Alexander Gillespie: Church heritage important to us all

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Damaged cathedrals of international significance but Christchurch must decide their fate.

Many believe the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament to be the finest Renaissance-style building in New Zealand. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Many believe the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament to be the finest Renaissance-style building in New Zealand. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Heritage is a word that refers to something which is often unique and irreplaceable and is inherited from the past. It provides communities with assets that are rich in terms of continuity, identity and economic potential.

People in this country understand most types of heritage. Our relationship with natural heritage is second to none but our relationship with cultural heritage is not so secure.

Culture, is a word that relates to a process of cultivation or improvement. When it is applied to discussions about heritage, it can be either tangible or intangible.

Tangible cultural heritage is that which was built by earlier generations. At the global level, the protection of such types of heritage is promoted through two conventions. New Zealand is not a signatory to the convention on intangible heritage, but has signed that on world heritage.

The World Heritage Convention, and the 190 countries that have agreed to it aims to recognise, protect and pass on to the next generation, the tangible parts of natural and cultural heritage, as found in 962 sites which possess outstanding universal value.

It is for this reason that when important cultural heritage is destroyed, such as by earthquakes or tsunamis, that the global family responds with multiple types of assistance. They do this because the loss of cultural heritage of outstanding universal value is a matter of concern for the immediate community, the nation, and the people of the world.

Similarly, when wars destroy cultural heritage it is not only deemed a crime if the destruction is done intentionally, but restoration, wherever possible, is seen as a foremost goal in the creation of peace once the conflict is over. In acts of war or acts of god, the revitalisation of cultural property is often considered essential for both the memory and future of communities that have suffered trauma.

New Zealand consistently undervalues its cultural heritage. In terms of World Heritage Australia lists 18 sites, including four of cultural value, but New Zealand has only three sites, and none of cultural value. The list of sites we are thinking of trying to get inscribed is both cautious and timid when it comes to cultural property. Parts of Christchurch had the potential to be World Heritage before the earthquakes.

This lack of confidence at the global level is despite our own legislation that has tried to follow best international practice.

The register compiled by the Historic Places Trust has two categories. A Category 1 place is deemed to be of special or outstanding historical or cultural significance of value to the country. Between 2000 and 2012, six Category 1 properties were lost to fires, demolitions and/or redevelopments while in Christchurch the earthquakes claimed 41 Category 1 sites, including two cathedrals.

"Cathedral" is a word with both French and Greek ancestry, which broadly means "seat". With distant roots in the basilicas of fourth century Rome, they evolved into the grand designs most of them still share, around the 11th century.

Many of these were the equivalent of Nasa projects of their age.

Cathedrals can be places of great spiritual, philosophical and cultural value, offering people peace and sanctuary. Many who have been able to visit Notre Dame in Paris, St Paul's in London, or Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona will be familiar with these feelings.

Cathedrals are intended to be imposing and beautiful and before the rise of the modern city they encompassed the heights of power, peace and art, often dominating the landscape. Where there was religious competition, the grandeur could reach even greater heights. This was the case in New Zealand and Christchurch in particular.

This began when the Anglicans sought the best building possible and engaged one of the most famous architects of his age, the Englishman Sir George Gilbert Scott. Anyone who has wandered through London will know his work, if not his name. The design for the magical St Pancras railway station (where the Eurostar is based) came from the same pen that came up with the Anglican Cathedral of Christchurch.

Catholics, not to be outdone, built the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (often known as the Christchurch Basilica) in reply. This masterpiece was designed by one of the defining New Zealand architects of his age, Francis Petre, and the basilica is arguably his finest work.

It is believed by many to be the finest Renaissance-style building in New Zealand, if not Australasia.

Both cathedrals were severely damaged. Whether they can be repaired, and if so to what standard, is a question beyond the scope of this article. If they can be repaired, we owe it to future generations to do our utmost to do so.

While the decisions will have to be made in Christchurch they affect us all because they are our heritage, past, present and future.

Our benchmark of response should not be to accept these disasters as a fait accompli, but rather, if we believe our cultural heritage to be of international value, to ask ourselves what others would do. How would the French respond if two of their Paris cathedrals lay in ruins?

Alexander Gillespie is professor of law at Waikato University and former Rapporteur for the World Heritage Convention.

* Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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