Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Neighbors of the Cathedral

The Press.
FRIDAY, MARCH 17, 1865.

The foundations of the Cathedral are now complete, and the walls are about to be commenced. Let us hope that in spite of all the objections we have made to the course taken by the Commissioners, they have been right and we have been wrong, and that the liberality of the public will enable the work to be advanced with reasonable expedition. The Cathedral when complete will be the distinguishing feature of the city, and especially of Colombo street and its neighbourhood.

It is therefore a matter of some anxiety to those who have any care for the beauty of our town, what sort of buildings are likely to spring up in the immediate neighbourhood of the Cathedral. We do not speak of wooden structures; they are but temporary, and fires and decay will in a few years rid us of their presence. But the era of wooden buildings is rapidly passing away. Stone is now supplied at such a cost as to tempt many persons to adopt a more durable style of architecture, and before long the Little River tramway will still further lower the price of stone. The buildings now erected in stone will stamp the architecture of the city for many a long year to come.

It is, then, with the utmost regret that we see large and wealthy public companies introducing into our town buildings which have nothing whatever to recommend them but their magnitude and cost. One such eye-sore has already reared its head in the shape of the Union Bank of Australia — a square box of brick, plastered over with a thin coating of cement; admirably fitted in the interior with all the conveniences which such institutions require; with an extremely handsome panelled ceiling in the public room, and massive woodwork in desks and counters, such as properly symbolise the wealth, the respectability, and the financial solidity of the well-ordered corporation whose business is transacted within the walls. Externally, all must admit, the Union Bank is nothing more than a rather big safe. It is a monument to the skill and industry of the bricklayer, the carpenter, and the plasterer; the genius and taste of the architect appears no where in the structure.

Another building of a similar kind is about to be constructed on the very best site in Christehurch for the display of a noble building. The corner section in Cathedral Square, having three frontages, one to the Square, one to Colombo street, one to Hereford street, belongs io the Bank of New Zealand, an institution whose rapid rise and enormous business have surprised even those who formed the most sanguine expectations of its future, and reflect the utmost credit on the skill and sagacity of those who direct its fortunes. Of no Institution has New Zealand more right to be proud. It is an integral part of the colony founded on its fortunes and partaking of its progress. The Bank of New Zealand, which has hitherto transacted its business in a very modest and gloomy little cottage in Cashel street, is about to house itself in a manner more becoming the loftiness of its present estate; and by the kindness of the Manager we have been allowed to inspect the plans which have been prepared, by a Melbourne architect, for the occupation of the site which we have described. We have no hesitation in saying that we were greatly disappointed to see that this prominent position in the town is about to display a building of the Union Bank school.

The design is of the square box or safe character. It is of no known style of architecture at all — if at least that word includes the general form and treatment of a building, and not only its subordinate details. In the ornaments, the style would be perhaps called Grecian, so far at least as that there are two porticos with columns, and capitals, and pediments and so on. Indeed we believe there are three, one on each front. In other respects we should describe the architecture as of that popular order which may be called the style of the British carpenter. There is no difficulty in procuring such designs in any country town in England by the yard, or page, or quire, as required.

It was unnecessary to trouble the palace builders of Melbourne with such a trifle, because there is not a carpenter in Christchurch who can handle a foot rule, who would not produce a design in a few hours quite as meritorious in point of architecture. We write strongly and anxiously on this point. It will be a very great pity should the noble Cathedral which is about to be reared after the design of the greatest master of the age, be spoiled by the juxtaposition of a building utterly unworthy of the city, of the site, and of the spirited and wealthy corporation who are about to inhabit it.

Let us not be thought impertinent or presumptuous if we plead with the Bank of New Zealand for the beauty of our city. We complain not in a spirit of carping or criticism, but with a real desire to see truth and beauty in Art recognised. Why should we in Christchurch be behind the rest of our countrymen? Why should we act in ignorance of all that the artists, and lovers of Art, and critics have achieved in the last few years in England. We are not now indigent squatters on an unreclaimed waste, but the architects, social and political, of an important State. We listen nightly to the voice of the same great actor whose genius has entranced the metropolis of the empire to which we belong. We can get a dinner, if we chose to pay for it, as well cooked as at Verey's or Gunter's. The old Italian operas, which we thought had been a dream, of a past life never to be lived again, were but the other day once more delighting our ears. We go from place to place to transact our business in Hansom cabs as well appointed as the best in London. Our pen is even now flying over the paper under a bright and steady gaslight, and the words will, in a few hours, be multiplied for the edification of our readers and the comfort of our own pockets by the same machinery as in the centres of wealth and civilization. We read our Times and Athenceum, and derive the same information from our Builder and our Illustrated News as the inhabitants of any other part of the Empire. Why, then, we ask, should we be erecting public buildings in a school which is being rejected as false and base by all the education of the age in which we live If we are advancing so rapidly in all, other respects, why lag behind in our architecture.

The Greeks had an architecture of their own—little, indeed, understood by us. The Romans had an architecture developed from the Greek. Their buildings grew out of the peculiar genius of the people — it was moulded on their tastes, their habits, their feelings, their country, their climate. The north of Europe produced also, at a later age in the world's history, its architecture. That, too, sprung out of the mental peculiarities of the race, was adapted to their country and climate, reflected their genius, was entwined with their history; and not the least glorious development of Gothic Art took place on English soil. But there came a time when Englishmen, or those who guided the public taste, looked down on the works of their ancestors, and Gothic Art was abandoned for what was called the classical. Then arose such incongruities and abominations as bits, of Greek temples and Roman porticos stuck on to old Gothic village churches. Then descended upon the Metropolis the gloomy uniformity of squares and streets, with dead walls and straight rows of windows, and Gothic spires were stuck on the top of Greek porticos, and English gentlemen in Roman togas balanced themselves in the top of spires. From this false taste — this coxcombry — this aping of forms which are unsuitable to our uses, the youth of England roused itself, some quarter of a century since, to restore a reverence for the genius of her own people and a love for her own Art — that Gothic Art which is entwined with her history, grew with her growth, recorded her greatness and adorned her religion. It was in Gothic cathedrals, not in imitations of heathen temples, that the men preached and worshipped who emancipated the soul of England from the tyranny of Rome. It was under Gothic roofs that charters of liberty were sealed, and in Gothic halls that tyrants and their tools heard their doom. The artists of the present era have returned to the study of Gothic Art as if to the study of the very genius of the people who laid deep and wide the foundation of their country's greatness; and the result of this study has been a larger advance in the knowledge of, and love for beauty in architecture, than at any other period in any country in the world. Let any one walk down Portland place or Wimpole street, and then walk down New Cannon street if he would realise what a study of the principles of English Art has achieved.

We therefore cannot avoid expressing our regret that such wealthy companies as the Bank of New Zealand should introduce into this city — and especially on so noble a site, close to the Gothic Cathedral — a building designed in a school which is passing away, which has been condemned as false and bad by the more educated taste of the present day. We ask the directors to take a file of the Illustrated News and see how many buildings have been erected in the last ten years in the sham classical school, and let them say if they recollect any buildings in that style to compare in beauty and grandeur with the productions of the last ten years. This is not a matter of artificial taste or fancy. The present revival in Art is one based on a deep study of the principles on which men worked who reared the cathedrals. It is not a fashion which comes and goes. It is a real revival depending on study and learning. Modern Gothic Art will change again; nay, it will ever change — ever develop itself with new necessities, and especially with new materials, and the more complete mastery over materials which mechanical invention bestows. But the future changes in architecture will never again depend upon the dicta of a morbid dilettanteism, nor ever again recur for inspiration to forms which sprung out of a civilization which has for ever passed away, and out of social and domestic conditions which have no relation to ours, and which were the symbols of a state of the human mind which we can now hardly comprehend.
Press, Volume VII, Issue 743, 17 March 1865, Page 2

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