Christchurch Cathedral and the City’s British Past   24 Jul 2012

Anna Blair


It seems certain now, for most New Zealanders living overseas, that George Gilbert Scott’s Christchurch Cathedral won’t be there when they return. While protests over the decision continue, work to demolish the building began in March. The Cathedral’s loss, however, marks the reshaping of a new identity for Christchurch.

George Gilbert Scott, the UK and NZ

Since the 19th century, Christchurch Cathedral has been one of New Zealand’s foremost architectural links to the United Kingdom. The building was designed by George Gilbert Scott, a British architect, in 1864. The Cathedral was completed in 1904, Scott’s design having been modified slightly by Benjamin Mountford.

George Gilbert Scott was one of the most prolific architects of his day, with scholars unsure even today exactly how many buildings he worked on. Richard Butler, an architectural historian at the University of Cambridge, notes that Scott was, in the nineteenth century, “arguably the most famous architect in the world”. Christchurch Cathedral is Scott’s only building in New Zealand.

Those in the UK will likely be familiar with Scott’s work, which includes the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station and Glasgow University. The architect played a central role in the restoration of Westminster Abbey, where he is now buried.

Christchurch Cathedral, however, is not particularly significant within Scott’s oeuvre, largely because the building itself was a small project compared to many others. Butler claims that “were the building put up in Hull or Tunbridge Wells it would hardly rank as a first-rate example of Scott’s architecture”. Scott himself never visited New Zealand.

Those in the UK will likely be familiar with Scott’s work, which includes the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station and Glasgow University. Scott played a central role in the restoration of Westminster Abbey, where he is now buried.

Scott’s Cathedral as Symbol

With its very English style, Christchurch Cathedral is a mark of New Zealand’s colonial past. Despite this, some have argued that Scott’s original design, with wooden interior, drew from Maori traditions, albeit as they appeared to one who had not set foot in New Zealand. This aspect of Scott’s design was, however, replaced with a stone interior.

The significance of Christchurch Cathedral comes from the role it plays in the city’s urban landscape and the connection it offers to Christchurch’s past. Illustrations from the 1850s show Christchurch as merely a few houses and a bridge. Since the 1860s, the Cathedral has dominated the landscape and provided a symbol for the city.

It is for this reason that the building’s fate has attracted so much attention. The decision to restore or demolish the Cathedral marks a greater turning point for Christchurch’s future.

Christchurch is often described as a very English city. It is flat, with a large park and a river on which one can punt, and urban planning comparable to that of a Garden City. Benjamin Mountford and William Armson, prominent architects in the city’s early development, were both born and educated in Britain.

The Cathedral, however, isn’t simply a connection to England and to the past, but a symbol of Christchurch’s resilience. George Gilbert Scott’s building survived five earthquakes from 1881 to 2010.

In February 2011, however, the spire and part of the tower were destroyed and the rest of the building severely damaged. While most agree on Christchurch Cathedral’s importance to the city, the cost has been deemed too high to save it. For many, the building is a symbol of the city’s survival that should not be compromised.

The Future of Christchurch Cathedral

Others feel a new cathedral would fit well alongside the city’s art gallery, which opened to some fanfare in 2003. The decision on the future of Christchurch Cathedral offers an opportunity to renew the city’s urban identity.

Christchurch Cathedral’s permanent replacement has not yet been determined. The temporary replacement, however, is arguably a greater draw than Scott’s building. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, Christchurch’s transitional cathedral will be finished by the end of this year.

Ban is best known for his innovative use of paper as a construction material, allowing for more affordable and environmentally sustainable buildings. Ban has often worked in disaster relief situations, creating homes for refugees across the world, including in Rwanda in 1994 and in Kobe, Japan. Ban also designed a paper church for Kobe, standing from 1995 until 2005, when it was fully recycled.

Ban’s Cathedral for Christchurch is to be constructed out of cardboard tubes, in a triangular shape stepping progressively inward toward the altar. The transitional cathedral, located at Latimer Square, will seat 700. It has a lifespan of twenty to thirty years. The Cathedral will glow welcomingly when lit at night.

While Scott’s Cathedral provided Christchurch with a strong architectural link to England, those living in the UK cannot see examples of Ban’s work so easily. Ban was responsible for the Barbican’s Alvar Aalto exhibition in 2007, but the closest of his buildings currently standing is the France’s Centre Pompidou in Metz.

Warren and Mahoney are responsible for detailed design for Ban’s Cathedral, and are drawing up a blueprint for Christchurch’s development in the future. As one of New Zealand’s top architectural firms, Warren and Mahoney’s involvement suggests that Christchurch’s urban environment in the future will draw strength through links to contemporary New Zealand, not its English past.

Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London. Further work can be found at her blogDispatches from Europe.

Photos: Edwin.11 - Flickr CC

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