthening damaged buildings from 33% to 67% of the Building Code.

There’s now a groundswell of public opinion that these battered buildings should be salvaged, and the council has been granted the right of veto over whether owners of heritage buildings can demolish. Councillor Sue Wells says the council has “an obligation to retain and restore as much of the character of the city as possible”.

But who will pay the price? According to engineering estimates prepared for Christchurch Heritage Trust, the cost of strengthening 25 privately owned heritage buildings to two-thirds of the Building Code was $25 million. And those calculations were done before the earthquake, which shattered facades, collapsed ceilings and toppled parapets in many old buildings.

Trust chairman Derek Anderson says the owners of damaged buildings face a stark choice: “Will they take the [insurance] money and run, or will they restore?” He predicts legal battles in cases where the council bars an owner from demolishing. “If an owner says, ‘We’ve had it assessed, it will cost $2 million and we can’t get a return on that’, they will win in court. We have to make it beneficial for building owners to restore rather than walk away.”

The council has set up a heritage fund, seeded with a $1 million donation from Fletcher Building and $250,000 from the Historic Places Trust. Mayor Bob Parker has launched a worldwide appeal and asked the Government to chip in, and Wells says the council will also be discussing schemes such as suspensory loans and lower development contributions for heritage-building owners.

Anderson is pushing for the council and Government to use their borrowing power to set up a long-term restoration fund, from which building owners could obtain interest-free mortgages for repair and strengthening work. He also advocates a cap on rates for heritage precincts.

But already the debate over the future of the city’s heritage buildings is mired in controversy. This week Parker announced Wellington architect Ian Athfield would lead a team of designers to come up with ideas for rebuilding the city, but the appointment has been a red rag to heritage advocates like Ann Hercus, who led the successful campaign against last year’s controversial proposal to build a new music school at the historic Christchurch Arts Centre. Mayoral contender Jim Anderton accuses Parker of appointing Athfield without consultation, saying other councillors were shut out of the decision.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Trust is determined to continue its mission of breathing new economic life into old buildings. Set up in the 1990s with a $600,000 grant, it has aimed to lead private heritage-building owners by example. It strengthened and refurbished the likes of the Excelsior Hotel in Manchester St and the old Christchurch Star building in Cathedral Square, onselling them to new owners for a profit. Both buildings are now busy backpacker premises.

The trust has accumulated $5 million in reserves for future developments. Next on the list is the old Smith’s Bookshop in Manchester St, where it is collaborating on earthquake-strengthening work with adjacent owners in a terraced block of brick buildings. Although the block was severely damaged, Anderson is confident the project to turn the buildings into shops, apartments and boutique offices will proceed.

Lochhead warns that Christchurch’s handling of its earthquake-scarred historic buildings is under intense scrutiny. “We are being watched by the international heritage community, and by the international tourism industry. So we have to have enormous pride and determination in rebuilding our city and making it even better than it was.”

The original article was first published in the Listener.