Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Renewing an ancient vision

Design concepts for the new ChristChurch Cathedral reflect traditional and contemporary traditions.

Warren and Mahoney  |  03 Apr 2013

The design concepts for the new ChristChurch Cathedral are the result of a deep exploration of Anglican traditions – both of worship and the architecture of the faith’s places of worship.

The designs consider the traditional and the contemporary to be equally important at this point in the history of the church and the city.

A new or rebuilt cathedral represents a new beginning in the 21st Century as well as an opportunity to reflect on and remember the past.

The ChristChurch Cathedral is both a building of civic importance – representing the regeneration of New Zealand’s second largest city – and a place of quiet contemplation in which a single individual can contemplate his or her faith.

Over a process of many months a wide range of design approaches have been considered - all informed by the development of overarching Diocese Design Guidelines and the Cathedral ‘Functional Brief’; together with the experience of last year’s international Study Tour and subsequent Cathedral Conversations public consultation.

Potential design directions have ranged from a close reinstatement of what has been lost through to contemporary forms, each interpreting the traditions of gothic planning, volume and structural form to varying degrees.

Purely sculptural and contemporary opportunities were discussed but dismissed through discussion with the bishop and her senior team on the basis that they would fail to capture the essence of tradition in the city and of the faith.

Bishop Matthews provided clear insight for a design direction by concisely stating that the design options developed must embody “renewed ancient vision” – a concept that began a reconsideration of scale and height, of carefully considered use of natural light, references to New Zealand culture and a desire to see the forms and materials of the nature represented in the designs.


Restored Cathedral in Original Materials

  • The faithful reconstruction of the original cathedral based on the original form and materials.
  • Restoration of destroyed physical fabric and collective community memory associated with the original cathedral.
  • Restoration of one of the city’s most recognised physical icons
  • Highest estimated cost due to seismic strengthening, intensity of detailing and materials involved.
  • Can be designed to achieve Building Code compliant levels of safety but will not be as seismically resilient as a new building.

Design Commentary

Option 1 replaces the lost fabric of the original cathedral but adds seismic resilience through significant changes to the buildings structure.

This option offers the opportunity to directly replace the physical architecture and spatial qualities of the lost cathedral and in doing so may satisfy the impulse to restore a recognised icon for the city.

However, the literal reconstruction of this form and spatial layout also reinstates the compromises that were imbedded in the original building. The original building offered compromised audience configurations and sightlines, limited acoustic qualities, limited flexibility and accommodation for community use and varying audience needs.

The original building was also physically exclusive - with a heavy facade and minimal entry gestures - and was therefore not particularly engaged in the life of the Square or the wider city.

Option 1 reinstates the original interior complete with masonry linings and heavy timber roof structures, and so returns a prominent landmark to reality.

Option 1 is likely to be the most expensive of the options explored because of the complexity of materials used, the weight of building fabric and the level of craftsmanship involved, and the time required to achieve this. 


Re-interpretation of Original ‘Gothic’ Form and Massing 

  • The original form is reconstructed using a timber-based structure with contemporary cladding materials.
  • The building is more open and accessible through improved entry and ancillary buildings
  • Internal layout allows for improved sightlines, congregation configurations and, acoustics.
  • Design incorporates appropriately scaled spaces for visitor and community use.
  • High levels of seismic resilience can be incorporated.

Design Commentary 

Option 2 reinstates the scale and massing of the original building in a new structure which references the Gothic tradition in a lighter, less massive way.

This approach offers the opportunity to take advantage of new materials and modern seismic design while retaining the familiarity of form of the original cathedral. The design explores the ‘retained memory’ of the pre-earthquake cathedral and a more open and welcoming connection to the Square through higher levels of glazing and the incorporation of flexible community-oriented spaces.

The plan anticipates that some walls and elements of the old cathedral will be reinstated (or materials re-used) within the new building – a restored Rose Window is featured prominently in the western elevation offering an opportunity for continuity and remembrance within the reinterpreted form.

The existing bell tower is reinstated but in a contemporary manner using light cladding materials and a steel based structure. Some original building materials are reused in situ while others are reinstated after reengineering and reconstruction.

The primary structure for the main body of the cathedral is timber-based, generating a traditionally ‘gothic’ interior interpretation with pointed arches arranged in a traditional plan form.

There are acknowledged losses of heritage material, memory and continuity to this option. 


Contemporary Sculptural Form Based on Original Plan

An expressive, contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional gothic plan

  • The form is sculptural, more highly glazed and more open to better connect with the Square and the people of the city.
  • The interior spaces are re-ordered to allow for better audience participation, sight lines and acoustics.
  • A lightweight engineered timber structure reinterprets the gothic architectural tradition
  • High levels of seismic resilience can be incorporated.

Design Commentary

Option 3 explores the opportunity for the cathedral to be more interactive with its surroundings.

It maintains the general plan of the original cathedral while creating a sculptural and singular form which addresses the Square in a welcoming way, with a large vestibule and courtyards.

The plan anticipates that some walls and elements of the old cathedral will be reinstated (or materials re-used) within the new building, however there are acknowledged losses of heritage material, memory and continuity to this option.

A restored Rose Window is featured prominently in the western elevation offering an opportunity for continuity and remembrance within a contemporary form. Importantly, the building’s spatial sequences and volumes will be similar to those of the old cathedral, providing a further level of familiarity between old and new.

This cathedral is a ‘new generation’ building, however, utilising all of the available materials, technologies and current knowledge to provide a safe, durable and flexible place for both worship and a range of community activity.

The cathedral interior builds on the gothic tradition of uplifting space and pointed arch structural elements. These themes are interpreted in a contemporary way using engineered timber structure and veneered acoustic panels for improved seismic and acoustic performance.

A contemporary tower replicates the scale of the original and accommodates the belfry and viewing platform. However, the tower structure is open and transparent, deliberately breaking down mass and scale in favour of opportunities for expressive materiality and lighting.

The tower is seen as a contemporary counterpart for the traditional plan and interior architecture of the main cathedral.