Heritage expert slams CERA's latest landmark wrecking

The demolition would be an unmitigated disaster for Christchurch.

Demolition of another landmark heritage building in Christchurch begins in a few days.

The loss of the historic Cranmer Courts would be an unmitigated disaster for Christchurch, says University of Canterbury expert Associate Professor Ian Lochhead.

Demolition of the building will resume within a week, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority says.

CERA’s modus operandi in demanding demolitions of buildings has come under increasing criticism, with various experts contrasting its actions with those of civil authorities overseas who are committed to preserving older properties, even if it takes several years.

Dr Lochhead says the building was mooted for sale to a company that would have restored it but the sale fell through.

“The 1876 building which was originally the Normal School is important not just for itself and for its streetscape value as a significant Gothic Revival building, but for what it adds to our understanding of other surviving similar buildings in the city such as the Arts Centre, Christ’s College and the Museum.

“Gothic was the style for education buildings in 19th-century Canterbury and the Normal School is an important part of that grouping. Having already lost the former Girls High School building on the south side of Cranmer Square, this area desperately needs to retain the former Normal School.”

Dr Lochhead says it was also significant in terms of the efforts to save the city’s heritage over the last 30 years. The Normal School was in a derelict state in the early 1980s when it was rescued and converted into apartments by former Christchurch developer Chris Berryman, who had seen similar conversions work well in Sydney.

“Berryman had the vision to undertake the conversion to apartments, but the collapse of a section of wall and the conservatism of the Christchurch property market at the time meant he had to abandon the project and it was taken over by Fletchers, who saw it through to completion." 

At the time, no one had undertaken a project like this in New Zealand, he says.

“The reality is that a building such as this would recover its value in the future, just as the original apartments did after their initial slow start.

“I can’t imagine any other developed country allowing such a significant building to be demolished. By agreeing to this sort of thing to happen we are telling the world that we are a country that does not value its past and that we are a country that places little value on its culture except when it costs nothing.

“What it is really saying to the world is that we don’t think we have produced anything of value here whereas in reality, before the earthquakes, Christchurch was recognised internationally as a city with an extraordinary collection of Gothic Revival buildings that was unique in the world.

“I don’t think the people who have overseen the destruction of Christchurch’s heritage have any conception of how this decision is being perceived by the international community, where the value of heritage is acknowledged and respected,’’ Dr Lochhead says.