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How Christchurch’s Arts Centre is rebuilding memories – and hope

The restored Christchurch Arts Centre. Photo/Martin Hunter

The restoration of Christchurch’s Arts Centre is nearing completion after 2011’s devastating quake. 

To step into the quiet of the Great Hall of Christchurch’s historic Arts Centre is to hear the whisper of history. Embedded in the steeply vaulted ceiling, the arched windows, the carved balcony and the ornate stonework are the century-old stories of learning, conviviality and celebration.

“This is exactly what students saw sitting an exam in the 1880s,” says André Lovatt. “Walking in here, I always feel a sense of serenity.”

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Five years ago, when Lovatt took on the job as chief executive of the earthquake-damaged Arts Centre, the Great Hall, designed by Benjamin Mountfort in 1882, was disaster ground zero. The floor was shattered; scaffolding and steel props ran the length of the hall.

Today, there is little evidence of the intensive strengthening, tensioning, insulation and upgrading that has gone on here. A new floor has been installed; steel rods have been drilled into the stone columns; hidden under the floor and behind the panelling are new heating, lighting and telecommunications systems.

Dominating the hall is the monumental stained-glass memorial window, unveiled in 1938 to commemorate the 235 staff and former students who had died in World War I, now painstakingly cleaned and refurbished.

STAY (2015), by English sculptor Antony Gormley, which was installed in the Arts Centre’s northern quadrangle in 2016. Photo/Martin Hunter

When the doors opened to the public in June 2016 for the first time since the earthquake, the emotion, says Lovatt, was palpable. “I have never seen so many people cry in a public space. In an environment where there is such a sense of loss, throwing open the doors and saying ‘Look at what has happened here: this is for you and this will be here for your grandchildren’ was very positive. It is about restoring memories and creating futures.”

The Arts Centre has embraced those goals with little fuss and bother. Just down the road, the ChristChurch Cathedral has been dragged through a protracted and very public row, while the Arts Centre, once home to Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand (later called the University of Canterbury), wrapped its Gothic revivalist buildings in wire fencing and got down to work. With no controversy, no dreaded demolition order from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (only one building, a 1960s addition built over the former Christchurch Boys’ High School swimming pool, had to go, revealing a magnificent pool veranda), it embarked on a $290-million strengthening and restoration project, described by Heritage New Zealand conservation architect Dave Margetts as one of the largest heritage restorations of stonemasonry buildings in the world.

Former chief executive André Lovatt in the Great Hall. Photo/Martin Hunter

As Lovatt says, there was little choice. Run by a charitable trust, the Arts Centre has a remit, now enshrined in law, to maintain the integrity of its 21 category 1 buildings, as well as to foster art, culture and education.

“If we don’t have heritage buildings, we don’t have the ability to use them for arts, culture and education. With that simplicity of focus, other alternatives weren’t considered, and if you look at the buildings, the heritage trees, the proximity to the park and gardens, the neighbourhood the Arts Centre sits in, there is a lot of intangible value tied up here.”

The restored Christchurch Arts Centre. Photo/Martin Hunter

Counting blessings

The damage could have been worse. Seismic strengthening done between the 1980s and the early 2000s prevented total collapse. “It got a lot of people out of the buildings,” says restoration manager Chris Whitty, who has worked at the Arts Centre for about 30 years. “Just by strapping together walls, floors and ceilings, we did a lot better than a lot of new buildings.”

Thankfully, too, a 21-tonne turret that broke free of its footings in the 2010 earthquake had already been removed: had it not, it would have devastated the Great Hall.

But none of the Arts Centre’s 23 buildings escaped completely unscathed. The Observatory Tower crumbled; gables flexed and cracked; exterior walls knocked against neighbouring walls; elegant air vents and decorative features tumbled to the ground; walls and floors shifted and cracked.

Arts Centre restoration manager Chris Whitty. Photo/Martin Hunter

The restoration programme, done in collaboration with Holmes Consulting, required widespread structural upgrading using modern engineering methods, including the addition of largely unseen plywood diaphragms, concrete ring beams and glass-reinforced polymer to lock in brick work. Interior linings were removed and stainless-steel rods and concrete layers inserted within the often-worryingly empty wall cavities. Elsewhere, barely visible seismic gaps have been created to minimise damage caused by buildings banging against each other, and replica chimneys and new lightweight stone facades literally take the weight off the highest levels.

As part of the restoration process, the historic buildings are being fitted out with new heating and telecommunications capabilities.

“It is very important that owners of heritage buildings are able to adapt their buildings so they can use them,” says Lovatt. “Of course, that needs to be done in a way that doesn’t undermine the heritage values, but we aren’t in the business of locking up these buildings and saying they are museum pieces. To be functional, they need to be safe, warm and flexible enough to enable the occupiers to do what they want.”

The restored Christchurch Arts Centre. Photo/Martin Hunter

It has not been plain sailing. The original specifications and plans did not always equate with what had been built. The required roof tiles had to be imported – for a time, the Arts Centre was the largest buyer of Welsh slate roof tiles in the world – and stonemasons for the largely basalt and Oamaru stone precinct were in short supply. A chance contact in Scotland triggered a wave of interest from stonemasons in the United Kingdom, and within months, a provisional stonemasons’ tent had become the training ground for a new class of stonemason apprentices.

It has also been expensive. Bringing the precinct up to 68% of the new building code – considered best practice by Heritage NZ – while using as many original materials and techniques as possible will cost nearly twice the $156 million insurance payout (had previous director Ken Franklin not negotiated new cover after the 2010 earthquake, this would have been a woeful $20 million). Grants, donations and partnerships have made a huge dent in the shortfall, but the centre still has to find a further $35 million to complete its programme.

And it has been urgent. To bring people back to the site as quickly and safely as possible, Lovatt fast-tracked the original 20-year timeframe. Already more than half the buildings are open; the rest, excluding the Heritage 2 listed student union building, former home to the legendary Dux de Lux restaurant and bar, are expected to be completed by the end of next year. As he says, the faster the repair, the cheaper the costs: “The easiest way to lose control of the budget is to have to budget for too much cost escalation.”

The restored Christchurch Arts Centre. Photo/Martin Hunter

Nor has the quality of the work gone unrecognised. The restoration of the Clock Tower and Great Hall has won a string of awards, including last year’s New Zealand Institute of Architects heritage award, a gold at the Association of Consulting Engineers New Zealand Innovate Awards and the prestigious Unesco Asia-Pacific merit award for cultural heritage conservation.

Although the Court Theatre, an anchor tenant before the 2011 earthquake, will not be returning to the Arts Centre – it now operates in a converted grain store in Addington, but its future home will be in the new inner-city performing-arts precinct – the growing number of events and new businesses are luring locals and visitors back into the historic centre.

Last year, the Central art gallery opened in the 100-year-old former library building with an exhibition programme of contemporary New Zealand art. Run by local gallerist Jonathan Smart, it continues a long tradition, he says, of artistic and intellectual practice on that site. “The vision was to bring a commercial opportunity for good contemporary art back into the centre of the city. After the earthquakes, we just didn’t have that.”

Art dealer Jonathan Smart. Photo/Martin Hunter

Gown to town

Last year, too, gown returned to town when the University of Canterbury moved its performing music and classics departments, including the new Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities, to the former chemistry building.

All evidence, says Lovatt, of a shift in focus towards more high-quality arts and education opportunities.

“We want to create a place where people can have a variety of experiences. If we can be dynamic and interesting enough for local people, we will be of interest for visitors to the city, rather than the other way around.”

Pupils waiting to visit Rutherford’s Den. Photo/Martin Hunter

There is more to do. In the southwest corner of the precinct, interiors are being stripped out in preparation for two boutique cinemas, apartments for writer, artist and scientist residencies and a community working space. On the other side of the grassed quadrangle, the old physics and biology buildings are being restored; the option of a 32-room boutique hotel is being explored. Within reach of the ancient ginkgo tree, the neighbouring 1896 Observatory Tower is sheathed in scaffolding while the telescope is repaired at the University of Canterbury.

Each project, says Lovatt, will require further fundraising and more business buy-in. In terms of money, he says, “We will not be out of the woods until the final building is open.”

Lovatt won’t be cutting the ribbon. At the end of last year, he announced his decision to take up a new position managing the delivery of Auckland Airport’s $1.8 billion infrastructure spending programme, leaving “very big shoes” to fill, says Felicity Price, chair of the Arts Centre Trust Board.

Photo/Martin Hunter

“For the first years of his tenure, it was a construction site. He took the bull by the horns and got the Arts Centre really going.”

Already, Jane Parfitt, with experience at Christchurch City, Waimakariri District and, currently, Kaikoura District councils, has taken on the role of acting chief executive until the centre makes a new appointment. For Lovatt, however, the Arts Centre will continue to represent the city’s old and recent history.

“The visible side is the damaged buildings, but actually it is about people, a community that has gone through and is going through a lot. That is why the Arts Centre has been so rewarding, because you can see the direct connection between the physical and that sense of belonging, that sense of faith that there is a future.”

Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort. Photo/ATL

From college to arts centre

HW Hazlehu, G Jobberns, EJ Pointone. The names inscribed into the timber benches in the restored lecture theatre above the Rutherford’s Den interactive science museum are some of many reminders of the Arts Centre’s educational history. The first stone structure of the new Canterbury College, designed by English-born architect Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort, was opened in 1877. It was followed by other buildings, including the girls’, then boys’, high schools. These were later linked by a series of cloisters and arcades, devised by architect Samuel Hurst Seager and adding to its romantic Gothic revivalist atmosphere.

Over the following decades, it became clear the university was outgrowing its buildings, and from the 1950s, it began a progressive move to its current location on the other side of Hagley Park. In 1974, the university gifted the site to Christchurch, and in 1978, the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust officially took ownership of the site to manage the change from a university to a cultural centre.

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.