Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Christchurch Town Hall restoration plan 'a masterpiece'

Media were given a tour of the quake-damaged Christchurch Town Hall today. Photo / Kurt Bayer
Media were given a tour of the quake-damaged Christchurch Town Hall today. Photo / Kurt Bayer

A restoration plan to save the earthquake-damaged Christchurch Town Hall, to be voted on by city councillors tomorrow, has been hailed as a "masterpiece" by the internationally acclaimed building's architect.

Sir Miles Warren says "everything must be done" to reopen the city centre building, located on the banks of the river Avon in downtown Christchurch.

Surrounded by empty lots where its once-proud neighbouring buildings have been demolished - deemed too battered by the quakes to survive - the category one listed Christchurch Town Hall stood up in the quakes.

Media were given a guided tour of the 41-year-old building today ahead of tomorrow's crunch council meeting to decide its future.

Standing in the entrance foyer, apart from a slight musty smell and ever-so-slightly sloping floor, superficial cracks in the marble tiles and occasional concrete beam, the building withstood the ferocity of the magnitude-6.3 jolt of February 22, 2011 "rather well", engineers told the media congregation.

It's been closed since that fateful day when 185 people died in the city, and its future has been a hot topic ever since.

Critics say that the Christchurch City Council's community, recreation and culture committee's preferred option to spend $127.5 million on a complete restoration is a waste of money. The maximum insurance contribution is $68.9m.

Some argue that just the main 2500-seat auditorium should be saved, while the smaller 1000-seat James Hay Theatre should go, as its acoustics aren't up to scratch for modern music concerts.

But under the proposed plan, everything will be rebuilt, including the auditorium, entrance foyer, Limes Room, The Boaters and the Cambridge Room, while acoustics will be upgraded in the James Hay Theatre.

Most of its damage was caused by liquefaction and lateral spreading of the ground towards the Avon River.

Patrick Cantillon, project manager of the proposed rebuild, said the building has dropped from 300mm in some areas, to 600mm in others.

"It surfed down towards the river," he said today.

"The building itself is quite robust. It's just the land beneath."

But cracks in concrete beams can be repaired with "injections", while the floors can be taken up, braces added to its weaker corners, and the ground strengthened below.

The council voted unanimously to repair the existing building to 100 per cent of the new building standard in November last year.

Sir Miles told APNZ that he believed the building - the "most important" he ever designed during his illustrious career - survived the quakes "remarkably well", and thought the only option open to councillors was a full repair job.

"It's the only building in New Zealand that has an international reputation as a work of architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

"You can't lop off a third of a building, and still say it's a top class building."

He moved to silence critics of the James Hay Theatre's sound quality, by saying it was designed for theatrical productions and the spoken word.

The proposed acoustic upgrades would mean that music gigs could be held there comfortably, he said.

"The Town Hall was conceived as a whole. If you take away the James Hay, and the encircling foyers, and the Limes room and so on, it ceases to be a functioning space."

Councillor Yani Johanson says it is important that the historic Town Hall is retained for future generations.

Michael Aitken, council's general manager community services, believes the plan will result in a town hall that will be "better than the one we started with".

The city council will also consider tomorrow whether to confirm the the development of a performing arts precinct should include the fully-restored town hall, a new Court Theatre, and homes for the Music Centre of Christchurch and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

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