Manchester Court, Christchurch. R.I.P.
It’s very sad writing an obituary for a building. But in a week’s time, this building will be no more.
Built in 1905, and at that time the tallest building in Christchurch, it’s the sort of building that for a century helped set the tone of downtown Christchurch. It has an elegance the boxes around it don’t have, and never will. You can imagine Philip Marlowe, or Mike Hammer, hanging out in his office in the corner window.
The building itself is a mongrel mixture of Chicago Style skyscraper and Grand Edwardian. A sort of low-rent visual mash-up of Gilbert Scott’s St Pancras Station and Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building.
What the architects, the Tasmanian Luttrell Brothers, have taken from the Edwardians is the lunettes, the corner “tourelle” windows, and the arched ornamentation on the lower stories. The Chicago contribution is the tall masonry piers and the proud vertical emphasis.
It must have been something to see when it went up in 1905. It was the first reinforced concrete commercial building in New Zealand. Sadly, however the reinforced concrete only goes from the foundations to the first floor (and engineering investigations since the quake have determined the reinforcing is not anything like what engineers would do now). And those masonry piers, which in Chicago would have hidden a steel frame, have proven under engineering investigation to contain little more than more masonry.
Which means that instead of a ductile frame absorbing the motion of the earthquake, with the cracks in the brick facade being merely cosmetic, those diagonal cracks you can clearly see are the structure itself breaking up under shear.
Yes, there are many modern building that look no worse on the surface than this, but behind the damaged surface in most modern buildings is a structure taking the loads. But look at the surface of this building: it is the structure. And the structure has lost its integrity.
So, sadly, unless either the owner or his insurers were to undertake some very expensive and very difficult strengthening, (and very time-consuming, with falling masonry all the while) the only logical decision to make is demolition, and as soon as possible before more masonry comes down.
Which means that one of Christchurch’s few defining beauties will soon disappear. It sets a high standard for the architects selected to design its replacement.