I’ve been following the story of New Zealand’s Christ Church Cathedral quite closely recently, after a previous blog on Ban’s Transitional Christ Church Cathedral in cardboard.
The original Cathedral (by Gilbert Scott, Robert Speechley, and Benjamin Mountfort) was approved in 1858, with work progressing slowly thereafter. Its neo gothic style is closely associated with the Victorian Anglican Church.
The devastating earthquakes of 2011 all but destroyed the Cathedral, such that its future has been debated ever since. This year, three options were put forward for the building.
Option 1) Complete restoration
Option 2) Traditional new build
Option 3) Contemporary new build
It looks as though the majority support a contemporary new Cathedral, and this decision leaves me with a sense of relief as much as anything else.
In Britain, reaction to Gilbert Scott’s “restorative” works lit the touch paper of William Morris’ Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Now that Scott’s Cathedral is an “old” building, its future might be considered in light of Morris’s reflections on building repair. I believe it fair to say that Morris would not have approved of a restoration on this scale, such is the extent of damage. However, this is not to say that he would declare the site tabula rasa- freshly prepared, for a completely new building.
I recall Zumthor’s Kolomba Art Museum, Cologne when trying to think of a similar site to Christ Church. The observant might point out Basil Spence’s work at Coventry Cathedral, but it is in the detail between these two that I make the distinction.
Spence builds adjacent to the ruins of the bombed out church. Held in aspic, the ruins serve as a poignant memorial to the Second World War. The ruins of New Zealand’s Cathedral might similarly remember the tragedy of 2011, but how might either of these events relate faith?
Zumthor sets a new building directly onto the ruinous walls of the bombed church. The relationship is far more symbiotic between old and new. Trusting the footings of the historic building, it could almost read as a mending or healing of the site- or as new season’s growth on an old tree trunk. Inside, the building has an echo of the sacred. Not achieved through structural gymnastics as at Spence’s Coventry, but rather through shadow, light, mystery. These less tangible qualities make it all the more powerful.
Returning to Christ Church, it will be interesting to see how the historic elements of the site are dealt with, but equally the new work will say something of the progress of the Anglican Faith. Given the protection afforded to church buildings here in the UK, new layers onto old are a rare occurrence, often negotiating heavy bureaucratic systems and committees. Some cases certainly benefit from rigorous discussion and development, whilst others can become painfully diluted. The overall result is not consistent. Given how deeply we read into our faith buildings, Christ Church has the unique opportunity to say something new about the Christian Faith. It is an exciting time.
Here in Britain, this might be an opportune moment to reflect on Ecclesiastical Exemption. As institutions for worship, churches are in a living tradition. Each project needs to balance the weight of its history with the progress of its faith. As the seat of that faith, the global Anglican community looks to the Church in the UK. Is it successfully catching this balance, and is it ultimately sending out the right message about faith today?