The devastating earthquakes have forced a re-evaluation of Christchurch’s heritage buildings. What should be demolished, what should remain? And what can bricks and mortar contribute to a city’s sense of place?
“We are a little land with no history.”
Katherine Mansfield was wrong of course. By the time she wrote these words in 1909, her home city of Wellington had a rich store of colonial architecture and what remained of some 800 years of Maori occupation.
But in some ways she was right as well. A pragmatic and expedient young country, we have always been quick to pull down and start again. Early stone and brick buildings were replaced with more seismically-fit timber. Timber was later replaced with more fire-resistant masonry.
Slowly evolving systems of heritage protection—urban zoning, town planning, the Resource Management Act (the powers of which are exercised by local authorities through their district plans) and, since 1954, the Historic Places Act—have all struggled to usurp the power of individual property rights.
“I’ve got this theory that we haven’t escaped the colonial project, the constant opportunity represented by open land,” says Christchurch architectural historian Jessica Halliday. “It was there in all the propaganda of the New Zealand Company. The Canterbury Association had a different agenda—it was more to do with transplanting the values of British society—but it was still about the economic and social opportunities represented by bare land.”
In Christchurch, there is now bare land aplenty. What was once a masterclass in this country’s architectural history, from the much-vaunted neo-Gothic structures through to the distinctive “Canterbury school” of mid-twentieth-century modernism, is now a checkerboard of levelled sites. Some buildings damaged by the city’s earthquakes, such as the fine collection of Gothic Revival buildings that make up the Arts Centre, are quietly getting on with long-term and costly restoration programmes. Some, including the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (c.1910), the ChristChurch Cathedral (1881–1904) and the Provincial Council buildings (1858–1865), still await a decision as to their fate.
But, as of March 2013, over 220 of the city’s heritage buildings, including 102 buildings on the New Zealand Historic Places Trust register, have been demolished, as well as many partial losses. The 1875 Lyttelton Post Office, the 1876 Cranmer Court (the former Normal School), the 1894 Librarian’s house, the 1903 Horse Bazaar, the 1905 Manchester Courts and former Royal Exchange—Christchurch’s roll call of lost heritage is long.
“It’s just that desire to demolish,” says Halliday, “to ignore the fact that there are a whole lot of cultural, social and historic values embedded in the fabric of this city. Why? Is it because we don’t tell our stories, because we think we are too young? It’s astonishing that we aren’t so moved to want to acknowledge, protect, celebrate and discuss the work of our ancestors.”
It is astonishing. New Zealand is a signatory to the 1972 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which requires states to protect and conserve cultural and natural heritage.
In New Zealand, state and local government policies extol the importance of heritage in defining individual and communal identity, providing continuity and stimulating economic revitalisation.
Empty words? Although the majority of Christchurch’s earthquake fatalities occurred in 1960s and 70s buildings, heritage has paid a high price for the tectonic upheavals. In the immediate aftermath of the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes, buildings considered a threat to public safety were demolished under emergency powers, with no opportunity for controlled deconstruction and salvage, and little discussion with owners. Legislation ushering in the new Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority suspended the heritage protection measures enacted under the Resource Management Act and further reduced the role of the Historic Places Trust in relation to historic buildings to an advisory function. In the meantime, red stickers and a cordon around the no-go red zone of the inner city left owners of historic buildings watching on in frustration as their properties succumbed to the onslaught of rain, snow, fire, on-going aftershocks and a Government-led resolve to restore the economic life of the city as quickly as possible. Under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, owners of damaged buildings can be issued with a ‘Section 38’ letter, effectively giving them 10 days to come up with a make-safe-or-demolish plan.
Even for the most heritage-minded property owner it is a hellish predicament. Insurance premiums have soared (in some cases by 500 per cent), rental income has dissipated, fears that tenants will be too frightened to work in old buildings have grown, increased building code requirements have added to the cost of repairs and owners have suddenly found themselves faced with development projects of which they have had little experience.
“But it is a created rush,” says Jacky Bowring, associate professor of landscape architecture at Lincoln University. “You can save things, put fences around them, explore other options. It doesn’t need to happen right now.”
There is evidence that rather than hindering progress, the preservation of heritage buildings is good for sustainable economic development. It provides local jobs and the retention of often-endangered skills, it attracts tourists, and the lower rentals are good for creative start-up businesses.
“People are attracted to the history and character of a building,” says Lincoln University property development lecturer Brent Nahkies. “With globalisation, one mall looks just like any other mall, every place looks the same. It is becoming more and more important to retain things that differentiate place.”
He cites the example of Christchurch’s historic High St precinct and lanes, once a thriving social and hospitality area, in contrast to the city’s ailing central business district.
“That was good thinking, unlocking value in those areas.”
But many of the city’s unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings—including some of those High St structures now clinging to survival in the face of earthquake damage and the Government’s redevelopment blueprint—were at or below the minimum 33 per cent of New Building Standard (NBS) specified for historic structures. Research by Auckland University associate professor of structural engineering Jason Ingham suggests that some 1300 of the country’s 3750 URM buildings are potentially earthquake-prone. (A further report shows 114 of Napier’s famed art deco buildings are rated at just 13–18 per cent of NBS.)
In the event of an earthquake, the outcome for such buildings is reliant on a deep understanding of URM buildings. But again, our heritage stock is not well served. Most structural engineers in New Zealand, says Win Clark, executive director of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering, are trained to work in ‘engineered’ materials such as reinforced concrete, structural steel and structural timber, not nineteenth-century buildings made from stone and brick. Retrofitting is not widely taught, professional expertise is in short supply and assessing the cost of retrofits is notoriously difficult. The result? Inflated repair costs that effectively encourage demolition and help owners to get rid of old and increasingly expensive assets—don’t forget New Zealand is one of the few countries that offered 100 per cent insurance cover for heritage buildings—and what some describe as an overly cautious approach to risk.
In an open letter to his colleagues, structural engineer Alistair Cattanach of Wellington wrote, “To speak of ‘balancing life, safety and heritage’ is to use an emotional sound byte that underestimates the complexity of the issues… I fear our profession will be poorly judged for in some cases overestimating the risk.”
Yet engineers with heritage experience are quick to list affordable methods of stabilising, repairing and strengthening even badly damaged URM buildings. (Unlike the ‘global collapses’ of more engineered buildings, the main danger of URM structures is parapets, facades and other elements falling off.) Tying and bracing, wrapping columns and joints, strengthening walls with concrete, installing plywood shear walls and/or steel braces, anchoring beams and trusses, regrouting and post-tensioning, even more expensive options such as ‘bandages’ of fibre-reinforced polymers, new shaped memory alloy technologies and base isolators—all have been found to be effective in adding structural integrity or even adequate temporary support to URM buildings.
“Everyone wants to have wonderful character and a memorable sense of place,” says the head of architecture and planning at Auckland University, Elizabeth Aitken-Rose, “but we haven’t had a sensible conversation about who is going to pay. We have a strong private property ethos in this country so we expect private owners to apply their own funds to preserve something which is in the public interest. We have to work out formulae that involve the public giving something to owners of heritage buildings to make them safe well before the next round of heritage destruction.”
There are funding agencies, including the Historic Places Trust, city councils, the Lottery Grants Board and, in Christchurch, the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Buildings Fund, but their grants are often applied to the ‘rare gems’ in a city’s heritage collection.
In focusing on individual buildings, says Aitken-Rose, we risk ending up with a pepper-pot scattering of relic buildings around a city. “We lose context, the relationship of buildings to their street, which can compromise those remaining heritage buildings.”
Historic Places Trust chief executive Bruce Chapman suggests a range of assistance measures for owners of heritage buildings—flexible zoning provisions, low-interest loans, fee waivers, tradeable development rights (the ability to sell unused floor or air space rights), incentive funds and rates relief from local authorities.
Do nothing, he says, and heritage buildings may be lost through neglect—an estimated 50 per cent of Christchurch’s earthquake-damaged properties were found to be poorly maintained. Given financial support, such buildings may continue to fulfil a strong economic role and so fund on-going maintenance.
“Heritage has to have a purpose otherwise it won’t be saved,” says Aitken-Rose. “We want something to be authentic but there have to be degrees of adaptation. Heritage is about history living in the now. You have to have that sense of continuity.”
This aspect is acknowledged by heritage agencies, says engineer Win Clark. “Even before the earthquakes, the Historic Places Trust was supportive of adaptive reuse, understanding what is essential about the heritage but understanding, too, that buildings have to live and change as part of their life. If there is no economic value, and it is difficult to maintain, you need to question whether you should be fighting to retain it. We can’t be too precious about retaining building fabric that is no longer useful or useable.”
Post-earthquake Christchurch is proving a valuable lesson in our approach to heritage, exposing gaps in our protection systems, raising vital questions in regards to responsibility and inviting discussion on how much structural history this “little land” can and should retain. The Historic Places Trust is calling for better integration of Civil Defence and heritage agencies; a more robust building evaluation framework that includes heritage professionals in assessment teams after a catastrophe; more information on how to identify and assess heritage buildings; and nationally consistent signage on heritage buildings (like the blue plaques in the United Kingdom).
Clark suggests a national database of buildings, “so when there is an event, and engineers and territorial authority staff are walking down the street with their iPads, they can identify which is a heritage building, which has a higher status and a higher level of protection, and what temporary securing systems are appropriate and available. After September [2010, Canterbury’s first major earthquake], there wasn’t a good understanding of failure mechanisms and how to identify incipient signs of that failure.”
There are also calls for stronger regulatory processes by councils to assess the seismic tolerance of at-risk buildings. “We just can’t afford another earthquake,” says Clark. “It will send the country broke. We have had one dip into the insurance market—we won’t get that again.”
But maintaining heritage fabric is not just about economics. It is, says Jacky Bowring, about identity, history, a sense of place, not just in terms of a handful of imposing pre-1920 buildings, but also of familiar buildings and streetscapes in general.
“It’s that sense of place, groups of things that help us to know this is this place and not that place—the skyline, the texture, the experience of the landscape, our relationship with the world. And that relationship, that connectedness, is really important for our well-being. It’s about who we are and where we are.”
She quotes a billboard spotted on the road to Birdling’s Flat on Banks Peninsula: “The imaginative innovate, the unimaginative regulate.”
“We think we can plan a city by regulation but it is what we value that is important. If things don’t happen fast enough, people will think nothing is happening, but too fast you will make them despondent and drive them away. We need patience, time. We need a slow landscape, like slow food.”