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A new dawn

4 March 2019
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The Christchurch Town Hall is once again the place that commands attention, not just for the performances that resound within, but the commanding architecture throughout.

Words Richard Dalman

Christchurch has lost many great buildings as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes. The Lyttelton Tunnel building by Peter Beaven, The Press building by Armson, Collins and Harman, and the Catholic Cathedral by Francis Petre are a few that come to mind, although the latter still has a chance to be repaired.

For a long time, the Christchurch Town Hall was at risk due to the considerable structural damage incurred, and the high cost to strengthen and reinstate.

I remember quite a debate at the time as to whether the cost was going to be worth it. I can tell you now that it has opened, it is! I was a strong supporter of repairing the Town Hall and, when I visited before the opening last month, I am so glad I was.

If you are a regular reader of this column you will know that I am a fan. The unashamedly modernist architecture makes no apologies. Raw concrete, stone aggregate-faced concrete panels, copper and glass form the exterior palette.

The form of the building is derived from the internal floor plans of the individual spaces and the volume of space required for each of them, such that the three main wings extending out from the main entrance area create their own individual architecture. The oval-shaped auditorium breaks out above its octagonal concrete base with its paired columns that feature around the building, the James Hay Theatre’s fly tower extends to the sky promoting its theatre function, and the glazed restaurant and Limes Room extend out over the Avon and open up to Victoria Square and the community.

On my recent visit I was delighted to see how much attention to conserving the original architecture there had been. All of the timber work, the Pat Hanly mural, and even the spikey ceiling mouldings in the foyer that project towards you from above were removed, refurbished off-site and reinstated.

There has been considerable strengthening, including the replacement of most of the structural columns, with their new concrete finish exactly replicating the originals.

Where new exposed steel was required it has been generally well integrated into the building. For instance, just look at how the new steel supports sit comfortably with the original structure in the Limes Room.

As well as the restoration and rebuild, the Town Hall has benefited from many modern enhancements, such as the latest integrated technologies, extensive heating and cooling systems, improved accessibility, retractable theatre seating, a full commercial kitchen, and reconfigured backstage facilities.

The acoustics have always been one of the Town Hall’s key attributes. The lateral reflection of sound in the auditorium was a key concept new to any auditorium around the world. I recall the acoustic engineer, Sir Harold Marshall, in a lecture at architecture school telling us how on opening night he asked the audience to be quiet while he dropped a pin on the stage, then he asked for a show of hands for who heard it. To his delight, just about everyone put their hand up!

The original Town Hall design was by Warren and Mahoney, who won the commission in a nationwide architectural competition. It is quite fitting that the same company has led this project over the last three years. Architect Peter Marshall says:

“The re-strengthening and restoration of the Town Hall is a significant moment in the rebuild of Christchurch. Completed nearly 50 years ago, it has been host to a vast array of events, occasions, and performances, and frequently referred to as Christchurch’s ‘living room’.

“As well as being regarded as an architectural icon within the city, it also continues to feature in the top 10 auditorium spaces in the world due to its acoustic performance.

“Completion of the building is testament to the vision of the council, the commitment of the design team, and the efforts of countless contractors who have undertaken this complex project.”

For me, the newly opened Christchurch Town Hall is one of the post-earthquake’s success stories. It is both a pleasure and privilege to have the old lady up and running again – to experience the variety of well-crafted spaces, to see shows and attend events, to remember the good times had in the building, and to now create a new series of personal and community collective memories.

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