Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Christ Church Cathedral

Last weekend, I was in Christchurch.  All through the city I saw flyers posted up on every second lamp post and power pole.  “Rally for the Cathedral.  Save our heritage” they boldly proclaimed.

Christ Church Cathedral Before
For those who don’t know the story, the Christ Church Cathedral was badly damaged in the earthquakes on February 22nd 2011.  The spire came down and a good portion of the interior collapsed.  At the time, it was believed that up to 12 people were trapped inside and it was frequently shown on the news with the Search and Rescue teams trying to make it safe to enter and search for survivors.  None were found, alive or dead.

The decision has been made to demolish the Cathedral.  This iconic part of the Christchurch skyline has already become almost unrecognisable and there are plans for a temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ to be erected and serve the Anglican diocese until the earthquakes stop and a new cathedral can be safely built.

As I understand it, demolition has begun, but it is being hampered by prominent local politicians who are also heritage campaigners.  I saw one on the news, waxing lyrical over a piece of window frame and how it should all be saved.

It would seem that she’s not alone.  Several thousand turned out for this rally according to this article in The Press.  The article also reports a poll that was taken to judge public support for or against demolishing the Cathedral with 54% supporting demolition and 42% against.

In recent years, several million dollars were spent on the Cathedral, including earthquake strengthening.  This was widely bandied about as ‘what a relief it had been done and the Cathedral stood up to the 7.1 Earthquake of September 4th 2010.’ The Cathedral still came down a short 6 months later in the February quake.  Earthquake strengthening didn’t make a difference to the Cathedral then.

Christchurch continues to be rocked by aftershocks.  Every few months there is one large enough to jam the mobile phone networks as everyone is checking up on loved ones.  In the CBD red zone, still mostly closed to the public, demolition and clean up is still taking place.  These tremors sometimes cause more damage to these buildings waiting their turn.  The lives of the workers in the city are consistently at risk.

So I have to ask, who in their right mind puts a building ahead of lives?  Every day that this structure still stands is another day that could contain another decent aftershock and cause it to fall.  What of the lives of the teams that would be painstakingly removing each individual history-filled stone?  I’m sure their families would be ever so proud that they gave their lives to save a pretty window arch for a city councillor who isn’t in there risking her life alongside them.  At least the three men who died in the Methodist Church on Durham Street were there by choice to try and save the pipe organ.

It’s our heritage and our history people tell me.  I wasn’t aware that our entire heritage and history were contained in this one building.  It’s not as though pulling it down will suddenly automatically delete all memory of it from us, the photographs won’t suddenly go blank, the cheap tacky tourist souvenir tea towels and coffee mugs will still have images of the Cathedral on them.  The destruction caused by the earthquakes are our history now too.

Take a look at Napier.  The earthquake in 1931 only just tops the February quake for being the most destructive in New Zealand history.  Napier was destroyed, and rebuilt in the time’s current fashion Art Deco style.  Now, Napier is a tourist attraction for that reason, many people go to Napier just to see all the Art Deco buildings.

I’ve heard it suggested that the Cathedral be rebuilt, just the same as the old one, using the same materials.  As mentioned before, the Cathedral had undergone earthquake strengthening and came down anyway so wouldn’t rebuilding it in the same style mean that we’d be building an unsafe building in an earthquake prone area?  Am I really the only person to see the flaws in this?  Is sentimentality a good enough reason to put more lives at risk?  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Cathedral, not for any spiritual reasons but because it was a beautiful old building in the centre of the city.  However, as it stands now and rebuilding it just the same make it a death-trap and I believe that people need to understand this.  Doing the same thing but expecting different results was a foolish behaviour trait that I thought most of us grew out of in our teens.  A building in Rangiora was built at the same time to the same plans as the PGG building that collapsed and killed many in the February quake.  It has been closed and I imagine it will be some time before it is reopened, if ever.  It shows almost no damage, but because an identical structure proved to be so lethal, common sense has prevailed (here at least).

The Cathedral draws thousands of tourists every year.  They come to Christchurch to see the Cathedral, it’s like Sydney’s Opera House and Harbour Bridge or the Coliseum in Rome.  I’m sorry, what?  Yes, tourists come to see the Cathedral, but it’s not the whole point of the trip.  They come to see much more than just one building.  Having worked in hospitality, I found that the Cathedral was mostly a “while we’re in town we might as well see it” option rather than being the main focus for the visit.

When I first floated this rant on facebook, a comment was made about how much CERA and EQC are mucking people around, paying their ‘professionals’ far too much when they clearly can’t agree with one another and the same jobs need to be revisited and redone constantly.  After the September 2010 earthquake, Mayor Bob Parker created a Mayoral fund for earthquake relief.  The money seems to be gone.  Getting new insurance policies is extremely difficult in Christchurch, and existing policies are going up by 25% each year.  The money is gone.  A personal friend has spent much of the past 18 months working on the roading and landscape cleanup crews, he told me that after the December 23rd 2011 aftershocks, they were told to do the bare minimum because there wasn’t the money to do the proper work – the work that had already been done three or four times over but kept getting destroyed because the underlying problems (like broken sewers under the roads) weren’t fixed first and because there are still consistent aftershocks.

So where would the extra money for the rebuild and restoration come from?  The Cathedral is apparently not insured for enough to cover what it would cost.  How many people would be willing to forgo their own home repairs or insurance payouts to rebuild the Cathedral?  Would they be willing or able to finance it themselves?  I would rather see homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces repaired and restored first.

A comment I recall seeing said “if they can rebuild the sports stadium, they can rebuild the Cathedral.  Surely the Spiritual deserves just as much as the sports.”  Fair enough, but just who is this “they” being talked about.  AMI stadium/Lancaster Park (for the diehards) is sponsored by some large companies with plenty of capital to put forward.  They get to have their names plastered all over their stands and mentioned throughout events.  There is no omnipotent “they” who control everything.  I’ve never heard of a Paul Kelly stand inside a Church, any Church, and the level of outrage that would follow if such a thing were even suggested is unimaginable. 

The Anglican Church (who owns the Cathedral and the land it stands on) would prefer to spend their money on people, on the poor and needy in our city rather than a building.  They’ve held a number of open air services which have been well received.  Who really has the right to tell them that they’re doing it wrong?  I know that those living in the Western Suburbs of Christchurch who may have lost a couple of coffee mugs and have a crack in the plaster of their lounge can never understand the plight of the struggling families who are still paying a mortgage on a home that they can’t live in as well as rent for their current accommodation – even if that is a caravan.  The financial help for those families ran out a while ago.

Even if some Angel Investor type philanthropist did cough up the money for it, no one can say for sure when or even if the land will become stable again.  Looking through the history, Christchurch has always suffered earthquakes.  20 years ago I had a flatmate who used to come out of her room at least once every 2 months and ask if we’d all felt the earthquake.  The experts are quite open about having no idea what will happen.  All the rules that they had previously thought governed seismic activity have been broken, there is no pattern to follow or expect.  No one can say for sure whether or not we can expect this to settle in five years or ten or even twenty.  Until the land is stable, why would you risk it?

I get that for many people the Cathedral was a symbol for the city.  That they feel to be without it is to be a body without a heart.  But that heart is dying and dangerous.  Hanging onto it will cause more of the body to sicken and potentially die.  Trying to keep as much as possible the way it used to be is folly.  Nothing is the same anymore, and it’s time we figured that out.

Photo Credit: Christ Church Cathedral Before - Maree Reveley

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