We have ten questions for John Walsh, the author of Christchurch Architecture: a walking guide, which is published by Massey University Press this month.
The second in the series of guides to New Zealand’s urban architecture by the well-known team of writer John Walsh and photographer Patrick Reynolds, this handy pocket-sized book suggests a series of city walks that take in both the historic buildings that survived the earthquakes and the striking new buildings that have risen from the rubble.
After the success of A Walking Guide to Auckland Architecture, how did you decide which city should be next?
I wanted to write about Christchurch, because the city has such a strong architectural tradition and I wanted to acknowledge that after all the city has been through. I’m also interested in the city’s architectural development since the earthquakes. What sort of balance now exists between old and new architecture in the city?
When you went to Christchurch for your initial reconnaissance did you imagine — given the shattering of the earthquakes — that you’d struggle to fill a book?
At first maybe, but it became evident that, although many buildings in the central city had been lost, quite a few important buildings had survived sufficiently intact to be saved and restored. And new buildings are starting to fill the gaps. I know the gap-filling will take a long time, but there is something optimistic about a city in the throes of becoming — and people perhaps overlook how moribund parts of central Christchurch were, even before the earthquakes. I also think it’s interesting, and positive, that Christchurch is starting to reconnect with its Māori history — with its origins as Ōtautahi.
One could cry about what’s no longer there, but the city still has a fine collection of buildings, doesn’t it?
Christchurch has two of the strongest architectural sites in the country — the Arts Centre complex, and the buildings around the quadrangle at Christ’s College. Then there are Modernist buildings such as the Town Hall, CoCA Gallery, Miles Warren’s former office and townhouse, and new buildings such as the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre and Tūranga, the public library. So, yes, the city still has fine buildings, and will get more of them.
Some figures emerge from your text as colossi of Christchurch architecture. How important was Benjamin Mountfort?
Mountfort set the benchmark, and he set it pretty high. He was fortunate that the style in which he was so accomplished — Gothic Revival — was the house style of the Anglican establishment that founded Christchurch, but the city was also fortunate that it was Mountfort that designed so many of its important nineteenth-century buildings.
And who else should be considered as pivotal to the early fabric of the city?
Probably William Armson in the nineteenth century, then John Collins and Richard Harman, Samuel Hurst Seager and Cecil Wood. They were all very able architects, and most of them prolific.
The architects Beaven and Warren. These two, and their years of sparring, will always fascinate us do you think?
I think so, even if the stories about them may be assuming the status of legend. New Zealand architecture has had so few public personalities, and Christchurch had two of them at the same time. It’s tempting to see Peter Beaven and Miles Warren as polar opposites, especially when they took different sides in some heated heritage disputes. Peter Beaven could be portrayed as a romantic, Miles Warren as a pragmatist. Peter certainly saw himself as being outside the tent, while Sir Miles was definitely inside. But they were both Christ’s College old boys, and both had the confidence of their privileged upbringing. Both were very articulate and persuasive, and they were too intellectually supple to accord to simple type-casting — Peter could be tough-minded, and Miles had a mischievous side. They did bring drama to the Christchurch architecture scene — Miles as protagonist, Peter as principal antagonist.
Favourite heritage building?
Probably one that is barely standing any more — the formerly wonderful Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. But as that will soon no longer be with us — Cecil Wood’s richly atmospheric Memorial Dining Room at Christ’s College.
Most interesting modern one?
A toss-up between CoCA Gallery (Minson, Henning-Hansen and Dines, 1968) and 65 Cambridge Terrace (Warren and Mahoney, 1962), or for very modern, Hine-Pāka, the Christchurch Bus Interchange (Architectus, 2015), because at last bus commuters are considered worthy of decent architecture.
What do you hope Christchurch people will take from this book?
That their city has a fine architectural inheritance, and there are many reasons to be optimistic that it will have a fine architectural future.
And the rest of us? Get thee to Christchurch to see all this?
Courtesy of its city plan and flat topography, Christchurch is a great place to walk around and look at buildings. In a couple of hours, you can view more than 150 years of the city’s architectural history. So, yes, if you like cities, and enjoy architecture, check out Christchurch.