Monday, April 8, 2013

Ruminations ex cathedra

My cycling tour last week through God's cathedral in the skies involved excursions through the southern part of the McKenzie country (i.e. inner central South Island) which, since I last visited it, has developed from brown wilderness into a green and pleasant land. That is, through irrigation farmers have grown green grass to feed large herds of dairy cows. Cows ruminate as they chew the cud. Probably they do not think about cathedrals as they do. Here are some cathedral ruminations, in some cases picking up points made in comments here over the weekend, in other cases picking up points made in conversations I experienced over the weekend:

(1) Why restore the current cathedral? (= Design 1) I suggest there are some poor reasons for doing so but there is at least one good reason for doing so. (For present purposes I exclude consideration of cost - projected costs of restoration relative to other designs provide a large number of reasons, each valued at $1, for not proceeding in this direction!).

Poor reasons include the familiarity of the present cathedral, nostalgia for past experiences in the building, homage to Gilbert Scott as a 'great architect'.

The good reason, perhaps the only good reason, IMHO, is that the architectural character of Christchurch flows out from a set of distinctive inner city neo-Gothic stone buildings - the Arts Centre (former university), Christ's College, Museum, Provincial Chambers and Christ Church cathedral. The first three have either been or are in process of being restored. I think the fourth will be restored. The set would be completed by restoring the cathedral. In doing so it could look like we were being nostalgic, clinging to the past and such like. I suggest, however, that to do so could be about the present and the future: to restore would be to continue a feature of what makes Christchurch Christchurch. It would be to take forward into our future the distinctive heritage of our past so that our identity in 2013 and in 2113 is that of a city which understands who it is and where it has come from. An alternative way of expressing this is that the soul of a city is shaped by its architecture (and a soulless city is one with a random collection of utilitarian buildings): to restore the cathedral would be to restore/heal the wounded soul of Christchurch.

This 'good reason' is quite arguable. A new cathedral, for example, would develop the soul of Christchurch in a new direction. Restoring the cathedral, on my line of thought above, depends on the other parts of the set being restored also. The argument is weakened if it turns out that the Provincial Chambers is not going to be restored.

Incidentally, I think there are good reasons not to proceed with restoration (continuing, for present purposes, to exclude costs). The strongest of which (IMHO) is that in 2013 we are a church (a) with a different approach to liturgy, an approach ill-served by the present Scott design; (b) with a liturgical future which, whatever new directions it takes will not go back to a liturgical style best suited by the Scott design.

(2) What of the possibility of a new cathedral? (= Design 3) Here things are interesting as I listen to others, and myself. First, anecdotally, I sense my own general positive reception to the design - love the curves! - is well shared by Christchurch people sympathetic to the first priority of  a cathedral to be a place of worship. Secondly, questions spring to my mind. Shared it would seem, not only anecdotally as I listen to others, but also in a thoughtful post by my colleague and friend, Bosco Peters. It might not be helpful if I post every question which springs to mind, and I remind readers that comments are invited on the cathedral design website: feedback here.

That's enough for today. I will keep thinking about my questions!

ADDENDUM: I have just noticed this news re the building of a largish church complex in Christchurch. Majestic Church (should that be New Life Church?) has bought the Cranmer Courts site (well-known to locals here, as on a major one way cross city route, and, until recently, inhabited by a splendid stone building, a former old school converted into flats). They plan to be up and running by 2016 ...


Felix Alexander said...

I think there is a mood in large parts of the West today that doesn't trust contemporary architects, because for the second half of the twentieth century, there was a lot of replacement of buildings which we like today, with ones we don't like today.

Architects in the last seventy years have spent a lot of social capital on ugly buildings that we have to live with. Even though economic capital is the only stuff you will have available to pay for the cathedral, the risk of this cost is enough to make a lot of otherwise frugal people want to spend a lot of extra mony.

So Option 1 will have a strong advantage amongst people who only care about the cost as an abstraction because they know they'll be getting something good.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Felix
You express well a good reason (unmentioned by me above) for Option 1, Restoration: a tried, true and popular design.

Yes, much modern architecture has, through time, proved disastrous and unpopular.

malfalloon said...

I seem to remember that a number of German cathedrals were retired after WWII (Dresden?) - though I maybe wrong.

I'm also not sure of the motivation, but I could understand it if one was to establish a link back to a German cultural heritage in defiance of a nazi regime that wanted to take the whole of Germany down with it in flames.

In the case of restoring the cathedral in its original form, perhaps there is a sense that some of us want to defy the destructive power of the earthquake and reestablish continuity with the past.


Felix Alexander said...

Peter, my post was perhaps a good one for option 1, but I myself wouldn't actually choose it. Cathedrals usually seem to take generations to build (nowadays with modern technology we're faster, but mediaeval/early modern), and for it to prove impractical for its location in a century and a half, it seems like perhaps a new building should be built, one which will have a little more staying power. But "staying power" includes aesthetics—it's little good to build a grey box that can last a thousand years if it'll be pulled down and replaced in fifty.

Which also needs to be factored into the cost anyway. I really like the renderings of Option 3. But it has a certain something about it, which makes me realise that in twenty years time I'd hate it, and think "how twenty years ago that looked". I doubt it'll date nearly as well as it looks today, or the other two options.

(But never having set foot in New Zealand, I only know about the Cathedral what you post. If part of the restoration involves earthquake proofing it for the future—remembering it's already been damaged six times in its short lifetime—then sure, by all means, restore.)

Peter Carrell said...

Good points, Felix!