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.