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CHRISTCHURCH REBUILD….WE’VE BLOWN OUR CHANCE

As a practising designer I dread the rice pudding architecture that is being produced for the Christchurch Rebuild, particularly commercial. The Wizard of Christchurch has similar views and bent a few egos in saying so. Blaming lack of original design on a tight budget is a copout. Budgets have always been tight.....but a spur to creativity.

I was lucky to have been around when Miles Warren was producing his best work....disciplined in a classical manner and beautifully detailed. Apart from the Town Hall (my 3 year old used to call it the Tin Hall as she helped her mother put buckets under the odd roof leak) his work is largely gone. And the wild child Peter Beavan (who used bugger regularly in his talks long before the Toyota ad) left us some spirited work....the Chateau on the Park with it's Loire towers and use of water is as inspiring now as it was 40 odd years ago.

Now its all very well to be a knocker....so here are some thoughts to raise the game. Commercial buildings must make a return but we can have our cake and eat it too.

We are the Garden City are we not?  Does that not create a starting point for a design theme. I mean buildings that are literally green, not just in an resource use sense. Have a look at these French examples on the right.

25 years ago I did a concept for the block between Hereford and Cashel Streets (bounding the Avon) a multi-use development with malls, cinemas, theatre, restaurants, 500 car-parks, and a 10 storey hotel/commercial/apartment core. The beauty of the core was that it was set back 20m from the road and the ends were tapered at 45 degrees.  Result it was hard to see from street level, and didn't create a wind tunnel in the streets. It was very sunny and had superb views, but the multi level planting on the face of the building and roof was long before it's time. It would have had a steel frame and light  floors (for fast construction) which would have easily survived the 2011 quake sequence as it was light and flexible structure.

Now on smaller commercial buildings just putting a steel decorative verandah on the front with some suspended planter boxes, detail, and raised planters is a very cheap and easy way to make a visually interesting, light and airy streetscape.

As another theme we have the gingerbread of parapets, friezes and trim of Edwardian and Gothic Revival that gave character to the CBD, mostly gone now. The puritanism of modernist architects rejects this. That's just like any other fundamentalist that has the arrogance to believe everybody else is wrong. These buildings stood the test of time at least visually. Now it's not hard to do similar things with tiltslab, casting in for negative details, and adding plastered lightweight concrete glued in place for positive details. None of these will fall in a quake. So who pays? My own thoughts are to put a 5 or 10 year bond agreement to ensure the work gets done within a specified time frame to an agreed design. This gives a chance for the building to get a head start generating an investment return. Another way is town planning "credits"  allowing more development freedom in return for the decoration. All this can easily be quantified for cost, and a more appealing building creates greater rentals anyway.

And we have the elegance of art nouveau and art deco. Napier was rebuilt in art deco style. It was the chosen "official" style and a very energetic Council (almost a benevolent dictatorship) got on with the job very quickly.

It is my firm belief the new convention centre has an opportunity to break the mould, perhaps blending the inspiration of the curved timber roof of the Brevet Club (long gone) and a Gothic arch system to support it elegantly executed in curved glue laminated timber. That would be pretty well bomb proof for quakes because it's curved, uses natural materials, and can make a statement on the same scale as the Sydney Opera House. While we are on the subject why don't we turn Victoria Square in to a shallow lake by widening the Avon. Just imagine the cafes and activity round the edge....lets get canoes and the punt to make use of it, and imagine the reflections of such a convention centre and a refurbished Town hall in the water at night.

And while we are at it divide Christchurch in to 7-10 mostly self contained "Rangioras" connected by fast dedicated electrified bus routes. Focus employment as far as possible self contained within each "Rangiora", and encourage remote working. These and many similar measures reduce the wasted time and resources required for commuting. The CBD becomes just another Rangiora (where people live and work) albeit with facilities such as stadiums that require a city level population to support. The quakes have already changed the location of many businesses that thought they "had to be in the CBD" to survive. And they like it.  

Are we likely to see any of the above. I wouldn't put money on it. The people spoke after the quakes, but the beancounter, the bureaucrat, and the architectural profession in the servitude of these people and imported fashions heard but didn't listen. We have already blown 80% of our chance of creating a new 21st century city.