Heritage? What heritage?


There was a brilliant doco on Prime on Sunday about the state and fate of heritage buildings, the first in a series on the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes. Architecture is prey to as many opinions by experts and non-experts as any form of visual art. Here in New Zealand, as the documentary implied, the non-experts are often in charge and prone to considering the built environment as expedient as a drain pipe. 

Since the worst of the earthquakes, over 200 "heritage" buildings in Christchurch have been bulldozed. It's inherently contradictory that anything heritage could be destroyed, but Christchurch shows that the "rip, shit and bust" philosophy of our postcolonial landscape persists just as it did in colonial times when as much bush was felled as quickly as possible. It is not really a joke when immigrants joke that New Zealand citizenship comes with a complimentary chainsaw. We also have a Ministry of Culture and Heritage with no powers to force owners to restore buildings with heritage status. The situation in Christchurch worsens when you throw into the mix a city blueprint that doesn't have to accommodate an inconveniently positioned heritage building, even when it's undamaged.  

There are so many buildings that deserve a reprieve it's impossible to mention them all so I'm focussing on Bill Sutton's modernist masterpiece and the Ng building. The house of the late artist is located in a part of the red zone that is set aside for a park and so this gem of modernist architecture is due for demolition. Largely undamaged, the house is only doors away from a green zone that will remain untouched. Let's think about this. Could the planners consider retaining the house within the park, possibly as a monument, not just to domestic modernism, but to strength and survival?

The wonderful owners of the Ng building also deserve our wholehearted support. One of the few buildings in the CBD that remained standing and in use, this formerly unremarkable warehouse has now been lovingly repaired and strengthed by its owners. It now stands as a testament to resilience and community spirit. Its former utilitarian function as a warehouse proves that something old and unused for its original purpose can be transformed into something beautiful. Its generous owners made the building available to the public for the powerful Michael Parekowhai exhibition, and in the early days after the February earthquake provided the only uplifting place in the former CBD for traumatised citizens to enjoy. The trouble is, the building is now slap bang in the middle of the planned sports precinct. To compulsorily purchase and destroy the Ng building for a footy stadium is so awful I want to cry. 

The destruction of buildings that do not have to be destroyed is part and parcel of the mentality that once sought to obliterate New Zealand's natural environment to make it look like an English sheep farm. It's not just absurd, it's tragic. And what is wrong with retaining some ruins as a reminder of the city's pain just as Berlin has done with old bomb sites, or, as the L'Aquila authorities have done, by shoring up buildings until such time as they can be rebuilt? The tragedy of Christchurch cannot simply be overwritten with a spanking new CBD divided into neatly planned precincts.