The Cathedral

Christchurch, NZ, April 2015:  This was my first visit to Christchurch since the February 22nd 2011 earthquake that devastated New Zealand’s third largest city. It was a surreal experience, the centre around Cathedral Square was mostly unrecognizable, apart from the iconic Christchurch Cathedral.

The Anglican Cathedral was built between 1864 and 1904 in the centre of the city, surrounded by Cathedral Square. It became the cathedral seat of the Bishop of Christchurch in the New Zealand tikanga of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

Repeated earthquakes have damaged the building (mostly the spire) in the course of its history: in 1881, 1888, 1901, 1922, and September 2010. The February 2011 Christchurch earthquake destroyed the spire and part of the tower, and severely damaged the structure of the remaining building. The remainder of the tower was demolished in March 2012. The west wall suffered collapses in the June 2011 earthquake and the December 2011 quake due to a steel structure – intended to stabilize the rose window – pushing it in.

The Anglican Church has decided to demolish the building and replace it with a new structure – a decision which has become controversial in post-quake Christchurch. Various groups have opposed the Church’s intentions, with actions including taking a case to court. As of January 2015 the judgements have mostly been in favour of the Church, with one more judgement pending. No demolition has occurred since the removal of the tower in early 2012.

There has been opposition to demolition, with heritage groups including the UNESCO World Heritage Centre opposing the action. A local character, the Wizard of New Zealand, made protests calling for the cathedral to be saved. Kit Miyamoto, an American-based structural engineer and expert in earthquake rebuilding, inspected the cathedral after the September 2010 quake. He cited his experience in stating that restoring and strengthening of the building was both “feasible and affordable”.

In April 2012, a group of engineers from the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering launched a petition seeking support of 100 colleagues to stop the demolition. They claimed that legal action was also a possibility. In the same month the Restore Christchurch Cathedral Group was formed and sought signatures for a petition to save the cathedral.

In December 2014 photographs published on Wellington based urban exploration website were some of the first taken inside the building since the February 2011 earthquake. They show the cathedral full of bird droppings, rubble and abandoned books. A spokesperson for the urban explorer group said via email they took precautions when exploring buildings. “We use safety equipment such as hard hats and respiratory masks and follow the philosophy of take only photos, leave only footprints.We saw the columns of the cathedral still standing straight, a roof open to the sky and a floor covered in rubble, dust and pigeon excrement. The chairs were lined up as though it will always be the morning of February 22, 2011.”

Curiosity was the first motivation for online viewers, with sorrow not far behind. Outrage was so much further back that it was barely visible. A spokesperson reveals in an email interview that an associate of the Urbex Central group did an analysis of the online comments after the photos were published. Most used the photos as an opportunity to air their views on issues important to them, “including the Canterbury earthquakes, restoration and demolition, heritage and culture, progress and inertia, health and safety, religion and power”, the spokesperson says.

Many were grateful that “we have allowed them to see inside those walls of stone”. Their own research boiled the responses down. Of the 21,000 words posted online by viewers of the cathedral images, 56 per cent expressed neutral feelings towards the urban explorers, 39 per cent were positive and 5 per cent were negative.


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