Take another look — heritage is all around

Welcoming the Jetty St, Dunedin, sheep. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Welcoming the Jetty St, Dunedin, sheep. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
For many people, a building is simply something you sit inside for much of the working day. At the close of play, you head off to spend what is left of the day within another, smaller, structure.

Buildings, however, are much more than merely work capsules. They provide warmth and — generally —  shelter from the elements. They allow people working together in a shared space with a common purpose to become teams.

Throughout New Zealand, but in Dunedin and throughout Otago especially, buildings provide us with a large amount of our more recent heritage. Not only do they give a tangible sense of history, of changing architectural styles and fashion, but also they should be good to look at and reflect the pride of the city or town in which they were built. Heritage buildings may, though, have less success when it comes to keeping out the rain.

The earthquakes which shook Canterbury with devastating consequences in 2010 and 2011 took away a significant chunk of Christchurch’s built heritage and show why it is important other cities learn how to protect and strengthen their historic buildings.

More than 1200 buildings were demolished in central Christchurch in the four years after the February 22, 2011 quake, about 250 of those classified as "heritage", including the Regent Theatre, The Press building and the old Canterbury Public Library. The drawn-out saga surrounding the future of the badly damaged Anglican Christ Church Cathedral remains an unfortunate focus for locals and visitors alike.

For those in Dunedin, make sure you look up next time you are on that lunchtime stroll. Compared with a few decades ago, many buildings are now receiving, or have been given, the treatment they deserved. Enterprising individuals and building owners, and the Dunedin City Council, have worked well together to  inject vibrancy back into the city’s precincts.

About 30 years ago there were major concerns about the future of Princes St. George St was, then as now, bustling with energy and full of colour. Walk south through the Octagon and immediately you entered a black-and-white world of empty, old buildings, one which became increasingly melancholic the closer you got to the Exchange.

Thankfully, a good stretch of Princes St is now an altered proposition. It exudes a different but still busy vibe from the more commercial George St, as does the rejuvenated warehouse precinct centred on  Vogel, Water and Jetty Sts. The renaissance of this area almost defies belief, although there remain concerns from some about Princes St south of Stafford St, which Dunedin writer Tony Eyre has described as "ragamuffin".

Art and poetry around the city also continue to delight, often surprising in the most unlikely corners. "Poems on Steps" is a worthy project now on to its second summer. Ruth Arnison and artist Sheryl McCammon are busy adding fragments of poems on to walls and steps where they might be least expected.

There is so much to see in Dunedin. But always the lessons from Christchurch — both in terms of its heritage losses and the rise of the boxy, post-quake replacements which some consider ugly — must stay firmly in mind.

In Dunedin, heritage and history are vital to the city’s economy, much more so than they were in Christchurch before the earthquakes. We need to ensure we celebrate the beauty of our city buildings and streetscapes in actuality rather than, in the case of Christchurch, looking sadly at the Heritage New Zealand website and its photographs of what has now gone.

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