New Zealand’s iconic cathedral will finally be rebuilt

Christ Church Cathedral
The ruins of Christ Church Cathedral in 2017, six years after an earthquake devastated Christchurch, New Zealand. |

Next year marks 9 years since an earthquake devastated the quaint cityscape of New Zealand’s Christchurch with its splendid cathedral.

Christchurch, the biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island, was already rebuilding from a previous earthquake when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck during the lunch hour on Feb. 22, 2011.

Not only was Christ Church Cathedral, seat of the Anglican bishop of Christchurch, partly ruined, but much of the downtown was destroyed or left uninhabitable. Even more tragic were the deaths of 185 people.

A temporary replacement designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and constructed out of cardboard — yes, cardboard — was erected in the aftermath as a debate ensued over whether Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian-era cathedral should be rebuilt. The debate turned heated with litigation and interventions from politicians and historic preservationists.

Meanwhile, the Transitional Cathedral, which isn’t strictly constructed out of cardboard as it includes other building materials, has became a landmark in its own right.

Auckland University architecture professor Andrew Barrie, author of a coffee table book on the design, calls it the country’s “most recognized building.” Barrie’s assessment, if true, is quite the indictment of the architecture found elsewhere in New Zealand. Then again, the country is primarily known for its natural beauty, world-class wine and millions of sheep.

Christ Church Cathedral
Workers carry out initial stabilization work at Christ Church Cathedral. |

Philanthropists stepped forward with money to rebuild Sir George’s Gothic Revival design — the only N.Z. church credited to him. One such pledge came from the Hamish Ogston Foundation. It offered 4 million N.Z. dollars (about $2.6 million).

Eventually, the government and Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia reached an agreement in 2017 to split the expected 104 million N.Z. dollars (about $60 million) cost between them and other donors under the auspices of the Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Project.

Major works begin with the first of three phases in April 2020 and could last as long as 10 years. When finished the cathedral will be faithful to Sir George’s design, thanks in part to the use of original materials. Modern construction elements will also be incorporated to strengthen seismic protection.

The Christchurch saga is similar to what is transpiring in France, where years, if not decades, of restoration and rebuilding await the much grander Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire in April nearly destroyed it.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, wants to incorporate modern architectural design in a way not dissimilar from how alterations to Romanesque cathedrals and churches featured what was then the new Gothic style. At the same time, politicians have taken steps to require a restoration in keeping with Notre Dame before the fire.

Regardless of when Christ Church and Notre Dame cathedrals finally reopen, both will serve as studies in dealing with historic churches afflicted by fire, earthquake and, increasingly, arson.

If you go

The Transitional Cathedral in Christchurch is open daily at 9 a.m. with four regular worship services scheduled on Sundays. Admission is free. American Airlines is launching nonstop seasonal service to Christchurch’s airport from Los Angeles and Dallas–Fort Worth. Alternatively, Air New Zealand flies between Auckland and several U.S. airports, including Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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