Why Our Historic Buildings Are Important

Up until February 22nd, 2011, the city of Christchurch was a unique, historic and cultural living and breathing entity. Inherited from a long list of valuable contributors dating back to its inception in the 1850s, the buildings and spaces of the city were significant cultural landmarks which served generations of citizens. Each wall, facade and interior were like looms which the threads of time and social associations entwined around.

However, forty seconds of ground shaking on February 22nd, 2011 broke the loom, and our city fell apart, leaving us only with memories and residue of what once stood here. Gone are the historic buildings that men, women and children walked past, the old interiors they shopped in, the cafes they ate in, the churches they prayed in, the schools they were educated in and the offices they worked in.

On a deeper subconscious level, the loss of such a tangible cultural and historic scape is devastating. Our city was a strong narrative which not only provided a place to live in but gave each of us an identity, a sense of permanence and an attachment to where we belonged. It also served as a storage facility of stored social memories and of humanized experiences which every person who has ever lived here has been able to contribute by merely being a part of it.

Now in post quake mode, as the city is slowly reveals its ruined self, we must accept the the gaping spaces and empty lots and realise that a part of our identity, memory and intergenerational link to the past is severed. What was once a familiar and ‘taken for granted’ backdrop has gone and and deeply formed attachments, past memories of our city are in the past.

Cities are always changing entities as old buildings are replaced by new structures. However, the fact that vast spaces and frameworks of Christchurch are now being removed means that there is such total devastation of a familiar environment that it will be difficult to recognise.

As we look to visionaries for new ideas on how to rebuild, we must consider the issues: – do we try to maintain what was or completely extinguish the memory of what was. The shared experiences and collective memory which have existed since the city was born are real in each of our minds. They are integral to our identity as Christchurch citizens and remain a valuable and culturally significant form of understanding ourselves as Christchurchians.

This idea is backed by the theoriest, Crinson who believes that shared memory and lived experiences shapes urban memory and defines a “city as a physical landscape and collection of objects and practices that enable recollections of the past and that embody the past through traces of the city’s sequential building and rebuilding.”

Another theorist, J. B. Jackson believes that citizens identify themselves in the buildings around them. “What the world as a mirror revealed was clear enough: art, architecture, the hierarchical social order, the order of the cosmos itself, all reflected the human form, its proportions, the interdependence of its organs and members, its divine origin.”

Christchurch was designed on a drained swamp to become a human proportioned Utopia whose took timeless architectural features and ideas taken from the past would connect the shared memory and identity of the citizens at that time.

When significant and sudden destruction occurs, whether man made or of the natural kind, the lack of presence of what was lost acts “like a flash bulb and imprints particular architectural environments on the photosensitive plates of our minds.” When regimes culturally destroy cities or heritage monuments that were key stones to memory and cultural identity, what is most noticeable is what the lost architecture is replaced with and how the urban fabric which affects memory and identity is replaced or redefined.

After the World Trade Towers in New York, USA were annihilated, the familiar forms that once stood against the skyline, remain imprinted in the collective memory just as clearly as if they were still standing. They also take on a stronger symbolism – that of America’s power and financial strength.

Bevan believes that “rebuilding can be as symbolic as the destruction that necessitates it… the blank slate that follows allows for new memories and identities to be formed. Monuments such as places of worship, libraries, and fountains of everyday life – by their rebuilding can become new, intentional monuments to the events that caused their destruction.”

However, the re-creation of spaces does not always tell the truth. The rebuilding is able to tell a completely new story that would not have been possible without the destruction. The cases in which the rebuilding programs allowed a new story to be told are as numbered as the examples of destruction.

There are many routes rebuilding programmes can follow to restore lost architecture. A city can be restored to its pre-destruction self, it can be a complete break from the past or it can be a combination of the destruction and renewal. Bevan makes the case that many countries rebuilt significant monuments which had been destroyed during the war without differing features or additions. Although rebuilt works are falsifications, they do create a sense of continued existence and history despite what occurred in the interim. For much of post-war Europe, this was the means followed to restore lost identity and past.

So if the destruction of a city erases our identity – is it any different that an attempted rebuilding process will erase it also? Buildings that are integral to Christchurch’s history have now disappeared. Since memory is not only about the present but also the absent we must consider whether the destruction of culturally significant architecture be replaced or rebuilt.

If we ignore and erase the events that have taken place, are we learning any lessons from the destruction that occurred? Creating false memories and identities rather than confronting the realities are as harmful as the destruction. There is a way to confront the problem of erasing the destruction.

Systematic destruction and subsequent rebuilding of culturally significant architecture is not the only means by which memory and identity is destroyed. Many post-industrial cities face the same dilemmas of choosing how to remember lost memories and identities. These post-industrial towns are the current hot spots for urban revitalization. Future rebuilding plays an equally important role in shaping memory and identity so care and consideration in successfully rebuilding or replacing lost historic buildings must be made to avoid Disneyfying a city and its true identity.

Rebuilding Christchurch should be done by those who truly acknowledge the identity and memory in a complete, honest, and tangible way.

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