Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Shattered Symbol

Symbol Of A City: As the Cathedral fares, so fares Christchurch itself.

IF QUEEN ELIZABETH, inspired by her financial advisers, decided to demolish St Paul’s Cathedral, England would be horrified. No one would care that, as Head of the Anglican Church and Tenant-in-Chief of all England, such ecclesiastical property was hers to use as she pleased. St Paul’s Cathedral, they would say, does not belong to the House of Windsor, it belongs to the people of England. Some would go further, insisting that such a beautiful artefact of the past belongs to all humanity.

And if the Queen persisted? If the protests of her subjects (not to mention those of her eldest son!) and appeals from lovers of neo-classical architecture all around the world were insufficient to make the Queen abandon her plans? Well then, I suspect the British Parliament would intervene on their behalf. If St Paul’s could defy Hitler’s bombers, I’m pretty sure it could defy Her Majesty.

There are some buildings whose power and dignity simply scorn the ravages of man and nature. Which is why, even if Hitler’s bombers had found their target, and the mighty dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece no longer towered over the streets of England’s capital, I strongly suspect that Londoners, like the citizens of Dresden, would have rebuilt their beloved cathedral stone by stone – no matter how long it took, no matter how much it cost.

What does that say about us? Why aren’t more New Zealanders willing to join with the 5,000 Cantabrians who marched on Saturday to save Christchurch Cathedral from the wrecker’s ball? Why isn’t the Opposition calling for the Government step in and “nationalise” this New Zealand icon? What is wrong with Prime Minister Key and his cabinet that they have not already – unbidden – promised Christchurch, and the country, that no matter how long it takes, no matter how much it costs, their beloved cathedral will be rebuilt?

Is it simply because the men who somehow ended up in charge of rebuilding Christchurch have turned out to be too oafishly “pragmatic” to even consider the restoration of the city’s historic precincts? Is it because they share Henry Ford’s conviction that “history is bunk”? Believing  that no right-thinking person could, for a single second, entertain the expensive fiction that the preservation of a precious civic icon – like the cathedral – was anybody’s business but it’s owners?

Or, should we look elsewhere for answers? Does the fault lie not in our political stars – but in ourselves?

The men and women who, in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, erected New Zealand’s greatest buildings, were persons of extraordinary confidence and vision. They were part of what New Zealand historian, Professor James Belich, calls “the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-World”. In just a few decades, from Chicago, Illinois to Melbourne, Victoria, their cultural and commercial certainty had summoned forth huge cities, replete with stunning architectural tributes to all the ages of Western Civilisation – from the Roman Republic to Byzantium; from Gothic spires to Baroque rotundas. Citizens who walked on streets that were barely as old as they were, looked up at buildings that might have stood for centuries. These towering manifestoes in stone declared proudly to posterity that their makers, the children of empire, had come to stay.

Is that what now eats away at the decision-making of the New Zealand Anglican Church? In its new, bi-cultural, guise does it recoil in dismay from the thought of pouring both its reputation and its treasure into such an unequivocally imperial statement? Is that why the cathedral’s temporary replacement (cardboard being a so much humbler building material than stone) looks so much like a wharenui? Is the Bishop, mindful of her own homeland’s problematic relationship with the indigenous, unwilling to rush back in where white marble angels were once so unafraid to tread?

This discomfort with history is not, I suspect, limited to the Anglican Church. The spirit of globalisation also has scant patience with the past. Reading the historical record as an unending sequence of economic errors, it will as easily press “Delete” on imperial preferences, protectionist tariffs and five-year plans, as the architectural follies in which they were conceived. Glass and steel, not slate and stone, are the signature materials of neoliberalism’s brave new world. If the past features at all, it is only as pastiche.

On that terrible February day, when I switched on the television to scenes of blood and horror, it was the sight of the ruined cathedral that unlocked my emotional floodgates. There, in a heap of rubble, lay the symbol of the city.

The decision not to rebuild Christchurch’s iconic cathedral makes a profound statement about the entire city’s future. Those shattered stones are more than fallen masonry, they represent everything else that the earthquakes destroyed.

As the Cathedral fares, so fares Christchurch itself.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday 29 May 2012.

28 comments:

Alma said...

I couldn't agree more, Chris. Unfortunately the neoliberal barbarians are no longer merely at the gate.

Anonymous said...

It's not being rebuilt because it was a hideous piece of Gothic Revival nonsense.

A city that boasts among its sons both Miles Warren and Ian Athfield deserves better than the rebuilding of horrible English crap.

Robert Miles said...

The Cathederal is a symbolic issue and a political wedge the left can drive. In religious terms it largely reflects the hole that is left with the loss of religious faith, and if it wasn't true that belief in Christchurch was gone as early as it was in the UK Anglican church were by the 1930's, the cynical AN Wilson claimed that no Anglican priest believed in anything but Marx and probably altar boys.It certainly has now. The issue also reflects the total irrationality and the cargo cult mentality that was inevitably going to develop in the city in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Before the earthquake the CBD was mainly just an administrative area and the location of the big law and accountancy firms which are probably just as conviniently sited in Addington. At night and for some during the day the CBD provided interesting entertainment in a variety of bars, club, brothels and strip clubs. In many ways it was the most full on party zone in NZ and excess, pleasure, indulgence and total intoxication went along much longer than Auckland where the real excitement seemed to have been largely closed down by about 2005 by Banks and Clark or Wellington were there was a considerable more actual risk of facing intimidating skinheads or hard large menancing guys fron the Hutt who rode down in the units and back at 3am from Wellington station which was a controlled fortefied zone from quite early on Friday nights.
But given the increasing power of Lianne, Anderton, the Police and the Cuban oriented Christchurch medical school their will be little chance of the Melbournisation of Christchurch resuming and forces far less liberal than Barnett will prevail. The purtian anti alcohol, anti strip club, anti sex zone, total power to militant left wing social workers will predominate in the future Chrsitchurch and it makes little difference if their mojo is the right wing Law school or the communist Canterbury Uni, sociology Dept - because it amounts to the same thing, and there will be little life or excitement in Christchurch until the baby boomers retire.

Anonymous said...

As always, the Carter Family said it best:

"There'l be no liquifaction in the glory land
no cracks upon the marble state
the trembling will abate
as we reach that state
in His steady loving care
no after shock will shake our rock
the ground will be firm and dry
there'l be no liquifaction in the glory land
no earthquakes in the sky"

bsprout said...

The Anglican Church are the legal owners of the Cathedral and for them the cost of a rebuild could not be justified. With declining church membership and much greater humanitarian need for funds, rebuilding the Cathedral would ignore the needs of the many disadvantaged and struggling people for whom food on the table has greater value than masonry. What the Bishop hadn't countered for was the strong emotional connection that the wider community had for the historic structure. For many the Cathedral represented connections with our european ancestry and a symbol of our ability to take root in one place and create a sense of permanency or resilience.

I agree with you, Chris, the Cathedral represents more than a simple house of worship or a historic building, it has become an icon and a symbol for the city itself and its destruction will represent the destruction of the city's spirit and soul, whether a believer or not.

Many years ago I visited Budapest, one of the most bombed cities in the second world war. The total rebuild of their historic buildings did more than many other things to rebuild the hope and spirit of the people.

I don't believe this is a battle between conservative and liberals it is a battle between pragmatists and those who see the value of symbolism and visual healing in the middle of destruction. A new cardboard cathedral may be practical and an engineering marvel, but it just won't do it for most people.

Skua said...

Neo-liberal thinking has nothing to do with this issue because if Chc wants a cathedral they can have it and pay for it even if it takes 50 years. The issue is why would we want to restore what was a neo-gothic replica symbol of an era gone into history that was never located here anyway. It represented the priorities of 30s NZ but has to be low on the priorities of this digital age. Wharenui like? Why not at least it would be architecture from this place. There are great churches elsewhere in Chc (Catholic St Mary's in Riccarton is classic and elsewhere in NZ there is Christian Science in Wellington and of course the Karori masterpiece. I agree with anonymous "A city that boasts among its sons both Miles Warren and Ian Athfield deserves better than the rebuilding of horrible English crap."

Anonymous said...

my only questions to all the people complaining about it is Are you willing to pay for it ?. if so put your 4 where you mouth is and buy it from the church.
I am quite fed up with all those heritage protection things which make owners pay for maintaining or improving existing buildings/monuments. Just make an offer the church cannot say no to and then do what ever you wan twith it.

M said...

Well said Chris, great piece.

Allie said...

Well, Chris, who are you going to send into that building to risk their lives in order to save it? We in Christchurch have had ENOUGH people die. It's not about the money, although a lot of people seem to think it is.

And by the way, I was and is as heartbroken as anyone else to see the Cathedral fall.

Allie said...

And by the way, I have postgraduate degrees in history and do not think that "history is bunk". Again, it's just not about ripping down buildings because we think they are irrelevant.

Brendan said...

It's rare for me to find myself agreeing with bsprout, but being a Christchurch resident myself, he/she has summarized the situation very well.

At its best, the Anglican Church in the city exists to serve the people of Christchurch, both physically and spiritually. It doesn't take stone buildings, decorative robes and incense to do that. Jesus had none of those things and seemed to get by pretty well without them.

To her credit, I believe the Bishop understands this, and is placing her vision and energies for the Church where its priorities should be - with the people of this city.

It's sad to see the building go, but it is just a building. Thankfully, and almost unbelievably no one was killed there in the quakes.

It served as a symbol of the Christian faith that once animated our society, but has now been systematically removed from the public square and relegated to a matter of private choice.

In many ways, the shattered remains of the Cathedral does serve as a metaphor for the public expression of Christian faith in our city by its people.

The church was never intended to dominate public life, but it does have a valid role in informing civil society in respect to virtue, justice, mercy, compassion and truth. We are the poorer for its loss of influence in that regard, and no doubt many will miss the iconic structure as it once was in our Cathedral Square.

The city will be rebuilt, there are plenty of Cantaberians who are committed to that end. Just give us some time.

Brendon said...

Saving the cathedral is an indication of how the general rebuild will go because it indicates our collective willingness to make public investments for our future betterment. The early Cantabrians built Universities, schools, hospitals, one of longest rail tunnels of its period and more while they were building the cathedral. So it is possible to rebuild the city and the cathedral, if we collective want it. I think Canterbury needs something like the original provincial council to rebuild properly. Central government and its institutions like CERA have the capability but its willingness will always be suspect because of its conflict of interest. It gets voted for solving national problems not local.

Victor said...

We are repeatedly told, by proponents of restoring the Cathedral to its former glory,that money isn't an issue.

Nor should it be. The Anglican church worldwide is extremely wealthy. Last time I looked, it was still England's largest real estate owner.

If there was a clear way forward at this end, I'd be surprised if the Cathedral couldn't be repaired without any significant cost to New Zealand taxpayers and ratepayers, apart from those volunteering their funds.

But whilst the Cathedral was an impressive example of Victorian Gothic and a mighty landmark, it wasn't an outstandingly beautiful piece of architecture.That's not to say it was bog standard. It just wasn't superb.

That description better fits the Catholic Basilica, in all its Baroque splendour. As a non- Catholic, non-Christian and non-Cantabrian, I was deeply saddened by the destruction of this fine edifice.

But, there again, the Catholic Church globally is hardly strapped for cash. I'd be surprised if they couldn't come up with the dosh if, at this end, restoration was thought possible and desirable and there was a clear pathway forward.

It's not in any way exceptional for global religious bodies to fundraise on behalf of their coreligionists and their institutions around the planet, particularly with universalistic creeds such as Christianity. In fact, it's just what this non-Christian would expect to be happening.

But let's assume for the moment that cash is a problem or that fear of further quakes means that construction in wood is preferable.

Might I then suggest that New Zealand already has an impressive Gothic wooden church tradition of its own, which metamorphised in the nineteenth century out of the grey stone English original.

Auckland's old cathedral of Saint Mary's in Holy Trinity is a fine case to point.

These are very often inviting and uplifting places to be, with notably rich, warm acoustics. They are also quintessentially part of the country.

So why not, if rebuilding is impossible, retain the Gothic but do it in wood?

RMJ1 said...

Chris, your sentiment is exactly right,but it goes wider than that. From the Island to the west it now makes me ask the question, not how fares Christchurch- but how fares New Zealand/Aotearoa?
I suggest it is important in order for the rest of us to give a sense of affirmation and value to Christchurch's people. That must surely matter given the ongoing disruption and distress that persists. The price involved in re-building is not the issue- the cost will be if NZ stands by and does nothing.

peterpeasant said...

Best comment I have heard came off NatRad.

If you want a memorable monument, build one.

If you want a church go there every Sunday.

There will be precious few among the cathedral rebuilders that are regular church goers.

There are a hell of a lot of Chch residents in misery and despair.

That is where resources need to be directed to not to resurrecting a pile of useless rubble on dodgy land.

I do not claim to be a Christian, let alone an Anglican, but the Anglican Church is absolutely correct on this.

Johanna said...

Christchurch without the cathedral? UNTHINKABLE!
For 139 years the most serious and the most joyful civic activities of the city have been celebrated in front of it.
Once the icon of the Anglican faith, the building is damaged and now deconsecrated, but it is still standing and is 100% repairable. The enduring symbol of hope, our heart of the city, built for and by the people of Christchurch.Long may the cathedral remain as a vital element of both our past and our future.

The time for extracting a lesson from history is ever at hand for those who are wise.
Desmosthenes
Do not give permission to the uninformed to destroy what our children may wish we had protected.

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Soren Kierkegaard
It is only by saving the elements of the past, buildings, books, the fine arts, music and philosophy that we will mature as an educated people, able to understand and manage our responsibilities to our children's world.

In spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last 2,000 years, and in consequence, we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.
Kenneth Clark

Save Christchurch Cathedral.

Anonymous said...

I so agree with your article, it represents the city of Christchurch and should be saved!

Julie B said...

Thank you Chris, this is an excellent article, well written and very spot on,I agree completely with you. regards.

Anonymous said...

correct words:
"no cracks upon the marble stair"

Anonymous said...

I am 71 and grew up in Christchurch-not in the suburbs but right in the central city-the cathedral and its surroundings were my backyard. I biked around there. To me the cathedral doesn't especially represent Christchurch at all-there are many other buildings that collectively do.
In the years since I left Christchurch many of the inner city buildings have been torn down and replaced in many cases by absolutely hideous modern buildings and so in a way the earthquake has just finished what Cantabrians have been doing these last 50 years. It seems to me they have shown such little regard for the wonderful buildings of my childhood that to fix upon the cathedral is really weird.
It's a danger and may fall down and kill someone! It has sustained extra damage from the latest 5.2
It wasn't built of suitable material anyway-there are many other buildings that are deserving of more consideration.

Sparky said...

I was there in the square that terrible February day. I watched in awe as the spire swayed and then crashed down. It's a sight that I will remember for the rest of my life.

After the dust had settled I had a pang of sadness at the passing of a city icon. All things have a life and it is the end of the life of that Cathedral. From the dust and rubble a new one will arise.

Love it or hate it, it was what made Christchurch unique and different from Auckland or Dunedin. I don't want to see it re-built as a heap of concrete and glass that has no character.

Madison said...

I was in Christchurch, I liked the Cathedral and think it's a shame it has to come down, but that's the point. It has to come down. Those opposing the demolition should put their efforts into getting it rebuilt to last. The Church is saving the blocks, they are preserving the material side of the Church. If they can design and rebuild a new Church that is stronger and can reflect the city the way the old one helped symbolise it then it can symbolise Christchurch even more. It can show Christchurch rising from the silt even stronger.

To get physically stronger requires pain and work to injure your muscles to make them repair themselves bigger and tougher than before. To make yourself mentally stronger takes long hours of toil and work to recognise weaknesses and rebuild them, often also quite painful. As the Anglican Church has said they want to remain in Christchurch I would encourage more people to pressure them on a proper rebuild and make the pain of this demolition merely the prelude to rising again, stronger.

Unknown said...

Madison, it is entirely debatable as to whether the Cathedral "has" to come down - the engineering reports conflict greatly. The stones are not being kept as far as I know - difficult given that the "nibblers" are reducing them to fragments with abandoned alacrity - perhaps you are thinking of the Roman Catholic Basilica.

Anonymous said...

Unknown, the "nibblers" were demolishing the tower only. The materials from the rest of the building will be carefully deconstructed and stored.

jh said...

I don't think you can compare our cathedral and St Pauls, simply because it was an earthquake that did so much damage and that (to me) trumps other considerations. We are now fully aware that Christchurch sits beside and on top of a fault line.
What bothers me however is the ethos, where by we no longer have the idealism that the Church Of England settlers brought with them; Hagley Park was in place when there were about 500 people in the whole city.
A case in point:
"The deal has left former owners John Butterfield and Ian Mackenzie well cashed up. It follows their sale last year of the Westpac Canterbury Centre for $30 million (a little more than two years after buying it for $18 million on a yield of around 9%).

The pair have been spending much of their time in Fiji where they own properties and boats, travelling, and in Mr Butterfield's case, indulging in his helicopter flying hobby, collecting luxury cars and buying diamonds for his wife."
http://www.nbr.co.nz/home/column_article.asp?id=20229&cid=16&cname=Property

jh said...

One thing many people may not know about Chch Cathedral is that on the north facing window was Jesus with a Maori face.
.........
A small spiky building looks horrid when all those big fat buildings crowd around it.
..........
One thing I noticed when i visited Cathedral Square recently was that tall buildings per se don't look so bad if there is a gap extending to the ground. Walls of 7 story buildings could be suffocating. Space and light is good, unfortunately NZ'rs still think they are living in a spare sly populated little back and beyond.
.......
it's true the downtown was dying and in the early morning drunks wandered through the area looking for an audience. Which brings us to planning v's "spontaneous order": that's an interesting one!

Anonymous said...

Agree totally, these buildings should be rebuilt irrespective of time and cost. Unfortunately NZ like the UK has lost its moral compass; everything revolves around this social Marxism of globalism. I.e. Materialism good, Ethics who cares unless you get caught, culture who cares, identity who cares…. because if everyone is the same then they fit globalised branded identity.

Unfortunately around NZ you can see how deplorable ‘modern’ architecture is, everything is big bland and functional on a cost benefit basis, the descendents of NZ will never think we had anything to contribute and worse still they could see us defiling the efforts of our ancestors. Remember, we benefit from all the efforts of our forebears to build the infrastructure that we now benefit from.

On a straight economic basis I’d say that tourism dollars easily pays for these buildings of merit.

Lastly why did our ancestors build buildings of such merit; they could have fritted it away on any number of issues they faced, or did they have some ideals that we have lost?

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
It's not being rebuilt because it was a hideous piece of Gothic Revival nonsense.

A city that boasts among its sons both Miles Warren and Ian Athfield deserves better than the rebuilding of horrible English crap.

May 29, 2012 11:48 AM"

Using the term English just shows how racist your views are, if the other party to the treaty (the Maori) had their places of worship spoken about as "Horrible Maori crap" I think you'd have the law visiting you.