Threat to world heritage


While I was in the midst of preparing the manuscript for my new book Imperial Gothic  a few years ago, a series of devastating earthquakes struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch. These quakes, of which there were two major ones between September 2010 and February 2011, caused widespread damage to the city’s historic centre, including the magnificent Anglican cathedral by the noted English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. The destruction and deaths caused by these earthquakes made international headlines.

From a heritage perspective, this was significant for me, not only because Scott’s cathedral featured prominently in my book as an excellent example of the global reach of the Gothic Revival movement in architecture, but also because, having studied the building closely over a number of years, I cared about its future. Christchurch cathedral is a very fine specimen of mid-nineteenth-century Gothic Revival architecture, among the finest outside the British Isles. For reasons explained in my book, the cathedral stands as testament to an extraordinary episode in the history of New Zealand as well as that of Britain and global Anglicanism in general. It is nothing less than the symbol of the city of Christchurch itself, which was originally established as a dedicated Anglican colony in the 1850s, and is therefore far more than just a building – it is a monument and a memorial to the city’s very existence. In this respect Scott’s cathedral holds a similar place in the annals of the city of Christchurch as St. Peter’s basilica does in those of Rome – both buildings embodying and representing the social, civic and architectural heritage and identity of their respective cities.

However, we now learn, rather depressingly, that the remnants of Scott’s magnificent pile are to be torn down to make way for a new building which, at best, makes a very poor comparison with its soon to be illustrious predecessor. What’s all the more remarkable about this decision is that the vast majority of the cathedral remains standing and, according to the latest engineering reports, can be saved and rebuilt for not much more than the proposed new building. For most civic authorities and governments around the world it would be a no-brainer as to what to do under these circumstances – saving an historic monument of this stature would not have required a second thought. Unfortunately, not so in New Zealand. From what I can gather, it has been all but decided that the remains of the cathedral must come down, tearing the heart out of the city in the process. I believe there is a glimmer of hope that it might still be resurrected, but this is fading fast.

One can only hope that the short-termism, philistinism and, indeed, vandalism that have reigned supreme in Christchurch over these past few years are not allowed to continue in this very important task of preserving and rebuilding Christchurch cathedral. It has to be said that whether Scott’s building should remain standing is not entirely the decision of the present bishop of Christchurch or the civic authorities – they are merely custodians of this heritage, not arbiters of its fate. For them to assume that they have any such right as arbiters in this respect is arrogance in the extreme, and if they should choose to exercise that unfounded right then history will judge them harshly.

There is no question that Christchurch cathedral is a building of international merit and standing. Its maintenance is therefore, more properly speaking, a matter of international heritage, not just local, and it was reckless of the diocese of Christchurch to reject the generous funding that would have been made available through international networks should a rebuilding campaign have gone ahead.

Many citizens and heritage experts in both Christchurch and New Zealand (as well as other parts of the world, including the Victorian Society in Britain) have worked tirelessly in lobbying the powers that be to save the building from demolition, but, sadly, their enlightened testimony has fallen on deaf ears. If Christchurch cathedral should come down, it will be a grim day for anyone who cares about the history and heritage of the built environment, the world over. If it does happen, then ignorance and cynicism will be seen to have won the day. I only hope that in the end good sense prevails, and that what I have said about the building in my new book will lend some support to its preservation, however small.

*Alex [George] Bremner [2001] is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh. He did a PhD in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge. Picture credit: G. A. Bremner


8 responses to “Threat to world heritage

  1. Thank you for this heartfelt piece about Christchurch Cathedral. I am a child of Christchurch, born and raised under the Cathedrals beautiful gaze and have watched in horror as our current government has bulldozed and wrecked much of our city and shamefully treated heritage with little respect. I truly hope that the people who are fighting for this beautiful monument and halted its demolition are successful in saving the heart of Christchurch. Much love to all of the support in this journey through our recent tragedies.

  2. Further to Tobias’s comments, it must be stressed it is our current government’s indifference to heritage, and bias towards demolition, that is primarily responsible for so much unnecessary loss- their emergency legislation overrides all heritage protections, and puts it at the mercy of private property owners. The Church has carefully run a campaign of misinformation and shared their engineers reports only under duress. Our Earthquake minister Gerry Brownlee has said of heritage buildings: “old dungers” and “old stuff … [that] needs to be got down and got out, because it’s dangerous and we don’t need it”. He has also made such generalisations as saying most of Christchurch’s 1000 heritage buildings are a danger to lives and that they should be demolished. This is the minister in charge of the rebuild of Christchurch. It’s like the Twilight Zone for heritage advocates.

  3. Well said. I was ordained in Christchurch Cathedral and spent the latter part of my working life raising money for the restoration of historic cathedrals. After the February 2011 quake the Fundraising Consultancy that formerly employed me offered, pro bono, to stage a world-wide campaign to restore Christchurch Cathedral to its former glory. But Bishop Victoria Matthews had obviously already decided that it was ‘an old dunger’. She refused the offer unless she controlled the fund and was able to use it as she pleased. Her favoured design for a replacement cathedral is a nightmare. Can someone rid us of this troublesome priestess?

    • Brother Graeme; Let us not create a martyr. The bishop is my sister-in-Christ and I love her. But just like my own flesh-and-blood sister, there are times when I think she’s off her bloody rocker! Go to Anglican Life and read her charge to the Synod (“our Bishop” tab and scroll down) in which she likens the Cathedral to a Prison. A PRISON.??…really???? Dear Lord, Vicky…what happened to “spiritual home”, “National Treasure” and “Heart of the City” If that was a prison, wouldn’t any other building just be a change of cells? The problem is the perception within…NOT the Architecture without.

      She resigned as Bishop of Edmonton. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a habit.

  4. George Gilbert Scott did not design the resulting Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch
    And as it happens , nor did Benjamin Mountfort
    Scott designed a wooden building that did not get past the foundation stage .
    10 years later Mountfort’s stone structure was put to Scott’s plans on those lightweight foundations .
    The result was a mishmash of input from both architects and demands from a wealthy contributing family .

    A recipe for disaster if ever there was one ,
    and there was one .

    • Pat, I fear, is misinformed. While Scott’s original plan was for a largely wooden structure, his second design was for the Stone structure that was built (with input from Mountfort).

      The foundations fared well in the quakes… as did the vast majority of the building. Much of the dramatic damage to the Cathedral resulted from the insistence by the Bishop at the time , for a stone spire, rather than a wooden spire from the bell level up, as designed by Scott and preferred by Mountfort. From the earliest days, that spire was subject to quake damage. In the February quake the North-east corner column of the Bell level failed as it tried to transfer the energy of the quake to the mass of the stone spire. That failure caused the whole of the spire to crash to the ground like a felled great oak, raining destruction below.

      Most of the remaining dramatic damage, particularly to the West wall was caused by the ill-conceived bracing tower. Known among engineers as “the battering ram” or “the fist that punched the face of God” in subsequent quakes, it vibrated differently to the stone…tearing the west wall to pieces.

      A better hands-off demolition tool would be hard to design.

      The quake damaged the building. But if it is to be destroyed, it will have to be by the short-sighted and frightened. Building damaged far worse than this have been lovingly, safely and economically restored…and strengthened. Yes….and in earthquake zones. The Italians have done amazing work after their quakes. And…that skill has been offered to Christchurch free-of-charge.

      There are hundreds of highly skilled craftsmen around the English-speaking world that stand ready to give up their time, holidays and resources to help.

      The Quakes were simply a test. The disaster will be if the Kiwis simply roll over and abandon the Heritage of their Fathers and decline the help of their mates around the world

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