The Eye of the Fish

July 10, 2012

Rebuild Christchurch Cathedral

Rebuild Christchurch Cathedral. It’s such a simple thing to say, and yet seems so hard for some people to think of doing. While some people I know think that Bishop Victoria Matthews is a evil wench for proposing that the church be demolished, at least she is being honest in saying that the Anglican church doesn’t want old, cold buildings, and a new church would suit them better. Others are saying that – be that as it may – the Church has got no right to destroy what is, after all, a symbol not just for the church, but for the whole of the Canterbury region. It’s like the Sydney Opera House – technically, it no doubt belongs to an opera company, but really the people of Sydney feel like they own it (actually, they probably do: it was financed by lottery tickets way back in the day…).

So- at long last – some clever engineers have come up with a proposal for how the building can be saved. Stefano Pampanin, a lecturer at the School of Engineering down at Canterbury; Robert Davey from Opus; and Adam Thornton, a pretty savvy structural engineer up here in Wellington, have come up with a simple sequence of how the Cathedral could be saved. You can read it here :cathedralreport.

There’s nothing too amazingly different about what the engineers are proposing, as to what we here at the Fish, and many other sensible people have been saying: Start at the West End. The west wall has gone, destroyed for ever. Shed a tear – move on. This is what you will see:

Now the process of saving the rest can begin.

Build a steel protection cage around the workers, and push it on through the central aisle, strengthening as you go. The key thing of course, is that this is being proposed by world class engineers, specialists in their field, and leaders within NZ for their earthquake expertise. Even though it is nothing new : because they have said it, it gains authority, and can be done.

Here you can see that while the stone work and brickwork needs extensive repair and rebuilding, the timber roof is holding it all together at present. My guess is that new steel columns would be best, and these can be relatively simply installed – the bigger issue will be the foundations that they need to sit on. These can be done progressively as the inside moves along.

The question has always been: Should it be done? Obviously the Bishop has given up the fight, and is following the dodgy advice that the building can / should be demolished. Personally, I’ve never bought into the scenario that reducing the height of the wall down to 2-3m high is in any way a feasible option. The Bishop has also been spouting absolute bullshit, when she says that the building will be carefully “deconstructed” rather than being “demolished” – the giant nibblers they are using just destroy every fragment of stone, rather than saving it. Certainly it would be safer to demolish with a giant wreckers ball, and keep everyone clear, that would be safer than trying to pull the roof off and then “delicately” lower the walls.

There is news today too, that this process of keeping the Cathedral would be cheaper than demolishing it and rebuilding. Again: its common sense. You have a perfectly good roof structure made of timber, that is currently all in one piece, except for right at the west end. Apparently there is not even a single tile out of place at the apse. There is no logic at all in demolishing it as it stands.

And so there we are. No reason to demolish. Here’s a plan on how to do it. Do we, as a country, have the gumption to take the lead and keep the Cathedral, instead of destroying it all and making more of a wasteland of our southern city?

We even have a royal decree…

Rebuild Christchurch Cathedral – Eye of the Fish | A wide-angle view … – Christian IBD
10 - 07 - 12

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andy foster
11 - 07 - 12

Max – Several reasons why I completely agree with you. We should be doing all we can to save the Cathedral, if it is possible, and as your article points out it seems plenty of people who should know, believe it is possible.

1 – we are very short of genuinely nationally and internationally recognizable buildings. Christ Church Cathedral is undoubtedly one of the top few in our country. It is the building which gave the city its name, and it is still the building in its undamaged glory that features on the front of the Christ Church City Council website and its logo. That is – it is a New Zealand icon.

2 – I’ve watched with sadness the name calling on blogs about the retention of the Cathedral. Some bemoan that it is too expensive to repair (not sure how the cost compares to a new cathedral, or to the insurance payout), and that it is a church responsibility. ‘Let the God botherers look after it’ they say. I say that we are going to have to make some calls not just about damaged buildings in Christ Church, but also about potentially risky ones all over the country, very much including Wellington. Many private buildings will be earthquake prone
and will not be economic for the owner to strengthen, or in Christ Church City’s case, to repair.

However we list heritage buildings not for the benefit of private owners, but for public good. Christ Church Cathedral is no different. Indeed many private owners vigorously contest listing. We will have to consider, all over the country which buildings, and the degree to which we support that public good through public money. It is no different conceptually from the public good we determine exists when you or I go to the library, sportsfield or pool (most of the cost is not paid by the user but by the wider public.

I don’t think we will be able to afford to support all listed heritage buildings. Therefore the issue will be, which buildings are the most important, and what is the level of public good. I think the Cathedral would be one of the most significant buildings in the country in terms of heritage values.

3. Christ Church City is I think the number 2 destination in the country – joy of having an international airport. However what do you visit Christ Church
for ? Leave aside the business and friends and family reasons, and temporary events and I would say the heritage character of the city and the Port Hills/Sumner area would be the main permanent attractions. Sure the CBD was struggling in terms of foot traffic pre earthquakes, and people will say that the buildings weren’t up to European heritage quality and age, but if we let them go so easily how will they ever get to ‘grow up’ age wise ? Any replacement architecture is going to have to be pretty special to replace what has been lost, and much more so if more buildings go. There is a danger that the airport becomes the gateway to the rest of the South Island from a visitor perspective.

4 – Final comment to make. What is the NZ mania for making irreversible decisions in a short space of time? Germany for example spent many many years repairing war damaged heritage buildings. Some were effectively entirely rebuilt. Perhaps that’s not surprising given cathedrals there often took literally centuries to build in the first place. Current generations are clearly grateful for the patience of the original builders and of the restorers, and I am sure future generations will be too.

So to use a cricketing metaphor, are we going to be exponents of hit and
giggle, or are we going to learn to play the long game ? (and that doesn’t only apply to this discussion !)

11 - 07 - 12

So if this plan is cheaper than demolition and rebuilding, then you and your fellow supporters will be able to purchase the building from the current owners (church? insurers?), do it up, and you’ll be rich. No need to involve the rest of us.

Personally, I think it looks stuffed. I feel like we’re back in late 2010 when people tried to stop the demolition of other Christchurch buildings that were cracked and dangerous. The buildings that would have killed even more people if they’d been “saved”.

11 - 07 - 12

davidp – i disagree. The need for the building is greater than you or I. It’s bigger than both of us… There is so very little in Christchurch that remains, apart from the suburban dross, and the awful big box retailing. The city really does need its key pieces of architecture. And remember, as if you need any reminding with the news on the TV at present – it was the modern CTV building that killed the vast majority of people in Christchurch. Not the old buildings, on the whole. 70 Asian students on one floor of the CTV building alone.

11 - 07 - 12

Andy Foster – thank you for your lengthy reply. I like that I live in a city where we have intelligent and thoughtful city councilors. Makes me glad we are not in Whanganui… I totally agree with all of your points, especially point 4 – the rest of the world is stunned that we can even be thinking of destroying a tragicly battered, but fundamentally intact building. The Church of St Francis, in Assissi – remember when they had their earthquake in 1997, and the stone ceiling of an entire bay fell down and killed people inside? “Work on the church was started in 1228, the year of Francis’s canonisation, and constructed slowly over the next 300 years.” Well, they’ve fixed it all up now, and it looks as good or better than before.

Yes, we could go down the route of the Kaiser Wilhelm church in Berlin (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche), where they have left just a ruined stump – but remember, they don’t have earthquakes there, and we would still have to strengthen a stump. All the Berliners do is drive past it’s blackened remains.

Or we could go down the route of the Frankfurters, with the impeccably restored Roemerburg Plaza buildings in the Altestadt, where they have rebuilt the old buildings from scratch, right down to drilling new holes in the new wood to look like old borer holes… which is all a little bit too over the top.

Or we can go down the middle route, of keeping that which can be kept – ie about 2/3 of the Cathedral, and then doing a modern interpretation of what is left. Just like we said way back in Feb 2011:

11 - 07 - 12

Max… I think Christchurch CBD’s problems go a lot deeper than the cathedral. Investors have taken their insurance payouts and spent them elsewhere. Businesses have either folded or found new locations in the suburbs. The center is a fenced off no-go area with almost no retail activity, commercial activity, entertainment, or tourism going on. Almost no one still lives there. When the time arrives to rebuild (and we’re told rebuilding could take 10 years or more), then everyone will have moved on. The city must be undergoing some depopulation.

Christchurch is on life support. The most likely outcome for the medium term is for the CBD to look like a wasteland of unattractive empty lots. The city needs saving, and I think retail and entertainment buildings are more important to the process than a church.

Oh, and I don’t get the iconic tag. I’d have a hard time picking the pre-earthquake cathedral out of a line up of English small town churches. It’s a pretty average building, in my opinion. And Europeans, on the whole, didn’t rebuild average church buildings after they were destroyed in WW2 or in recent natural disasters.

11 - 07 - 12

Is laughable Bishop complaining about cost, and then going on a world tour of huge flash modern cathedrals. Especially when she said the Sagrada Familia was something we should be following. Clearly didn’t go through the museum part, or notice that it was still under construction well over 100 years later. If the Church want an iconic building to replace the Cathedral it will cost a small fortune. I don’t think a mini Sagrada Familia can be built with concrete tilt slabs.
The other great thing about this proposal is the square will be fully accessible once the box has been done, and cathedral can be left accessible and safe for years, rather than an dead site waiting for unaffordable designs, and new construction. Under the Bishops proposal the site will be an eyesore for years to come. No hurry when have a lovely cardboard cathedral not too far away.

andy foster
11 - 07 - 12

David P – the point is that many many heritage buildings would not be worth strengthening or repairing from a private good point of view, but we support them because of the public good – ie the benefit to us all from their existence. The discussion to have is the relationship between the public good and the cost of eg strengthening or repairing. As I said the Cathedral would be in the top tier of buildings in this country. I don’t disagree that it would not hold that ranking in Europe, but on that basis we wouldn’t keep very much. However it is instructive that there have been a number of significant offers of international $$ help reported to restore the Cathedral. I had the pleasure of welcoming the Australasian National Boys Choir to Wellington this week, and they are fundraising for … yes the Christ Church Cathedral.

I do agree with you that restoring the CBD will take a lot of doing David, and yes it will need all those activities and more. It wasn’t in great economic shape before the earthquake. However if it doesn’t have some key centrepieces – most notably the Cathedral and other key heritage buildings I would wonder why you’d bother with the old CBD location at all. Why not intensify say Riccarton Road which is still next to Hagley Park ? I just don’t have a great deal of faith that in this country in this day and age we won’t cut corners with most of the new buildings and that a new CBD will just be seriously ordinary.

Maximus – I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting Berlin, but have been to the Roemerburg Plaza in Frankfurt, which I think is a stunning restoration, and certainly was very nicely full of people when we visited. I was also thinking of Koln Cathedral which took several centuries to build, was seriously war damaged, but has been restored. Long game !

11 - 07 - 12

DavidP – I agree with almost everything you say – except the outcome. Think of the cathedral not as a church, but as a part of the tourist experience for the CBD. My guess is that it would have been the major drawcard for the CBD before the quake, and probably would have made more money from tourist donations than from regular parisioners. By the way – at the end of the project, I’m picking that the Cathedral will be a civic building: not a home for aged Anglicans. It has always been the rallying point for ChCh meetings and greetings.

11 - 07 - 12

In relation to what councilor Foster was saying: has anyone seriously considered what Bob Jones was proposing, regarding a lake in central Christchurch? If there is virtually nothing to be left there, why not just dig it all out and let it go to the birds? A giant inland lake in the centre of the city could be fantastic…

11 - 07 - 12

wow… someone is really showing their complete lack of knowledge on the subject here.
I’ve been working down here in chch for a few months now. I am not a local, nor do I attempt to speak on behalf of locals, but I will tell you what I hear and see.

The attitude the DavidP exhibits is exactly the attitude that I hear most people here upset about. It’s an attitude of people who don’t live here making decisions about a situation they know nothing about.

No the entire CBD is not closed off, nor is it devoid of life. I live in the CBD. I go to a cafe down the street from my house in the CBD. There is shopping the CBD, there are tourists in the CBD.

I’m not going to sugar coat it though – it’s quiet and pretty dire at the moment.

But activity is happening. There are several new commercial buildings under construction on the east side of the CBD that I walk by everyday. IN addition, I’m working on a new building for a company that was near the CTV. They are committed to going back. We are currently designing a building that will be revolutionary with regarding to materials and structure. Can’t say much more than that. I will say that we are also working on several other lower rise buildings that exploring similar technologies. Right here/right now Christchurch has some of the most interesting structural design work going on.

We are also working on two hotels that are being renovated. Owned by foreign investors. One is months away from reopening. Also working on a locally owned hotel that is renovating – despite not having earthquake damage.

And this is all before the CCDU has announced the big projects.

Here’s an interesting website to see some of the interesting things going on.

Christchurch needs help, but it is not the wasteland that some want to depict it. Nor is it ready to be turned into a giant lake.

11 - 07 - 12

The repair graphics look cool, looks like a Cathedral boring machine. I think it has to be repaired, what other major city in NZ has its foundation building still in place at its city centre, can’t think of any others. The impression I get is that if you have a heritage listed building with any damage, then CERA is quite happy to sign off demolition. Speed is the priority and its going to hurt in the long run. Hopefully one day people with a vision will get their way.

12 - 07 - 12

Minimus – thanks for your comment, and glad to hear you’re getting on ok down there. Hope those continued aftershocks aren’t keeping you awake at night. Absolutely fabulous news about the exciting projects you’re working on – let us know if we should give up our humdrum recession riddled lives up here and move down. And let us know about the top secret project, at an appropriate time of course! Although I’m not agreeing with davidp’s comments, I’m in exactly the same position – as we all are up here. It is really hard to be knowledgeable and correct / authoritative about Christchurch when you are not there, but I feel it is better that we have discussion rather than silence. That’s why I have burst into voice again on this subject, having been fairly quiet on the subject for a while now.

Sav – interestingly, that is exactly the impression that Pampanin gave when he was describing the process – he called it mining into the Cathedral. I didn’t think of it like that at all, so it is interesting that you picked up on that. Have you worked down the mines then? Am I missing something?

12 - 07 - 12

Comments on the Press /Stuff website make me very sad at how feral they are. It seems that these people, at least, are not supportive of any efforts to save their most important icon:
Jonathan   #7   08:24 am Jul 11 2012
Why are we letting these religious freaks rule our city. their rebuilding of their cathedral is just sending a challenge to this god of theirs and will anger him so much that he will send a bigger earthquake and destroy us all. These fanatics are evil.

melinda   #3   08:10 am Jul 11 2012
What a waste of time and money, the cathedral represents not much except a broken building, that will require millions and millions of dollars to make whole again. The purpose of the cathedral, as a place of prayer and worship, can exist anywhere in anything, all that money could be used to assist the thousands of people still struggling after the earthquakes, but it seems that people’s egos have become very enmeshed with a building, how rigid and backward thinking, the worst aspects of Christchurch.

kev   #4   08:17 am Jul 11 2012
Get over it folks. Knock the Bloody thing down.

Seamonkey Madness
12 - 07 - 12


Is this structural building technology something along the lines of what was on a Grand Designs episode not too long ago?

They had a kiwi chap on it at the end, talking of bringing the chap’s patented system to ChCh.

12 - 07 - 12

Here is a list of demolished (or demolished and yet to be demolished?) buildings: … There are 22 pages of them. At 50 buildings a page, thats 1100 buildings. That’s 1100 investors with a big insurance payout. 1100 vacant lots. Possibly 2 or 3000 businesses that have either folded or relocated. It’s nice that there is a little bit of development going on, and a cafe near Minimus is open, and people presumably think that they’ll get through the recovery like Londoners did the Blitz. But you have to look at the size of the task.

If Christchurch managed to complete a commercial building every week, then it is going to take 20 years to replace those 1100 buildings. Assuming there are no further aftershocks and no further reclassification from green to red. One building a week is a pretty ambitious task… Has Christchurch completed 70 replacement commercial buildings since 22 Feb last year? If the answer is no then they’re already behind the 20 year schedule.

So… We have to believe that there are investors who are just going to keep their insurance payout in the bank until the late 2020s, then re-invest in Christchurch. A Christchurch where property returns were already very poor before the earthquake. We have to believe that there are businesses that have found a new home in the suburbs, or in Auckland, but are already planning a return to the CBD in 2032. We have to believe that there are retailers who are planning to move from a suburban mall in to the CBD and put up with being in the middle of a construction zone for the next 20 years. Christchurch CBD was depressed before the earthquake with low investment returns and low property rents, but we have to believe that retailers and offices are aching to move back to the CBD and pay the higher rentals that will berequired to support all the brand new green buildings that are being planned.

Certainly some organisations will move back in to the CBD. Central and local government will, because they’ll want to try and make the CBD viable. So there will be some building going on and architects and engineers will have a great time. But Christchurch people have to realise that the numbers are against them, and no amount of cheerful optimism and national “we understand your pain” is going to overcome the practical issues that surround a 20 year building program. They also need to understand that people such as property investors aren’t going to donate their wealth to Christchurch for reasons of provincial patriotism, but the economics have to stack up as well. The economics were marginal before the earthquakes, and they haven’t improved now that 1100 buildings are rubble and the eastern suburbs are being abandoned.

As for the Cathedral, it doesn’t need an expert to see that it is stuffed:

12 - 07 - 12

I think I saw the episode you’re talking about – if so no, that’s not the system I’m talking about.

we’re seeing a few things here. One is steel with a blowable “fuse”. One point of failure that can be checked after quakes and replaced – failure of course meaning something that absorbs the shock without resulting in building collapse.

We’re seeing a huge focus on LVL, CLT and other timber building types for commercial construction. Imagine a city of COCA and NMIT type buildings. We’re working on one at the moment that would be 100% timber. No concrete topping slab. Even no dropped ceiling – exposed timber soffits. A big issue in the centre city is reducing the overall building weight – timber offers a high strength to weight ratio, reducing more expensive foundation costs.

And I’m not naive about the tilt slab work that’s going on. Yes, there’s some pretty dreadful stuff going on. But there’s also some with a bit of design and cleverness.

I’m pretty excited, and I’m a pretty jaded character. I think there’s some really interesting things going to come out of chch in the next ten years.

I’d actually invite any architects/designers/builders who are looking for a challenge to come down. I’ve been encouraged by the meetings I’ve been in so far. I was worried it would be focused on how to do the cheapest buildings possible, but instead the focus has been on how to create a building stock that is a leader in the world, let alone NZ. In many ways it makes sense – the only way people will return is if the buildings are better than can be offered elsewhere.

15 - 07 - 12

Cost of new vs replacement cathedral is a question that does not have an easy answer – however, some facts: The roof remains largely intact, and thus it is far, far cheaper to leave it intact, than to try and pull it apart, store it, and then rebuild it later. It would be cheapest to smash the whole building up and cart it off to the tip, than to sensitively pull it apart and salvage the pieces – however, the nibbler used so far just destroys the stone. The option of reducing the walls to 2-3m high retains nothing more than a memory and loses the space, which is what gives the cathedral it’s grandeur. It also stops rebuilding on the same site – if rebuilding, new foundations would be needed, meaning that the 2m high wall would have to go. The stone walls have worked well under gravity load, but are gradually failing. However, if they can be restrained by tying them to a steel frame, or sprayed concrete liner, they can be retained. The Apse of the cathedral, because it has lateral reinforcement in all directions (the gothic buttressing), is still very largely intact and not needing demolition, although it will still need much work. The delicate windows are still intact. On the whole therefore, while the retention and strengthening of the stonework will be costly, it should present significant savings to restore in situ rather than deconstruct and rebuild.