From Heritage New Zealand Spring 2006
by Miles Erwin
A ruling over the revitalisation project for Canterbury Museum has left the museum in limbo but hopeful for the future.
Photo: Canterbury Museum
It's back to the drawing board for Canterbury Museum, sorely in need of updating to accommodate changing times and its collection. Architect Ian Athfield's plans for the institution have been rejected in a May Environment Court decision.
The ruling overturned resource consents for Canterbury Museum Trust Board's vision of a museum for the 21st century, including a large atrium and a "street" linking the museum with the neighbouring art gallery.
The decision has been met with approval from some Christchurch heritage campaigners - saying it ensures additions to historic buildings won't end up an eyesore on the landscape.
The opposing sides agree on one thing - changes needed to be made to the ageing buildings. The 1980s and early
'90s saw significant upheaval as earthquake strengthening affected the buildings. The museum can't show much of its collection and favourites such as the old Christchurch street, the giant whale skeleton and the whare whakairo, Hau Te Ananui O Tangaroa, are in storage. Sub-standard staff offices are scattered far and wide throughout the building.
Workable fire exits are a priority, and the cramped spaces of neo-gothic architect Benjamin Mountfort's buildings have created an entrance that can't handle the demands of 21st century tourism. In short, the buildings' interior and exhibition spaces needed to be brought up to date.
"I don't see the court decision as saying you can't touch the Canterbury Museum," says Ian Lochhead, a Canterbury
architectural historian and opponent of the proposed changes. "Rather than saying this puts the museum in a straitjacket, this puts the museum in a situation where they are presented with a really interesting challenge in terms of how you preserve the collection and how you display it in relation to the buildings."
But does Lochhead - or anyone - have any alternatives to Athfield's plans or must the museum remain in limbo?
His answer is astonishingly simple – construct a new building. That building could be modernist and stunning and house the parts of the museum’s collection that don’t suit the neo-gothic architecture of Mountfort’s 1882 designs.
“If it wants to display all its collection, it has the option of going off-site,” says Lochhead. “It’s something no museum wants to do, but if they want to grow and develop there seems to be no alternative but to look at alternative sites.”
Lochhead suggests the current buildings house displays that complement the architecture and the new building be dedicated to the museum’s considerable Antarctic and exploration collection.
“It could be a museum of Antarctica and exploration. It doesn’t make that much sense putting a snow cat in a timber gallery space. What they can’t display coherently they should put in a new building.”
That may not be much of an option for an organisation without substantially more funding than Canterbury Museum has at its disposal.
Canterbury Museum chief executive Anthony Wright isn’t a sceptical person. He is sure that the museum can be more than a monument to Christchurch’s past and instead a guide to the future.
“Canterbury Museum has a very proud history of being a quirky museum that is ready to change,” says Wright. “The unique nature of Canterbury Museum would remain – throughout all of this it will always be uniquely Canterbury Museum. But it was to be a museum of the future.
“I’m totally optimistic we will find a solution. It’s been going for 135 years and it’s faced many challenges in the past. I’m sure it will surmount this one.”
So does it actually have a chance of becoming a “museum of the future”? Wellington Resource Management Act lawyer Tom Bennion doesn’t hold out much hope of that, saying the museum will simply have to go back to the drawing board. “A proposal might succeed which makes less change to the architecture, provides more evidence about why other alternatives are not possible, emphasises that this is the only way forward and that the nationally important heritage values lost from the buildings would be compensated for by the nationally important exhibits which are not lost and/or will be able to be properly housed, protected and displayed. But you would have to say that the city plan and the museum itself have set a fairly high threshold for making changes to the buildings.”|
And the future plans for the museum, and other category one buildings, will be given a thorough going over, as the protection of heritage becomes a conservation priority.
“I think the heat is on with the use of the Resource Management Act,” says Christchurch Civic Trust Chair Peter Dyhrberg. “All work will need to be very skilful and have a certain amount of flair.”
While specific to Christchurch, because it was assessing the proposal under that city’s district plan, which has stricter conditions for heritage modifications than many others, the 76-page Environment Court decision could in theory prevent major alterations to buildings in desperate need of an upgrade. As a consequence, the future of Category I buildings, in Christchurch at least, may be one rooted in the past. And that’s frustrated another of New Zealand’s pre-eminent architects, Sir Miles Warren.
“It’s a tragedy for heritage because whoever has a heritage building who wants to alter it is better to get rid of the building. You can’t do anything at all,” says Warren, a strong advocate of the museum alterations.
The museum debate created deep discord in the heritage community of Canterbury, with two court cases, claim and counter-claim in Christchurch’s The Press and lingering resentment on both sides. When the Canterbury Museum Trust Board gained Christchurch City Council approval for significant renovations to its historic buildings, the Canterbury Civic Trust and heritage advocates, including Lochhead and Peter and Lesley Beaven, led the opposition.
Ian Athfield’s plans for the Museum Trust Board included developing a more user-friendly atrium, raising the roof, and
a grand entrance, connecting the original Mountfort buildings with the neighbouring Art Gallery. The plans included several big changes – alterations to the Rolleston Avenue windows, a new entrance in the Centennial wing, using the gallery as a restaurant and changing the main Mountfort entrance.
The intention was to provide bigger display areas for international shows, create a more flexible exhibition space and house collections to international standards. It was meant to be a visionary change – like the pyramid at the Louvre – but that’s where things came unstuck.
The whare whakairo would have been visible from the south and the Botanic Gardens. The court said the effect was beneficial in an aesthetic sense but detracted from the heritage values of the buildings.
The plans were described as “tacky” by many in the Christchurch heritage community – especially the Civic Trust and the Beavens. A lively and contentious debate began with Peter Beaven describing the plans as “a theme park cum shopping mall”. The Civic Trust gathered international heritage experts, including Professor Tim Barringer from Yale University, and took the Museum Trust to the Environment Court. The result was an overwhelming victory for the Civic Trust.
Looking into the Christchurch city plan, the museum plan and the relevant sections of the Resource Management Act, Judge J. R. Jackson declared the plans non-complying activities that would disrupt the heritage values of the buildings. And with heritage an issue of national importance under the Resource Management Act, the plans went too far. The decision effectively vetoed Athfield’s plans and has severely disrupted the proposed redevelopment of the museum.
And the ruling may be of far greater consequence than the display of Canterbury’s history – it’s a warning to owners of all heritage buildings according to lawyer Tom Bennion.
“It is an unusual decision – and a significant cautionary one for museums and similar institutions considering new building projects,” says Bennion. “Heritage is now a matter of national importance under the Resource Management Act. The test is that it has to either have no more than minor effects or not be contrary to the objectives and policies of the [city] plan.”
And, according to Warren, the ramifications are that heritage buildings will become relics without people to work and live in them.
“It’s not a win for heritage – it’s an awful setback. If this process is adopted, Christ’s College cannot operate as a school. Their buildings have been altered but at the same time retain their heritage value. There’s very little of that which can be done [now].”
The opposition completely disagrees. Lochhead says the ruling will ensure heritage buildings are preserved – and the stricter conditions opposed by the new Environment Court decision just means designers will have to do a better job.
“It’s a very important decision for long-term heritage. It lifts the bar for everybody in terms of their performance. It makes it more challenging – it means you have to be smarter in the way you use heritage. Until now the approach to heritage has seen it as an obstacle that needs to be worked around. What this is saying is you can’t work around it. You need to be innovative and intelligent and look at how you use it most effectively.”
And the disputes continue over the leverage allowed by the court decision. Warren says it will prevent quality modern additions to historic buildings as has been done to great effect overseas. Think the National Portrait Gallery in London, which has been renovated with a large atrium and internal escalator, and recent renovations of the Capitol in Rome.
A living building in other words – but Lochhead wants to see that too. He says the plans failed because they weren’t good enough. But to get stunning, and complementary, renovations like the Louvre’s famed pyramid will cost some serious money– and Lochhead says that’s the price for heritage.
“The difference is the quality of those interventions,” says Lochhead. “Internationally they’re at a different level of quality from what was being proposed at the museum. We haven’t reached that level in New Zealand. It may mean you need to spend more money to achieve your ultimate goal but you have to plan in the longer term.”
Peter Dyhrberg dismisses the suggestion that this will leave heritage buildings as little more than monuments to the past.
“The assessments are going to be rigorous, which is appropriate. I don’t think it’s going to stop new uses being found. But it’s going to require more careful treatment in the care and solutions. It means they will be dealt with in a way that’s appropriate to their heritage status – we’ve been a bit loose with that in the past.”
But is this a national issue or just a Christchurch one? Bennion says the city’s plan is inherently conservative in its nature, and the plans were further restricted by the museum’s own conservation plan.
“The court thought that the proposal contradicted the museum’s own plan in a number of places. “The Christchurch city plan has a very conservative approach to heritage and its protection – a non-complying activity of this radical nature was always going to struggle on that score since it would be contrary to the objectives and policies of the plan.”
As for the rest of the country, the decision means owners planning to alter their buildings will have to look very carefully at the terms of their own council’s district plans insofar as they touch on heritage.
Bennion says plans vary widely across the country and there may be a better chance to revamp a heritage building in Auckland than in Christchurch.
The Court decision suggests that, with changes in legislation and the raising of heritage to a matter of national importance, plans for heritage sites will need to be well conceived, respect heritage values and be appropriate to adaptive use to win community and regulatory approval.