Precedents exist for rebuilding cathedral

Dresden's Frauenkirche. Supplied photos.
Dresden's Frauenkirche. Supplied photos.
Basilica  of St Francis of Assisi
Basilica of St Francis of Assisi
Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral
Church of San Francisco in Santiago
Church of San Francisco in Santiago

Reactions to the damage to Christchurch's Anglican cathedral say much about some individuals and potentially more about ourselves as a nation.

It's partly an arts issue but also more than that.

Built between 1864 and 1904 to the design of the British architect George Gilbert Scott - supervised and modified by New Zealand's Benjamin Mountfort - it may not be the very finest Victorian church in the country.

But it is still a notable artistic success.

Canterbury was a specifically Anglican settlement. The cathedral signifies that but because of its size and prominence now also represents the city and the province. In New Zealand, only the First Church of Otago has a comparable symbolism.

If Christchurch Cathedral is lost, we'll be down to only one in a nation unusually lacking in enduring, built, symbols.

What would we do if the Treaty House burnt down?

Christchurch Cathedral had been damaged by earthquake before the shocks which started in September 2010. After the February 22, 2011, event, Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee, no friend of heritage, included it on a short list of buildings which should be restored or rebuilt. An overseas donor stumped up $4 million.

Further earthquakes did more damage.

The Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, the Rt Rev Victoria Matthews, was ambivalent about the old building from the start. She wondered aloud if a new cathedral should be constructed somewhere else.

Recently, she announced the old building will be "deconstructed" - she means "dismantled" - to a height of 2m to 3m, and not rebuilt.

She said building a replica would face the diocese with a $100 million shortfall while a new building incorporating some of the old would leave it up to $50 million out of pocket.

Other people have different figures.

The Mayor, Bob Parker, acknowledging the wider public interest, offered to take the building into public ownership to provide a broader funding base.

The bishop refused, now insisting the site must remain in Anglican hands.

She also declined to reveal the information on which her decision was based.

How do people handle these things elsewhere?

In England, the 14th-century cathedral at Coventry was badly damaged by air raids on May 14, 1940. Later, the ruins were stabilised and became part of a new complex designed by Sir Basil Spence and opened in 1962 to critical acclaim.

At Dresden, in Germany, the Baroque Frauenkirche (1726-43) was almost entirely destroyed in an Allied bombing attack on February 14, 1945. Later, a replica was built, incorporating a few surviving fragments and consecrated in 2005, also to great acclaim. (Images show the few original stones as darker, evocative among the lighter new.)

These were responses to man-made disasters but what about earthquake-damaged buildings?

The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Italy was hurt by numerous earthquakes in the centuries after construction began in 1228. But never so badly as by two which struck on September 26, 1997. Several people, members of a party inspecting the wreckage caused by the first, died in the second. (This was memorably captured by Italian television and endlessly repeated.)

The large complex was closed for two years, restored and strengthened.

Now it hosts worshippers and visitors again.

Similarly, the church of San Francisco, in Santiago, in Chile, had been regularly quake damaged and restored since construction began on an elaborate replacement of an earlier church in 1558. But a particularly severe quake caused great destruction on March 3, 1985. It was restored again and now houses a museum as well as being a place of worship, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

What should happen in Christchurch?

In each of the cases mentioned, the church, often with the help of a wider community, endeavoured to keep part of the old while restoring or building anew. Where destruction was most complete, in Dresden, a faithful replica was built, incorporating the sadly few remnants, in what might be described as a typically Teutonic exercise of vigorous communal will.

We are not faced with anything so challenging. But obviously some of us are daunted or perhaps just unwilling.

The old false dichotomy of whether we should value people or buildings has been paraded again. It's a fallacy because, if you care about people you should care for the things they care about - and they care a lot about buildings which are symbols. This is not "reverence for bricks and mortar" but reverence for the things they mean.

Christchurch Cathedral is not only a place of worship. It already was a symbol of Canterbury.

Rebuilt, keeping and evoking as much of the old as possible, funded by and useful to the wider community, it would symbolise national endurance.

"Look," it would say, "we are human and vulnerable.

"But we recover and overcome adversity."

What price do you put on that?

Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.


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