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A Provisional Manifesto for the Architecture of Christchurch

First written in September 2010, revised in June 2011


We need a built environment that is not only safe and functional, but makes our city a pleasant and desirable place to be in, for the sake of our day-to-day happiness, our overall well-being, and our economic survival.

Our Buildings

It is essential that our buildings serve the purposes set out for them, and that they be readily adaptable to any other purpose they may reasonably be expected to serve. Our buildings must make efficient use of our resources, and be capable of doing so indefinitely. It is essential that our buildings are structurally sound, capable of bearing any loadings they may reasonably be expected to meet. It is essential that our buildings are beautiful, not only in the context of the current fashion, but able to be considered beautiful by generations to come. Our buildings must be able to age gracefully and not depend on newness or novelty for their effect.

We need small shops, placed to be visible and within reach of public transport, but also to gather foot traffic close by their windows. These shops must be pleasant and well lit, but also affordable. Without these we cannot have the innovative restaurants and boutiques, galleries, independent specialist retailers, curio shops, and antiquarian booksellers that make a city a place in its own right and so much more than a mall or service centre. Larger shops will happen of their own accord, and need no special encouragement. High density developments could cluster buildings around pedestrian green space forming the core of a block, with ground floor retail activity facing the courtyard and the street, and apartments and offices above.

We need loft buildings, two to six storey commercial buildings with high ceilings and tall windows bringing in plenty of natural light, with rugged finishes and hard floors. Painted plaster, brick or raw concrete would be fine for the walls, and varnished timber or polished concrete best for the floors. We need these spaces for designers and artists and any other creative professions that may benefit from being occasionally able to make a bit of a mess. Such buildings can readily serve for office space too, and are easily adaptable for apartment living or even light industry. Without readily available loft space creative professions may never get established in our city, and creative thinkers will go elsewhere. Loft buildings must be close to our urban centres and retail nodes if they are to be of any real use. Loft buildings are rarely built today and are more expensive than more specialised buildings such as warehouses and offices. That said, loft buildings are the most flexible and broadly useful building type, and though may not always be able to predict what our buildings may be needed for, we can be prepared. Air-conditioned fluorescent lit office space with acoustic tiles and blue carpet is not especially flexible, does not foster anything desirable in our populace, and is in general not what is needed.

We must remember to design each building at a range of scales, from its overall massing, outline and colour as we glimpse it from afar, with detail that resolves further as we approach it. Remember that if we see more detail that will reward closer inspection then we will be drawn towards it. By that logic a door frame should be much richer and finer in detail than a roof crest, and a door handle and the door edge that passes our faces as we enter should be most considered of all. A building that reveals all of its detail from across the street does not invite closer inspection.

We must beware materials and forms that depend upon being shiny, clean and new for their effect. The same applies to large smooth surfaces without counterbalancing detail, as these do not age well and with a little streaking of dirt and age become very grim. Red brick, stone, raw concrete, terracotta, timber, bronze, copper, even well galvanised steel are all valid materials, capable of rich or at least not unpleasant colours and textures well able to age and weather gracefully. An architect may design a building dependent upon painted surfaces for its effect, but there is a greater challenge in creating such a building that retains its charm even when its paint is neglected.

We must resist the urge to be fashionable. Fashion does not stop for any one generation, but a building must last for many generations and reflect the needs and aspirations of each generation that uses it. We must remember that there is no building more loathed than one that is fifteen to thirty years out of style, but such a building is still far too young to be discarded and replaced. As Vitruvius stated two thousand years ago, the essential features of a good building are utility, soundness and delight. Any need for a building to be expressive of its time is a far more recent dogma. The uses, technologies, techniques and materials used speak enough of a building’s time without shaping it according to the seasonal whims of distant magazine editors. If a form or motif is beautiful and meaningful to us, and does not impair function or strength, then there is no good reason why we should not use it. Remember also that there is no harm in designing a building that blends in with its neighbours, provided that it is in itself beautiful.

Gothic, Classicism, Baroque, Queen Anne, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Art Deco, Expressionism, International Modernism, Brutalism or any other mode of composition, detail and style that one can or cannot name is each a perfectly valid starting point for styling abuilding, provided that it is done well and is beautiful. If such a building is sound, meets its functional requirements and is not offensive to its surroundings or observers, then any objection to it can only be based on individual taste or dogma. Remember that no mode of architecture is ever truly original, and any stylistic revival can only enrich that style’s vocabulary.

We must not forget that Christchurch has a strong gothic tradition, and that some of our best gothic architecture comes from the second half of the twentieth century. We might start with the completing of the Sign of the Takahe in 1948, closely followed by the Centennial Wing of the museum and St Mark’s church in Opawa in the 1950s. The1980s administration building at the entrance to Christ’s College is also excellent gothic, sympathetic to the existing but also original, and it introduces precast concrete window tracery. Our Christchurch modernist, brutalist and then postmodernist architecture also forms part of this gothic tradition. That said, perpendicular gothic lends itself especially well to modern materials such as precast concrete, and to energy efficient passive solar design with its turrets for vent stacks and wind scoops, and carefully judged window traceries to filter and control sunlight. Instead of outright rejecting our traditions or restricting ourselves to obliquely referencing them, we can instead embrace our heritage and bring our traditions forward into the twenty-first century and beyond. By working with our architectural past our heritage will not be diluted, but will instead be enriched. Afterall, if we lose track of where we have come from how can we be sure of where we are going? This is not to say that we should not innovate or experiment, merely that we should not be too ready to discard what we have already, and that we should be wary of passing fancies.

Our Housing

Our residential areas need to be built to a range of densities. The Kiwi dream of a single storey house in a large garden must remain an option, but there must be other choices too. All too often we see the single storey suburban house contorted into something to suit a would-be apartment dweller, in subdivisions with covenants that all but outlaw the lifestyle that suburban living was intended to encourage. We end up with seemingly endless tracts of hip-roofed boxes, (shaped by height limits and sunlight access planes,) their wide eaves further shading deep and dark interiors with vast shapeless rooms, and uselessly narrow strips of garden between picture windows and high fences. Street frontages are dominated by concrete and garage doors, and without room for trees the entire suburbs are simultaneously stark and stuffy. Precious land is used inefficiently, with perhaps two thirds of it covered by hard surfaces. Walking or cycling through such places is unpleasant and public transport that might effectively serve them is uneconomic. There is little safe outdoor space for children, and with little allowance for those who cannot drive or walk far there is little consideration for the elderly either. New housing must address these problems, and we must find ways to retrofit the housing areas we have.

For those who want a large garden and are willing to put up with the time and cost of commuting, the outer suburbs should have low site coverage and room for lawns, vegetable gardens, trees, greenhouses and sheds, with the smaller sections occupied by smaller houses. To allow more room for garden taller houses should be encouraged, though privacy must still be allowed for.

Closer to the city centre the inner suburbs should have taller houses, of say two or more storeys and packed close together. These could be much like pre-war American suburbs, on long narrow sections with a small rectangle of unfenced garden to the front, a larger private garden to the back, and driveway or path width between each house. With the main rooms facing the street or the garden and the side windows lighting stairwells and service rooms, privacy and light would not be a problem. Such planning allows individual houses with useable gardens, room for sheds, attractive streetscapes, and plenty of room for trees.

Within an easy walk of the central city we should encourage city houses in the European manner. These would be built to the street frontage, occupying the full width of the section on never less than two storeys. Such houses would have courtyard gardens behind, perhaps accessed by a gated tunnel through the house itself.

Dwellers in the inner city or in suburban shopping districts would live as they do now, in apartments in two to six storey city-type buildings, though more such housing with a greater range of choices is always desirable. In the city and in suburban centres apartments should be built above street front shops, the shops giving the apartments a stronger sense of place. The apartments would help offset building costs, making shop rents affordable to the small businesses that so enrich our city but might not otherwise be viable. Of course where people live at higher densities buildings and services must be built to a higher standard. In natural disasters and civil emergencies such areas will be less self-reliant, and any damage will be of greater consequence to more people.

In all parts of the city trees are essential, and leaves are a small price to pay for the glory of large deciduous street trees. In any residential property outdoor space must be square enough to allow room for trees, as already too many people must live in suburbs without birdsong or dappled shade.

Closer to city and suburban centres we must at least allow garages associated with dwellings to be grouped separately (though still individually owned as every bloke must have a shed of some sort). This would leave more room on each section for garden, and opens up the possibility of groups of properties accessed by footpaths and cycle ways, or at least much narrower and less trafficked streets. This is far more pleasant and safer for those who rarely drive or who let children play outside. Streets less dominated by garage doors are also very desirable. Fewer driveways and a short walk to the car can only encourage more pedestrian journeys, and will certainly make the city safer for children, pedestrians and cyclists. In any case a city planned for pedestrians and cyclists makes for more efficient public transport. For the city dweller the private car should become either a work tool or a means of escape in weekends and holidays, much as it was originally intended.

Our excessive dependence on the private car is not only expensive, but unhealthy and dangerous. It encourages suburban malls that are invariably ugly, inhospitable to small businesses and keep employees far from daylight. It demands high speed thoroughfares that are expensive, are never enough and are lethal to cyclists and pedestrians. The car can kill the city, much as it has done throughout the American Midwest. Too much of our city is already dedicated to car parking, and while the negative impact of parking buildings is minor, surface parking is deadly to the city fabric, almost as damaging as tracts of derelict buildings.

The house itself must be primarily the choice of its occupants. In simple terms it must be sound, durable, efficient, comfortable, pleasant to be in, and it must in some sense be charming. It should be built with more than one generation and life stage in mind. In its interior spaces a dwelling should at the very least have table space where meals can be enjoyed socially, and a retreat space where people can relax and unwind, ideally with some form of hearth (for which television is a poor substitute), a focus about which the household may gather.

We must never forget that an attractive building brings pleasure not only to its owners, but also to neighbours and passers-by.  A beautiful building adds value to its neighbourhood, in the same way that an ugly one detracts. All too often an ugly building steals its value from adjacent properties, making the creation of ugly buildings an inherently selfish act, and the creation and preservation of beautiful structures a moral imperative.

A Call for Action

We must act now, as every delay will increase the cost of acting later. Before the earthquake the heart of the city was already beginning to decay, and our actions now will decide if that rot will be undone or will destroy us. The damage must be seen as an opportunity to act now, but we must act positively. What has been damaged or destroyed must be repaired or rebuilt, better and richer than before. We must shun cheap options, and look to the future while not losing sight of our heritage. If something is beautiful and meaningful we must fight to retain it, but we must also make full use of the knowledge and technologies we now have at our disposal. While an unrepairable subdivision may be returned to parkland, we must understand that an inner city site left cleared as waste ground or a parking lot is not only deadly to the city itself, but is an admission of defeat. We must more than ever make the central city a place where people want to shop, work and live, as without a living heart to the city the suburbs lose their reason for existing. We must make the city as a whole a place that meets our needs and aspirations, for ourselves and for generations to come.

Macon Limited trading as Whimbrel structural engineering and architecture