SAVE OUR SOUL

A MANIFESTO FROM THE WIZARD

I am taking this unprecedented step of writing a manifesto and addressing it to the people of Christchurch as I regard this as a time of spiritual as well as material crisis for us all. How we respond to it will determine the future of our city for generations to come.

The earthquake virtually wiped out the centre of our city. Plans are being made now for building a new city centre. What are the chances that it will be a city to be proud of and which will attract the much needed tourists vital to our limited economy? Things do not look hopeful. The morale of the citizens has never been lower and the handling of the crisis, although initially beyond criticism, has not taken enough account of the plight of the small entrepreneurs who are an important part of our fundamental economic base. Residents, particularly in the Eastern Suburbs, have had their lives disrupted and their futures placed in jeopardy and need to be reassured and distracted from concentrating too much on their woes.

Since 1974 and the opening of the reorganised Cathedral Square, I have been performing every weekday lunch-time, from late Spring to early Autumn and have become in the process a kind of living icon of Christchurch. I have earned the grudging respect of many people who have little interest in my psychological and sociological theories etc. which I expound with much theatrical emphasis rather than moral force. My appointment as Wizard of Christchurch by the City Council in the early 1980s and as Wizard of New Zealand by the Prime Minister in 1990 made Christchurch unique in the world. Thousands of public servants are busy serving the physical and mental needs of the people. With no job, no social welfare number and with a recent modest honorarium from the City Council, I am able to live out my life without being beholden to anybody purely economically, I simply serve the city’s soul.

THE UNIQUE ORIGINS OF CHRISTCHURCH

Christchurch is no ordinary city. It was a mid-Victorian settlement not built on a trade route or founded as an important military position. Its foundation was based on a deep love of England. There was a serious fear at this time that another European tyrant, like Napoleon, might succeed in their invasion plans and obliterate their beloved Anglican England. Under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury a group of gentlefolk and their servants established Christchurch as a safe haven on the other side of the Earth; an England in the South Seas.

THE SOUL OF CHRISTCHURCH

Building on a swamp near an essential safe harbour and under the guidance of the fine architect Benjamin Mountfort, the Canterbury Pilgrims set about realising their beautiful Gothic paradise inspired by the humane vision of John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. The state of the human soul was of vital concern to Ruskin who influenced many people including Ghandi and Labour Party leaders like Clement Atlee. Fine wooden and stone churches, a magnificent set of Provincial Government buildings, libraries and schools and other essential urban structures were erected in the swamp whilst the citizens lived in comparatively humble dwellings. Later a rail tunnel through the volcanic ridge linked the harbour with the town and its fertile gardens. The founders designed the future city around the Avon River and laid out a central park and botanical gardens as both a green lung for the city and recreation facility.

DECLINE

Canterbury’s economy was increasingly dominated by the economically booming Auckland and soon lost its provincial government to the new capital in Wellington. The growth of these cities in the distant North Island, whose vision was mainly economic, began to affect the Gothic Anglican soul of Christchurch. Towards the end of the century banks and other buildings in the heavy classical style of architecture began to dominate the delicate Gothic structures. At the turn of the Twentieth Century the socially conscious architect and disciple of Mountfort, Samuel Hurst Seager, working within the Arts and Crafts movement, expanded the Gothic vision. This movement partly inspired the Labour Governments world-leading NZ State Housing programme. For a short time many fine private houses were built in this style before being briefly succeeded by the fairly attractive Art Deco style, which was rather too symmetrical, used factory produced components. and suffered from leaky roofs. There has been no genuine aesthetic style of architecture since, just “fashion statements” and/or clever engineering.

SOULS TURNING INTO MACHINES

After the First World War people in New Zealand and all over the western world were turning away from identification with the wider community and turning their affection and interest towards their own private lives and private homes. The institutions of organised religion and high culture had traditionally been supported by the landed gentry and professional classes. These were now being portrayed as “elitist” and therefore undesirable in the increasingly influential mass media and mass secular education systems with their new religion of conformity-based equality. Weakening of these traditional institutions led to the rise of a new economic elite driven largely by greed and vulgar display of their wealth. In his masterpiece “Erewhon”, first published in Christchurch in “The Press” in the 1860s, Samuel Butler joked that classical style banks were replacing the form and function of gothic style churches in deciding the meaning of life. Finally all style was abandoned. Architects lost their professional responsibility and designed cost-effective, soul-less buildings devoid of cultural meaning and abstracted from their built environment. Beauty was replaced by displays of engineering cleverness. In schools of architecture Gothic was not even offered as a subject. In Christchurch the unique ensemble of gothic buildings of the old university and surroundings was subjected to the intrusion, or attempted intrusion, of soul-destroying buildings designed to be “functional machines”. In industrial society Utilitarian Scientific Materialism as a way of seeing the world replaced the Romantic view of Nature, and Social Darwinism justified both brutal Capitalism and brutal Socialism.

IS SOUL-DESTROYING UTILITARIANISM UNSTOPPABLE?

Materialistic utilitarianism as a sufficient justification of life’s meaning strips away the spiritual side of humanity leaving a despairing ugliness, a retreat into private life, and escapist tourism to far away cities that are still beautiful. Essential factories and office blocks can be designed for beauty as well as functionality and can be located fairly close to the city centre (but not intruding in it) without destroying the soul of the city, provided they are not vulgar dominating displays of size and height. Private and public housing need not be an uncontrolled mixture of clashing styles nor rigid geometrical insect colonies. Stopping the construction of houses built on skylines which destroy the views enjoyed by hundreds of people is an obvious town planning need. Highway construction has proved a terrible disaster all over the world and traffic engineers are practising what appears to be a pseudo science.

Over the past fifty years dozens of our limited number of our historic old buildings that were going to be demolished with the backing of the Christchurch City Council were only saved by the heroic actions of voluntary associations of private individuals, such as the Christchurch Civic Trust and the Save Our Arts Centre movement. Many other fine buildings were demolished in spite of public outcry from those who loved our once-beautiful city. Look at the buildings that replaced them! Look at what happened to my beloved Cathedral Square over the past thirty years! Now a desolate waste-land where no one lingers!

On the basis of our experience since the 1950s we cannot put our trust in the City Council town planners, the professional architects and their closed-shop journals (where they dazzle us with magical rhetoric into believing their brutal buildings are beautiful) and even the Historic Places Trust (now no longer a citizens’ body) who are preparing to seize control of building the new Christchurch.

The world is covered in monstrous, unfriendly and soul-less concrete, glass and steel “functional containers”. The ugly modern monotony of almost identical airports, shopping malls, and office blocks must not be allowed to engulf the once beautiful centre of Christchurch like a tsunami. The forces of unimaginative conformity are powerful. Not only are decisions about what happens in our province no longer made in Canterbury, some aren’t even being made in New Zealand! Huge, wealthy multinational corporations seize every chance they can get to coerce or bribe civic authorities to build identical outlets for identical goods in identical shopping precincts. Unique shops full of character, with interested staff, have been the main victims of the earthquake (after the old churches) and will not be considered in the planned rebuild unless there is a radical change in civic and national government thinking.

WHAT MUST WE DO TO BE SAVED?

The only way to prevent the death of the unique soul of Christchurch at the hands of uninspired developers who are itching to grab this opportunity to build their trendy idea of a new “cutting-edge” Christchurch is to agitate for a revolutionary change in thinking and feeling which will stun the world and bring tourists in great numbers. Voluntary associations of concerned people like the Christchurch Civic Trust, the Save Our Arts Centre movement and the Canterbury Arts and Heritage Trust are our only hope. We must dare to do the unthinkable and defy the unimaginative dullards who control our purse strings and go back to the vision of the Canterbury Pilgrims for inspiration. The gothic style embraces many different forms and materials. If you want to exorcise the modernist demon, cry out “Let’s Go Gothic”!

There is no need to rush into making a colossal irreversible mistake. We can use temporary prefabricated buildings in the city centre and take our time. Urgent economic structures can be put up nearer to the airport. No more tall buildings in the city centre, they are unsuitable for our subsoil and we don’t need them. Let the spire of the Cathedral tower over our city again. Lower buildings, many built of wood, with sprinkler systems and fireproof walls are ideal. We need Gothic spires to lead our hopes upward and carved decorative figures to keep us human. If we can match Mountfort’s magnificent Provincial Council Chambers, built within fifteen years of the arrival of the Canterbury Pilgrims but now a ruin, we can be proud of ourselves and we will have kept our souls. Maybe one day we can have our provincial government back and no longer be a colony of an indifferent Auckland?

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL WELFARE OF THE PEOPLE

The people themselves must bring about that transformation of consciousness. What Viktor Frankl, the existential psychologist and pioneer “logotherapist”, learned from his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp is that people cannot survive great hardship unless they can call upon their own cultural meaning to sustain them.Although the built environment we live in affects our sense of meaning and well-being, there are other things that make a difference to our mental and spiritual health. After the fear aroused by the earthquakes and many months of aftershocks plus the stress of living for weeks without potable water and functioning toilets there is going to be a rise in stress related mental illnesses. People must come first after the restoration of essential services. The people of Christchurch particularly those living in the Eastern Suburbs and those small business men and women located in the devastated CBD must be given priority.

We desperately need a Fun Revolution, a “Cheer-up Campaign” involving local small scale musical and dramatic performances, sing-alongs, do-it-yourself skiffle style bands, ukulele orchestras etc. The Eastern Band has already been leading the way. The cathedral choirs and other church choirs have lost their homes and are therefore free to perform wherever they are welcomed. Twitter and Face-book are the ideal ways to coordinate and publicise such small scale local “Cheer-up” activities. Do it yourself, don’t wait for the CCC and their Events Team to help. For some time now they have had a poor record of reaching out into the community and using experienced local talent.

TRAINING IN CRAFT SKILLS – HELPING LOCAL PEOPLE TO REBUILD THEIR OWN CITY

Many people lost their jobs in the disaster and will be forced to live on unemployment benefits for some time. Provided they pledge to stay in Christchurch they could be given training in the craft skills of working in stone, wood, glass, ceramics and metal that will be needed in the labour-intensive construction of a beautiful city with soul. Remember Harry Ells who, with Hurst Seager, developed the wayside “Signs” on the Port Hills walking tracks to give employment to craftsmen thrown out of work during the depression. Those who see everything in terms of money should consider the future rewards of such a long term plan in terms of the vital income generated by tourists. Imagine the tourist potential of such a truly new direction in 21st Century architecture. Another Barcelona but a hundred years later! Who would travel thousands of miles to see yet more boxes of steel and concrete, and acres of plain glass!

SAVE OUR SOUL “LET’S GO GOTHIC”
Christchurch 22/3/11

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