Friday, March 18, 2011

New Zealand's Need to Save Face

Just another common place New Zealand main street ? Or a treasure we need to
acknowledge and pro-actively work to preserve across the nation?

Waimate's former post office, now restored/maintained as an Information Centre - but under current policies only few such buildings find a new use and in some cases get added earthquake protection
I have just had a wonderful (not least, aftershock free!) seven days holiday perambulating about the lower South Island, including overnight stays in such small towns as Waimate [main street, photo above] in South Canterbury and super historic old gold mining town, Lawrence in Otago.  It has come home to me the single most significant day-to-day heritage feature of most people's lives are not churches or grand houses and the buildings typically preserved for public visits but the Victorian and Edwardian Street (and occasionally art nouveau, art deco etc) main street and central area facades. To me these these define the character of home and home town location and keep alive a deeper richer sense of community and history in a more daily accessible sense than any other single heritage feature. The Christchurch double earthquake sequence has really brought home to me the sadness of losing these multiple buildings felt as friends here in my hometown.

Christchurch, once so deeply dipped in street facade character, has probably lost 70% [??? -wild guess] or more of these facades and their buildings, mostly in about 10 seconds on February 22nd!  But many of the older small towns in New Zealand still retain them, adding much to their charm. Unfortunately we now know only too well these heavy and ornamental facades can be extremely deadly in an earthquake. It doesn't even need total collapse of the building itself, for these facades can peel off and collapse in seconds, taking the lives of any shoppers and pedestrians and passengers in passing buses and cars below, as occurred a few weeks ago in Christchurch's February 22nd frenzied 6.3 Earthquake. Although the towns named above are some distance from a major faultline, many other New Zealand towns are much more vulnerable and, indeed,  any place in this country can still have a freak, if rare, earthquake.

Heartbreak for some in this high fashion "face peel" on this 1905 building
in Merivale, Papanui Road, Christchurch - can new internal building bodies be
fitted and yet  retain old facades to forestall such losses elsewhere? 

I know the Historic Places Trust does much work in identifying and recording Heritage buildings but wonder if any nationwide consistent pro-active "main street" focussed project has been undertaken?

Years ago I had the idea that a low bed truck could move along central Christchurch Streets, stopping every 50 metres, for a photograph to be taken either side of the road, and these could be created into long streetscapes, to be shown at the Museum or Art Gallery every decade or so. I would imagine these "oh I remember..." "Ohh that was where..." displays would be hugely popular as well as unique historical records. Having to recently evacuate my house the thoughts on this idea I wrote about fifteen years ago this turned up in the files hastily being moved - I thought how ironic now!  Alas, what a record this would have been, not just earthquake stuff but many older buildings demolished in the last decade captured in locational sequence. Hopefully Google earth's pages of street level views - far more advanced technology - might be saved as a time capsule type category for Christchurch's by some technolgy..

I think a major lesson of the Christchurch earthquake is the need for the Government itself to fund a complete study and photographing recording of older central streetscapes around New Zealand.

Secondly I think they could create some sort of base criteria for funding subsidies for saving of these building facades , based on population size, cost per building, degree of common use of the building or capacity for a new stronger building to be attached to the facade, added value in terms of tourist appeal etc. This might start from a base of five building facade reinforcement etc funded for any settlement over 500 population and then add another building for each subsequent 1000 residents...not that this would be absolutely hard and fast but it gives a framework for funding and appeal structure for special cases - such as the town of Lawrence whose cracked bricked buildings appear so terribly vulnerable to Christchurch eyes, even though a very large earthquake would probably be a freak event in this zone.

Communities might have to raise part funding and Lottery type funding, with the Government itself meeting a set amount up to a limit per building. Other buildings might also be saved, as they are anyway, sometimes by private iniative but it would definitely assure some key mainstreet landmark facades were retained (and safely so) across all New Zealand. Indeed it would open a business opportunity for travelling tradesmen with big hydraulic bracing machines etc to specialise in facade restoration, as part of an existing building or held in place whilst a dangerous old shell is removed and a new reinforced concrete body is built in its stead, the facade then anchored to this new body many times more safely than present. It does not seem impossible.

Whilst the purist might say save the whole building (and I imagine this would always be the first point of consideration) the cost of saving hundreds or thousands of whole buildings and (if possible) making them earthquake resistant across the whole nation would be phenonemal. There are heaps of significant buildings where total restoration is viable and warranted and occurring  - but most main street facades hide redundant upper storeys, unsafe and poorly designed for modern needs work and living spaces - indeed many are vacant and unrentable. The very fact they still stand is often because they are in less prosperous areas or suburbs, but interior rebuilds offer whole new modern [and ultra safe] housing, shopping and office space possibilities. In this situation the heritage facades could (and I imagine, as years go by, increasingly will) add value to what are often otherwise bland modern buildings.

Derelict building in Waimate, with a huge facade. Could the facade be anchored, repointed and reinforced from behind, and bedded back into a new super safe, light airy modern interior of reinforced concrete for shops, malls, offices or apartments? Thousands of facades might be saved nationwide and many areas regenerated if a major Government commitment was there and strategies and technologies developed.

I believe Government (in co-operation with Historic Places Trust if possible) should pursue a pro-active policy of "Saving Face" - identifying, recording, working with owners of "main street facades" to review options, designing engineering programmes and machines to stabilise and brace for facade eathquake strengthening and/or interior demolition and rebuilds [new concrete modern buildings with friendly old faces!]  Saving facades for generations yet to be born is not about preserving history in the clock stopping sense, it is about saying "Hey these are our every day heritage encounters, we can't save enough buildings in total, but we can save hundreds of facades, honouring and carrying forward the heritage of New Zealand's earlier urbanisation and inbedding it in the future. We can not preserve the total object as such in many cases but we can carry forward the richness of street scene ambience and a heritage spirit.

The gift of the Christchurch earthquake to New Zealand  - recognition that saving our wealth, prosperity, character (and tourist value) means New Zealand needs to get off its bum and start saving face!!

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