Historical Significance or Value
The Christchurch Town Hall has special historical significance as it represents the culmination of a century-long quest to construct a town hall that was appropriate to the city’s sense of its own identity and its needs. Its site, on the north side of Victoria Square, continues the long tradition of civic and governmental occupation in this part of the city and, through the naming of the Limes Room, it perpetuates the connection of the site with the early history of private medical practice in the city through the lime trees planted by the prominent early medical practitioner, Dr James Irving, who planted four lime trees in front of his two storey brick residence on the north side of Market Square. Dr Irving’s house later became part of The Limes private hospital that opened in 1904. The name of the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium recognises the association with the site of the distinguished New Zealand composer of that name.
The naming of the James Hay Theatre also recognises the prominent Christchurch businessman, local politician and philanthropist, Sir James Hay (1888-1971). Hay was a prominent and innovative manager of the eponymous Christchurch department store and was, from 1958 onwards, a driving force behind the town hall project and played a key role in generating public support for it.
Because of the connection between the design and construction of the Christchurch Town Hall and the simultaneous development by Harold Marshall of his hypothesis of lateral sound reflections within the science of concert hall acoustics, and its subsequent application and testing in the completed building, the auditorium is of special historical importance. It demonstrated that elliptical concert halls could, contrary to previous opinion, achieve a high level of acoustic performance, equal to that achieved in the traditional ‘shoebox’ form of concert hall. It was recognised internationally, along with the Tanglewood Music Shed (1959) and the Berlin Philharmonie (1962) as one of the three transitional buildings that pointed the way forward towards a new range of possibilities in concert hall design.
During the period from September 1972 until February 2011 the entire complex was in regular use for musical, civic and community events. As such it was the setting for innumerable important events in the cultural and social life of the city, adding further to its historical significance.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The Christchurch Town Hall exhibits outstanding aesthetic significance. It has qualities that are considered to be especially pleasing and directly associated with activities thrilling to visual and aural senses, eliciting an emotional response from a wide range of people.
The building has well documented visual appeal, and is recognised in numerous publications for its success as an integrated aesthetic whole through a conscious ‘total design’ architectural philosophy. Architects and writers point to the unified vision including its clearly defined palette of materials and careful integration on its site adjacent to the Avon River. An example of this is the terracing of the steps which lead down to the level of the reflecting pool in which the Ferrier Fountain stands, and the cantilevering of the Avon and Limes Rooms over the water. The Ferrier Fountain itself produces a diaphanous play of water jets that contrast with the solidity of the built structures, contributing to the aesthetic appeal of the total site.
The building is the venue for highly acclaimed and awe-inspiring auditory and visual performances, enhanced by the renowned acoustics and design of the building. These range from symphonic music performed in a darkened hall within which the audience sits in reverential silence through to the more rambunctious reception of other musical forms performed in the Christchurch Town Hall. The building is intimately associated with these performances, and both performers and concert-goers have specifically talked of their pride in the place and how it makes them feel.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Christchurch Town Hall exhibits outstanding architectural significance. It is an exemplar of the translation of the British architectural movement of Brutalism to the New Zealand environment through its use of utilitarian materials directly expressed and through its clear expression of the architectural programme set out in the brief for the Christchurch Town Hall competition, from which it emerged as the clear winner. The building received the N.Z.I.A.’s Gold Medal award in 1972 and an N.Z.I.A. Enduring Architecture award in 2000, indicating that its architects’ peers assessed it as being of outstanding architectural quality. The building is also an outstanding survivor of what was known as the Christchurch School of New Zealand architecture, the locally based movement from the mid 1950s through to the late 1970s in which Christchurch architects developed a locally inflected modernism that was seen as exceptional within the New Zealand of that time.
The Douglas Lilburn Auditorium was, within the development of concert hall design of the late 1960s and early 1970s, recognised internationally as a successful solution for a building type, the parameters of which had been undermined through post World War Two attempts to find a modern paradigm to replace the nineteenth-century ‘shoebox’ concert hall form. Within the local context it was immediately recognised as ‘a space that will be quite a new experience for a New Zealand audience’.
The Christchurch Town Hall’s complex of interconnected structures was conceived as an integrated whole and is an example of the architectural philosophy of ‘total design’ in which every element of the building has been consciously designed and carefully integrated with its site.
Despite the extensive interventions into the structure following the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011 to carry out site remediation, seismic strengthening, repair and restoration, the greater part of the original fabric remains intact. Where new materials have been introduced these have been carefully sourced to ensure compatibility with the original, and where reconstruction has occurred, enormous care has been taken to ensure that new work is comprehensively documented and virtually indistinguishable from old. The building possesses a very high level of architectural integrity.
Scientific Significance or Value
The Christchurch Town Hall has outstanding scientific value. It is inseparable from one of the fundamental breakthroughs in the science of acoustics in the twentieth century, the development of Harold Marshall’s theory of the importance of early lateral reflections in the design of concert halls. Marshall developed the theory during the assessment phase of the town hall competition and subsequently refined and validated it through laboratory testing and computer analysis of the auditorium design at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The theory was conclusively proven by the success of the acoustics in the completed Douglas Lilburn Auditorium when it opened in 1972. It has subsequently provided the springboard for later developments in the science of acoustics during the latter part of the twentieth century and up to the present day.
It is widely recognised that the development of Marshall’s theory of lateral sound reflection in concert halls is one of the most important advances in the science of acoustics since the recognition by Wallace Sabine in the 1890s of the key role played by reverberation time in creating desirable room acoustics.
Technological Significance or Value
The Christchurch Town Hall has outstanding technological significance. The Douglas Lilburn Auditorium was one of the first, if not the first, concert halls in the world in which the acoustic design was carried out with the aid of computers. The analysis of the hall’s acoustic properties across a wide range of positions within the space was conducted using a PDP6 ex-NASA computer at the acoustics laboratory set up by Professor Harold Marshall at the University of Western Australia. T.B. Ardagh, working under Marshall’s supervision, designed the computer programme for this analysis. The programme was also used to predict the likelihood of undesirable sound reflections, allowing these problem surfaces to be appropriately treated with sound absorbing materials. This was also a world first.
The structure of the town hall building is of significance as an example of the engineering work of the prominent Christchurch engineer, Lyall Holmes, and of the practice that he founded, then known as Holmes & Wood, now Holmes Consulting. The engineering design was developed in close conjunction with the architects’ vision and is an impressive example of engineering in the pre-computer design era, and also undertaken at a time when the understanding of seismic design principles was much less developed than it is today. It is an example of the engineering design practice of its era applied to a complex structure composed of many different elements. It is now recognised that ‘the original architects and engineers produced a credible design, which shows a clarity of thinking that is impressive….’ Even though the ‘design may have been “of its time” … the quality of the thought that went into it was in many respects ahead of its time.’
The post-earthquake repair of the building involved a series of highly sophisticated interventions into both the site and the structure of the building. The ground stabilisation and remediation of the site, developed by the geotechnical engineers, Tonkin + Taylor, involved the insertion of 1098 jet grouted piles below the existing building. This had not been done before for a building of this scale in New Zealand. Strengthening of the building also involved sophisticated computer analysis of the existing structure and innovative solutions to bring the building up to 100% of National Building Standard with minimal impact on the original architectural character of the building.
Cultural Significance or Value
The Christchurch Town Hall has outstanding cultural significance. It was built to serve the cultural and civic needs of the city and its wider community. From its opening in 1972 it became the city’s principal performance venue for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Harmonic Society and Royal Christchurch Music Society Choirs, later combined as the Christchurch City Choir. It served as the venue for music making across the spectrum of performance, ranging from school groups to leading national and international performers. These have included the New York Philharmonic, Russian State Symphony Orchestra and the Bolshoi Ballet and popular performers ranging from Carlos Santana to Crowded House, bringing a diversity of international cultural expression to the city. Important musical rituals, such as the annual Christmas performances of Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, and Christmas carol concerts also take place there.
Social Significance or Value
The Town Hall has special social importance. As well as holding performances, it is the venue for important rituals of social passage such as the graduation ceremonies of the University of Canterbury and the city’s other tertiary educational institutions, along with high school prize giving ceremonies. It was also an important venue for community educational events such as school science fairs and annual ‘Cantamath’ events.
For many new New Zealanders from a multitude of countries it is of significance as the venue for the citizenship ceremonies that welcomed them to their new country. More popular social phenomena such as the charity fundraising Telethons of the 1970s and 1980s also occurred there. It has also served as a venue for balls, conferences and commemorative events, including the civic memorial service for former Prime Minister, Norman Kirk. The fact that it is now popularly recognised as Christchurch’s ‘public living room’ reflects its centrality to the social and cultural life of the city.
Following a vigorous public campaign to retain the building following damage caused in the Canterbury Earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the Christchurch City Council decided to strengthen and restore the building in June 2015. It was reopened on 23 February 2019, eight years and one day after its closure. Many thousands of people have been delighted to come through its doors since it was reopened with much celebration in February 2019.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category 1 historic place. It was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, f, g, h, j, k.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history;
The Christchurch Town Hall is an outstanding example of a civic and performing arts complex and specifically of a concert hall that holds a unique place in the twentieth-century development of international concert hall design. It fulfilled Christchurch’s century-long aspiration to construct a town hall complex that would successfully meet the diverse needs that it was called upon to fulfil, both as a performance venue and for a diverse range of civic and social events.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history;
The building is the supreme expression of the combined architectural skills of the practice of Warren and Mahoney. In the clarity of its planning and the confidence of its formal expression it reveals the individual design skills of Sir Miles Warren, which were complemented by the ability of Maurice Mahoney to control, document and manage every aspect of a highly complex architectural programme with exceptional attention to detail. It also represents the collaboration of two highly skilled architects with an acoustic designer of exceptional brilliance in the person of Sir Harold Marshall. The building will forever be associated with the development of Marshall’s theory of lateral sound reflections as a key component of concert hall design from that time on. The James Hay Theatre is named after prominent Christchurch businessman, local politician and philanthropist who, from 1958 onwards, was a driving force behind the town hall project.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place;
The Christchurch Town Hall is held in the highest esteem by the citizens of Christchurch. This was demonstrated by the fact that a significant proportion of the cost of the building was met by community fund raising prior to its construction; by the consistent use of the entire facility throughout the years from 1972 to 2011; by the popular designation of the auditorium as the city’s ‘public living room’; by the upwelling of support for the retention of the building by the citizens of Christchurch when threatened with possible demolition following the 2011 earthquake; and by the rapturous reception given to the strengthened, restored and refurbished town hall following its reopening on 23 February 2019.
(f) The potential of the place for public education;
As a widely used public building of the highest architectural quality open to the entire community the Christchurch Town Hall has the ability to educate the public about the importance of high-quality design. It also demonstrates the capacity of New Zealanders to create works of architecture of international quality and thereby inspire future generations of architects. As a venue for public performance it also demonstrates the importance placed on the performing arts within a well balanced society and it is a vehicle for the dissemination of the culturally beneficial influence of the performing arts within that society.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place;
The Christchurch Town Hall demonstrates an especially high level of accomplishment as a result of its carefully thought out and tested acoustic design. In particular it demonstrates a fundamental breakthrough in the science of acoustics in the twentieth century that has been influential throughout the world ever since. The ‘total design’ architecture and engineering of the Christchurch Town Hall complex of interconnected structures is highly acclaimed. The construction was carried out to the highest standard by Chas. Luney Ltd when it was built between 1969 and 1972 and the standard of work carried out during the repair, seismic strengthening and restoration of the building between 2015 and 2019 is of a comparable quality.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place;
Within a very short time of its completion the town hall was recognised as a symbol of Christchurch, rivalling, if not displacing for a time, the city’s other best known building, Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Cathedral Square. It is without question the city’s most recognised and admired twentieth-century building. It also commemorates, through the naming of parts of the building, the composer, Douglas Lilburn, the businessman and philanthropist, Sir James Hay, and the Limes Hospital, an important part of Christchurch’s twentieth century medical history.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places;
The Christchurch Town Hall is probably unique in New Zealand as a work of architecture that changed the paradigm for the design of an important building type internationally. It is also now a relatively rare example of a phase of post-World War Two modernist architecture in Christchurch that has been significantly depleted by demolitions following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area;
The Christchurch Town Hall sits immediately north of the Victoria Square precinct within central Christchurch and was designed to fully integrate with its riverside site. This area includes the 1864 Victoria Street Bridge, the 1903 statue of Queen Victoria, the 1931 Bowker Fountain, the 1932 statue of Captain James Cook, and the cobbled horse watering ramp on the Avon River, all of which are scheduled heritage items in the Christchurch District Plan. It also forms part of the larger riverside precinct that extends from the former Canterbury Provincial Council Building past the former Magistrates’, High Court and Law Library buildings to the site of the Town Hall.
Summary of Significance or Values
The Christchurch Town hall is an outstanding example of a performing arts complex designed in the Brutalist style associated with post World War Two British modernism. It contains within this complex an auditorium of ground breaking architectural and acoustic design significance that is recognised internationally for the excellence of its architectural and acoustic qualities. The Christchurch Town Hall is recognised as a design of international significance in the scientific literature on the acoustic design of concert halls. It exhibits the collective skills of three distinguished New Zealanders, Sir Harold Marshall, Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney.
Early History of Christchurch
Christchurch and the wider area have a long history of Māori occupation. The vast network of wetlands and plains of Kā Pakihi Whakatekateka o Waitaha (Canterbury Plains) is inherently important to the history of its early occupation. The area was rich in food from the forest and waterways. Major awa (river) such as the Rakahuri (Ashley), Waimakariri, Pūharakekenui (Styx) and Rakaia were supplied from the mountain fed aquifers of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (Southern Alps). Other spring-fed waterways such as the Ōtakaro (Avon) meandered throughout the landscape. The rivers teemed with tuna, kōkopu, kanakana and īnaka; the wetlands were a good supply of wading birds and fibres for weaving, food and medicine; with the forest supplying kererū, kokopa, tūī and other fauna as well as building materials. Ara tawhito (travelling routes) crossed over the landscape providing annual and seasonal pathways up and down and across the plains and in some cases skirting or traversing the swamps. Permanent pā sites and temporary kāinga were located within and around the Plains as Ngāi Tahu established and used the mahinga kai sites where they gathered and utilised natural resources from the network of springs, waterways, wetlands, grasslands and lowland podocarp forests that abounded along the rivers and estuaries.
Two main kāinga were located in the wider area near what later became central Christchurch. These are known as Ōtautahi, a settlement near the corner of Kilmore and Barbadoes Streets and Puari, a settlement located near the Canterbury Provincial Chambers. Prior to the city’s foundation the Market Place (now Victoria Square) was a traditional site for trading between local Māori, with a small fishing encampment located on the northern side close to the Colombo Street Bridge.
Most of the Canterbury region was purchased from Ngāi Tahu by the Crown in 1848. The Canterbury Association oversaw the systematic European settlement of Canterbury and surveyed the town of Christchurch and rural sections outside of the town boundary.
Although European settlement occurred in the vicinity of Christchurch during the 1840s, most notably the Deans brothers at Riccarton from 1843, systematic settlement of the region only began in December 1850 with the arrival of the first contingent of Canterbury Association colonists. The land where the Christchurch Town Hall now stands formed part of the area designated as Market Place in the survey carried out by Captain Joseph Thomas and Edward Jollie for the Canterbury Association. The Market Place became a trading area for both Māori and Europeans. It appears in Edward Jollie’s Black Map 273 with the designation of Market Place, although sections 248 to 255, between the north side of Market Place and Kilmore Street and shown on Black Map 274 were later included in the overall site for the Town Hall. The site was bisected diagonally by both the River Avon and Whately Road (later Victoria Street), which is significant in the areas role as a travel route to and from the north of the city. The Avon River ran through the Market Place from southwest to northeast. The Papanui Bridge over the river was opened in March 1852, connecting the two sides of the Market Place and providing an important route to Papanui Bush, an essential source of timber for the emerging town. This was replaced in 1864 by the iron Victoria Bridge, which still stands.
From the city’s earliest development the Market Place was the site of public buildings. Christchurch’s first Post Office was constructed there in 1851. This was followed, in July 1852, by the first police station and lock-up, commencing the area’s long association with the administration of justice. Construction of the first Supreme Court in 1865 and of its stone replacement in 1869, on the west side of the square, consolidated this connection. At the far southwest corner of the square, along Armagh Street, the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings (1857-65) added to this cluster of public and governmental buildings on the periphery of the space.
Sections on the north side of Market Square were quickly taken up in 1850 and soon contained many small trades’ premises facing southwards to Market Square. Dr James Irving also had two storey brick residence here, in front of which he planted four lime trees. Dr Irving’s house later became part of The Limes private hospital that opened in 1904.
The Market Place was renamed Victoria Square on 25 May 1903 to coincide with the unveiling of the statue of Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. Francis Williamson’s bronze statue has stood in Victoria Square ever since, although it was relocated as part of the redesign of the square in 1988-89. As the twentieth century advanced the city’s commercial and administrative functions moved progressively southwards to Cathedral Square and Victoria Square evolved into an inner city park characterised by mature exotic trees with native planting along the river margin, an oasis of tranquillity within the bustle of the central city. This transformation was completed with the closure of Victoria Street between its intersections with Armagh and Durham Streets, through the construction of the Park Royal Hotel (later known as Crowne Plaza) and the comprehensive redesign of the space completed in 1989.
Christchurch’s previous town halls
Christchurch’s first town hall was a commercial rather than a civic venture. It was located on High Street between Cashel and Lichfield Streets. The architect was Benjamin Mountfort and it was constructed in timber in 1857. Architecturally it suggested a medieval guildhall, with its steeply pitched, open timber roof, oriel window and a balcony facing High Street. This building quickly proved to be too small and a second hall was constructed alongside it in 1863. This stone building was Romanesque in style and designed by Samuel Charles Farr. Its smaller timber neighbour continued to be used in conjunction with the new building until it sustained earthquake damage in 1868. It was further damaged by fire in April 1873 and was subsequently demolished. Although Mountfort’s timber hall was saved from the fire it was later dismantled to make way for new commercial buildings.
A design competition for a town hall to be located facing the Market Place was held in 1879. This was won by Joseph Maddison but the project was abandoned in 1882 because of ratepayer resistance. Another proposal for a town hall and municipal offices to be located on Cambridge Terrace between Colombo and Manchester Streets also foundered because of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In 1921, following a referendum of ratepayers, the Christchurch City Council purchased the site on Manchester Street occupied by the remains of the Canterbury and Alexandra Halls which had been gutted by fire in 1917. These were originally constructed for the Canterbury Jubilee celebrations of 1900 and were designed by the architects Clarkson and Ballantyne in the Edwardian Baroque style. The façade of the Canterbury Hall was incorporated into the new Civic Offices that opened on 1 September 1924.
In 1923 the decision was taken to add a further building behind the surviving façade of the Alexandra Hall in order to address the need for a civic concert hall. This was designed by Dawe and Willis and opened as the Civic Theatre on 17 March 1928. In spite of its cramped foyer space, limited seating capacity, indifferent acoustics and inadequate backstage facilities, it served as the city’s principal venue for musical events until the completion of the new town hall in 1972. Because it was too small for large-scale events the King Edward Barracks (1905) on Cashel Street and later, Canterbury Court (1961), an exhibition pavilion at the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association’s Addington show grounds, were also used for concerts. The inadequacy of these makeshift venues, and the damage to civic pride caused by the fact that Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin all possessed far superior civic amenities, prompted a citizen-led initiative to provide Christchurch with a fitting performance venue. This began with an anonymous donation of £2 to the City Council on 19 August 1947, followed in February 1949 by £100 from the Christchurch Harmonic Society. By 1955 sufficient pressure had mounted for the council to establish a Town Hall Committee and from the 1957-8 financial year it began transferring £10,000 annually towards the project. The fragmented nature of local government was an inhibiting factor for large infrastructure projects funded by local government and the agreement between the neighbouring Waimairi, Riccarton, Paparua and Heathcote councils to contribute to the funding of a town hall was formalised in the Christchurch Town Hall Empowering Act 1968.
In order to resolve the question of the best site for the town hall complex the British architect and town planner, Professor Gordon Stephenson, was engaged as a consultant. After considering 13 possible sites he recommended what was known as the ‘Limes site’ (formerly the Limes private hospital) overlooking Victoria Square. This recommendation was adopted, to widespread approval, by the City Council on 9 October 1962. Part of the market place was gazetted as a town hall reserve in 1968.
The Christchurch Town Hall competition
With funds steadily accumulating and the question of the site resolved the Christchurch City Council was in the position to consider procuring a design. The method chosen was a two-stage competition open to all New Zealand-registered architects. The competition was advertised in July 1965 and by the time it closed on 31 January 1966 58 entries had been received. The jury, comprising architects Ronald Muston from Wellington (chairman), Aubrey de Lisle from Hamilton and Ted McCoy from Dunedin, plus two Christchurch City Councillors, Hamish Hay and George Griffiths, decided on a shortlist of five entries to advance to the second stage, which allowed for the initial designs to be further developed. The acoustic consultant was Harold Marshall, at that time a lecturer in acoustics in the School of Architecture at the University of Auckland. Warren and Mahoney were announced as the winner on 17 June 1966. The competition was the largest undertaking of its kind in New Zealand up to that date and following the announcement of the winner the full range of entries were exhibited in the Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery and a selection were published in the NZIA Journal in October 1966. There was a widespread consensus that Warren and Mahoney’s design was a worthy winner.
As a building type the concert hall emerged as a distinct architectural form within Western culture during the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to this time orchestral music had primarily been performed in aristocratic palaces or theatres, or in the small-scale concert rooms that emerged in London during the second half of the eighteenth century in response to the growing middle class audience for concert music. The emergence of concert halls with a capacity of around 1600 persons did not occur until the second half of the nineteenth century in the musical capitals of Europe with halls such as the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna (1870), the rebuilt Gewandhaus in Leipzig (1884) and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (1888). These halls were acoustically excellent and were distinguished by their elongated form with galleries along their side and end walls. This model was followed for Symphony Hall in Boston (1900), also recognised for its excellent acoustic qualities. The so-called ‘shoebox’ form was adopted for the principal town halls built in New Zealand in the first decades of the twentieth century. These were Joshua Charlesworth’s Wellington Town Hall (1904), Auckland’s Town Hall of 1911, designed by the Australian practice of J.J. and E.J. Clark, and the Dunedin Town Hall (1930), by Mandeno & Fraser. The traditional form of these auditoria was mirrored by the late Victorian and Edwardian classicism of their exteriors. These buildings looked back to established European models as well to the civic halls of Victorian Britain such as Leeds Town Hall (1853-58) and St George’s Hall, Liverpool (1854). The Christchurch Town Hall conclusively broke this mould.
During the decades of economic, social and cultural renewal that followed World War Two new concert halls were constructed in Europe, the United Kingdom and in North America. Some of these were reinterpretations in modern styles and materials of the established concert hall form derived from the nineteenth century, but others broke away from this formula in order to accommodate larger audiences and to achieve greater audience engagement with the performances taking place. Examples of such halls are the Royal Festival Hall in London (1951), Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at Lincoln Centre in New York City (1962) and the Berlin Philharmonie (1963). Both the London and New York auditoria were wider in relation to their length than the traditional ‘shoebox’ format and neither was successful acoustically. The Berlin hall, with its central performance area, terraced seating configuration and suspended sound reflectors, was more successful but was also unique and essentially inimitable. The Christchurch Town Hall was designed in the climate of acoustic uncertainty that existed as a result of the very public failure of these major international concert halls.
The Architecture of the Christchurch Town Hall
The brief for the Christchurch Town Hall competition required a concert hall, a smaller concert chamber, a banqueting hall, meeting rooms and a restaurant. As a second-stage development, the project was to include civic offices and a council chamber along with a new public library. The second stage was never carried out. The requirements for the main concert hall also stipulated: ‘To seat 2250 (on one or more levels). Flat floor – major portion sprung for dancing. Rear portion of main floor ramped or tiered. Sides can be tiered. Acoustics – good audience reception.’ As noted above, there was, in 1965, no longer an agreed formula for how good acoustics could be achieved.
Warren and Mahoney’s competition winning design organised the principal components of the brief in a formal, almost diagrammatic manner, with the main auditorium and concert halls positioned on a dominant east-west axis and sharing a central foyer space, and a secondary north-south axis on which were aligned the restaurant with banqueting hall (subsequently known as the Limes Room) above it. A large meeting room was located above the central foyer. The clarity of this plan means that the key components of the complex are entirely legible from the exterior and access to the two auditoria is clear and uninhibited. This is achieved through the unification of the circulation spaces within a single enveloping volume so that the mezzanine and upper level foyers and galleries that provide access to the interior of the main auditorium are visually connected. Paradoxically the spatial complexity that results is easy to navigate because of the underlying logic of the plan.
By the time they came to design the Christchurch Town Hall, Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney had extensive experience in designing complex architectural programmes, most notably at Christchurch College (also known as College House) and they were confident in their use of the tectonic language of Brutalism, the architectural development within the Modern Movement that had emerged in Britain during the post war period and which emphasised clear expression of structure, directness in planning and the expressive use of utilitarian materials. Warren had gained first-hand experience of this modernist idiom while working for the Architectural Division of the London County Council between 1953-54 when the Roehampton Housing Estate was being designed.
The influence of Brutalism can be seen in the emphatic use of paired, cast in situ, reinforced concrete columns as the principal structural elements of the two auditoria, the foyer space and the Limes Room and restaurant wings. It is also manifested in the exterior cladding of pre-cast aggregate-faced panels for the enclosed spaces of the auditoria. The public circulation spaces as well as the restaurant and Limes Room have exterior walls of glass screened by copper covered brise-soleil or solar screens. Roofs are of copper. There is no applied colour on the exterior of the building. On the interior the use of Carrara marble on the floors of the ground floor foyers, and as protective surfaces on the lower levels of the fair-faced concrete columns of the interior spaces, creates an effect of austere luxury. This is added to by the use of rich red paint on the exterior walls of the main auditorium and the James Hay Theatre and the polished Meranti timber (Shorea pauciflora and related subspecies from Malaysia) used for handrails and balusters. The James Hay Theatre is named after prominent Christchurch businessman, local politician and philanthropist who, from 1958 onwards, was a driving force behind the town hall project.
The siting of the complex on the banks of the Avon River, with the restaurant and Limes Room cantilevered over the water, is one of the distinguishing architectural features of the complex, along with the terraced steps that lead from the level of the main structure down to the river’s edge adjacent to the Ferrier Fountain. These features anchor the building to it site in an outstanding example of urban design. The dominant architectural element of the complex is the elliptical Douglas Lilburn Auditorium (so named since 2004, in recognition of association with the site of the distinguished New Zealand composer of that name). Within the local context it was immediately recognised as ‘a space that will be quite a new experience for a New Zealand audience’. The principal architectural influences for this form were the Albert Hall in London, chosen by Warren because of the sense of audience engagement created by the circular space, and the layout of the La Scala opera house in Milan, with its tiers of boxes framed by radiating walls within the horseshoe shaped auditorium. The elliptical form was, acoustically, an unknown quantity, and acoustic reflectors were included in the competition design in the belief that these would be necessary for directing the sound emanating from the performers on stage to the audience.
The acoustic design of the auditorium was developed in close co-operation with Harold Marshall. As Marshall states:
'The design of the Christchurch Town Hall auditorium is inseparable from the discovery of the importance of lateral reflected sound in creating desirable acoustic qualities in concert halls. Indeed, the Christchurch project provided the problem statement, the hypothesis, the testing and its initial application in a major symphony hall, all in the space of five years, between 1967 and 1972.'
Marshall’s discovery of the importance of lateral sound reflections was a consequence of his appointment as acoustic advisor to the competition jury. Confronted with the need to recommend one of the five short-listed designs, he realised, after attending a performance in the Royal Festival Hall in London, that the limitation of that auditorium’s acoustic resulted from the lack of laterally reflected sound. Recognising the potential of the Warren and Mahoney design to remedy this deficiency, he advised the jury accordingly. Marshall’s discovery has now been recognised as one of the most important breakthroughs in the analysis of room acoustics, comparable to Wallace Sabine’s identification of the importance of reverberation time in the 1890s. Prior to Marshall’s discovery, reverberation time was the principal objective measure available for the assessment of concert hall acoustics.
Following his acoustic assessment of the Christchurch Town Hall competition, Marshall moved from the University of Southampton, where he had been completing his PhD, to the University of Western Australia to take up an academic position. During this interim period the British firm, Engineering Design Consultants, provided advice on the acoustic development of the design and as a result the volume of the auditorium was increased by raising the height of the walls in order to increase reverberation time within the space. Marshall resumed his advisory role once established at the University of Western Australia and, using an ex-NASA computer, with T.B. Ardagh, analysed the acoustic performance of the hall from multiple positions within the space. This was one of the first, if not the first, application of computer modelling for concert hall acoustic design. As a result the positioning and shape of the suspended sound reflectors were modified and sound absorbing materials were introduced to eliminate reflective ‘hot-spots’.
On completion in 1972, initial acoustic tests within the auditorium indicated that a high level of clarity had been achieved within an acoustic with a reverberation time in excess of two seconds, something previously considered unachievable, especially in an auditorium of this form. Use of the auditorium for musical performances following the opening in September 1972 indicated that it was an ideal space for the performance of symphonic music. This assessment received endorsement from an unimpeachable authority following a performance by the New York Philharmonic and their conductor emeritus, Leonard Bernstein, on 18 August 1974. Bernstein stated:
'What is wonderful about it is the warmth of it and the X-ray clarity of the sound. I was very impressed with that combination of vastness and intimacy that the architects have somehow achieved in the hall itself.'
Numerous musicians have confirmed Bernstein’s assessment since that time. It has been recognised internationally, along with the Tanglewood Music Shed (1959) and the Berlin Philharmonie (1962) as one of the three transitional buildings that pointed the way forward towards a new range of possibilities in concert hall design. Its design has stood the test of time, and is still seen by some as one of the world’s best concert halls.
Although the acoustic of the hall was excellent for the audience it was found that musicians on stage had difficulty hearing one another and in 1977 the circular acoustic ‘doughnut’, envisioned in the original design but omitted on account of cost, was positioned above the stage in order to solve this problem.
The Christchurch Town Hall turned out to be so successful that it inspired the Wellington City Council’s Michael Fowler Centre, a concert hall designed by the same architects, Warren and Mahoney. Designed in 1975, initially as a new town hall but subsequently reduced to a concert venue and completed in 1983, it incorporated refined acoustic design learned through the Christchurch Town Hall.
The Christchurch Town Hall has served as the venue for music making across the spectrum of performance, from the annual massed concerts by the pupils of the Christchurch School of Instrumental Music to the Christchurch Schools Music Festivals. It also welcomed leading national and international performers including the New York Philharmonic, Russian State Symphony Orchestra and the Bolshoi Ballet and popular performers ranging from Carlos Santana to Crowded House, bringing a diversity of international cultural expression to the city. Important musical rituals, such as the annual Christmas performances of Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, and Christmas carol concerts also take place there. Over many decades, performers and concert-goers have specifically spoken of their pride in the place for how thrilling the sound and visuals make them feel.
The Christchurch Town Hall has long been the venue for graduation ceremonies of the University of Canterbury and the city’s other tertiary educational institutions, along with high school prize giving ceremonies. It was also an important venue for community educational events such as school science fairs and annual ‘Cantamath’ events. It has been used as the venue for the citizenship ceremonies. In the 1970s and 1980s charity fundraising Telethons occurred there. It has also served as a venue for balls, conferences and commemorative events, including the civic memorial service for former Prime Minister, Norman Kirk. The fact that it is now popularly recognised as Christchurch’s ‘public living room’ reflects its centrality to the social and cultural life of the city.
The Christchurch Earthquakes
As a result of the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011 the Christchurch Town Hall suffered considerable damage due to liquefaction and lateral spread of the riverside site. This caused the auditorium to subside approximately 600mm on the south side and the south end of the Limes Room, adjacent to the Avon River, to rise and its north end to sink. The James Hay Theatre also suffered considerable damage on its south and east sides. The building’s future was under threat but public outcry led to a decision by the Christchurch City Council to repair, strengthen and restore the building in June 2015. Hawkins Construction then carried out a four year programme to bring the building up to 100% New Building Standard, to repair damage and upgrade building services. The site was consolidated by the insertion of 1098 jet-grout piles, the original 150mm thick floor slab was replaced by a new slab foundation varying in thickness from 700 to 900mm and the Limes Room wing was re-levelled. Thirty-four reinforced concrete columns in the foyer and Limes Room wing were reconstructed with increased reinforcing steel although their original dimensions and appearance were retained. The east wall of the fly tower and back of house facilities of the James Hay Theatre were also rebuilt.
The building was reopened with much community interest and celebration on 23 February 2019 although completion of the James Hay Theatre was delayed until May 2019 and the new Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (C.S.O.) building was not completed until August. For most people returning to the town hall after eight years the changes to the building were imperceptible. The most noticeable alteration was the addition of diagonal, steel, buckling-restrained braces to the east and west walls of the Limes Room wing. Acoustic testing of the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium prior to reopening indicated that its acoustic qualities were essentially unchanged.
The Christchurch Town Hall is located at 100 Kilmore Street in the central city of Christchurch. The site is bounded by the Avon River to the south, Colombo Street to the east, Kilmore Street to the north and Durham Street to the west. The area to the north of Kilmore Street is undeveloped vacant ground following the demolition of the former Christchurch Convention Centre that stood opposite the town hall at the time of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. The western adjacent section, occupied until 2011 by the former Park Royal hotel, is also vacant ground, although it is traversed by a series of open Gothic arches of laminated timber construction that mark the line of Victoria Street which traversed the site until its closure in 1989. These were erected following the demolition of the earthquake-damaged Crowne Plaza (former Park Royal) hotel.
The Christchurch Town Hall extends to the street edge of Colombo Street at the eastern end of the site. Along Kilmore Street the James Hay Theatre and the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium extend to the street edge while the entrance foyer that connects them is set back and demarcated by lines of light-coloured, exposed aggregate paving set into the wider field of dark grey basalt paving. On the south side the Avon and Limes Rooms extend over the Avon River with the auditorium set back from the river edge and separated from it by a tile-paved concourse. Paved steps lead from this concourse down to the pool in which stand the three elements of the Ferrier Fountain. This consists of two stands of differing heights each supporting a ‘sphere’ of radiating pipes from which water sprays, and a third element at water level consisting of a hemisphere of radiating pipes.
The building has been carefully integrated with its site, as noted in 1972, ‘These well defined buildings in their mass, colour and texture have accepted the precedent of the nineteenth-century examples that grace the west side of [Victoria] square, and the river and trees provide the continuum between them.’
The setting of the town hall is enhanced on its south side by the mature trees and mown parkland of Victoria Square and the heritage feature of the 1864 Victoria Street Bridge. Situated between Colombo Street, the Avon River and the Avon and Limes Rooms is the kitchen and services block, now largely screened from view by mature trees and lower shrubs. The space between the kitchen block and the south side of the James Hay theatre is occupied by the C.S.O. building, completed in 2019 to provide administrative and rehearsal space for the city’s orchestra. This was erected on the site of the former Cambridge Room, constructed in 1974 to provide additional space for the town hall complex. It was seriously damaged in the 2011 earthquakes and subsequently demolished.
Although generally thought of as a single building, the Christchurch Town Hall is, in reality, six interconnected structures. These are
1. the entrance foyer with Victoria Room above;
2. the Avon Room with Limes Room above;
3. the kitchen and services block;
4. the James Hay Theatre;
5. the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium;
6. and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra building.
With the exception of the C.S.O. building the town hall complex was built in a single campaign between 1968 and September 1972. It is constructed of reinforced concrete columns cast in situ and reinforced concrete beams. External cladding is pre-cast concrete panels with a mixed aggregate finish. The exteriors of the foyer spaces are fully glazed with copper-clad external brise-soleil. The roofs of the foyer spaces and of the Limes Room are of copper with standing seam joints.
From the exterior the main components of the complex are clearly expressed as distinct elements. The elliptical form of the main auditorium contrasts with the wedge shaped form of the James Hay Theatre’s auditorium and the vertical mass of its fly tower. The rectangular block formed by the Avon and Limes Rooms is equally legible as a discrete element, as is the cubic mass of the kitchen block.
The main components of the complex are organised on a cross-axial plan with the central foyer providing access to the James Hay Theatre to the east and the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium to the west. The Avon and Limes Rooms extend the north-south axis towards the Avon River. Access to the James Hay Theatre is via two reinforced concrete stairs with timber balustrades. The auditorium is reached from the ground level promenades that extend westwards from the entrance foyer or from elevated galleries that lead to the gallery level seating. These are accessed by two flights of freestanding, reinforced concrete stairs with timber balustrades opposite those to the James Hay theatre, or by a lift within a glazed enclosure. At mezzanine level a north-facing foyer links the James Hay Theatre and the stairs to the auditorium galleries, while on the south side a foyer links the auditorium galleries with the foyers shared by the Limes and Victoria Rooms. In spite of the spatial complexity of these circulation spaces the clarity of the planning ensures that wayfinding is completely legible.
Throughout the interior spaces structural elements are clearly expressed. Paired reinforced concrete columns with an off the formwork finish are a dominant feature. The lower levels of these columns are sheathed in panels of grey-flecked white Carrara marble. This marble is also used as the flooring material for the ground level circulation spaces. A limited palette of materials consisting of fair-faced concrete, marble, polished meranti timber, brass and black painted steel, combined with a restricted range of applied colour comprising white soffits, deep red walls and custom designed red carpets incorporating an abstracted ground plan of the main auditorium, creates a consistent and visually unified effect that reflects the ‘total design’ ethos that underpins the entire design.
This visually unified effect is continued in the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium and the James Hay Theatre. The elliptical form of the main auditorium, with the stage at the west end and encircling galleries that continue behind the stage to form choir stalls, creates a sense of intimacy within what is in fact, a vast space. It has a total floor area of 12,660 sq. feet (1176 sq. metres), is 147 feet (44.8 metres) long, 106 feet (32.3 metres) wide and 70 feet (21.3 metres) high. It has a total seating capacity of 2662. The effect of intimacy is enhanced by the arrangement of the galleries as a series of fan-shaped elements angled towards the stage, above which are suspended sound-reflecting panels of light coloured timber. The seating is upholstered in a rich red fabric. Additional sound reflecting panels, painted white, are suspended above the stage while a further acoustic ‘doughnut’ is positioned immediately above the performance area. Above the choir stalls and forming a visual focus for the entire auditorium is the console and pipework of the Rieger organ, installed in 1997.
The James Hay Theatre is entered at mezzanine level from the entrance foyer. There is a broad carpeted concourse running the full width of the hall with two flights of stairs rising to a gallery that extends over the full width of the rear stalls seating area. The theatre has a proscenium arch of reinforced concrete with a stage area incorporating wing space and a fly tower above. The angled sidewalls of the theatre are covered with wooden panels to aid sound reflection and further acoustic sound reflecting panels are suspended from the roof. In its original configuration the seating of the stalls area was tiered from front to back; in its current arrangement there is now an area of flat floor in front of the orchestra pit with retractable seating which continues the rake of the fixed seating at the rear of the hall. When the retractable seating is in place the appearance of the theatre is little changed from its former configuration. Seating in the James Hay Theatre is of the same design as in the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium but it is upholstered in a green fabric, a change from the brown of the original upholstery.
In addition to the two principal performance spaces and their interconnecting circulation spaces, the Christchurch Town Hall complex includes three assembly rooms. Positioned above the main entrance foyer is the Victoria Room. This is accessed from the upper level south foyer that also provides access to the adjacent Limes Room. The Victoria Room is square in plan and can be divided into two spaces by means of centrally positioned folding doors. Clerestories, supported by exposed timber framing, extend around the periphery of the Victoria Room’s interior walls, bringing natural light into the space. The four, blank exterior walls provide the support for the 58.3 metre long and 2.46 metre high Rainbow Pieces mural. This consists of 50 individual panels painted by the Auckland artist, Patrick Hanly (1932 – 2004). These were assembled in random order according to the wishes of the artist. This vibrantly coloured, abstract composition was commissioned specifically for the building and installed prior to its opening in 1972. It can be seen from multiple vantage points from within the building’s circulation spaces and adds elements of dynamism and vibrant colour that contrast with the more subdued tones of the structural elements of the building itself.
The Avon Room extends the north-south axis of the main foyer towards the Avon River and Victoria Square in the space occupied by the town hall restaurant in 1972. The floor in the central section of this area was originally positioned at a lower level from the dining spaces to the north and south but when reconstructed between 2015 and 2019 it was rebuilt on a single level although the roof of the space, which stepped up and down to reflect the changes of floor level, was retained unchanged. The exposed, laminated timber beams that support this roof are a prominent feature of the room’s interior. The paired, concrete columns that support the Limes Room that is positioned directly above it define the width of this space. In a way that is consistent with the overall design approach throughout the complex, the Avon Room is expressed as distinct element, although subordinate to the more dominant Limes Room above. From this space, the southernmost extent of which is cantilevered over the Avon River, extensive views of Victoria Square can be seen through the floor to ceiling windows that enclose it on three sides. Steel buckling restrained braces were added to this section of the building as part of the seismic strengthening carried out between 2015 and 2019.
The Limes Room, the largest and most impressive of the meeting rooms within the town hall complex, is positioned above the Avon Room on the main north – south axis of the building. It is accessed either by an open staircase that rises from the southern extension of the main entrance foyer, or from the upper level south foyer which it shares with the Victoria Room. It has a copper-clad mansard roof and floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. These windows are screened by vertical, copper clad brise-soleil, of similar design to those found elsewhere in the building. It is supported by pairs of freestanding, fair-faced reinforced concrete columns and beams that are clearly expressed on the exterior. The columns extend into the room itself and support inwardly cantilevered beams from which rises the open timber structure of the roof, somewhat in the manner of medieval hammer beam roof construction. The southern end of the Limes Room is cantilevered over the river and extends beyond the line of the Avon Room below, creating the impression that it is floating in space. The concrete floor is covered with the original wooden parquet tiles re-laid in a traditional pattern following earthquake repairs. The Limes Room has a total area of 6156 sq. feet (571 sq. metres). Suspended light fittings, large glass orbs within which bulbs on individual stalks radiate from a central core in a manner that echoes the form of the jets of the Ferrier Fountain in the reflecting pool on the river frontage below, are a dominant feature of the space.
The kitchen block, which stands on the eastern side of the Avon and Limes Rooms, is connected to them on its western side. It is monolithic in form with the walls of the upper level projecting beyond those of the floors below. Its service function is, however, given a sculptural quality that belies its essentially utilitarian purpose.
The most recent component of the complex is the new C.S.O. building, discretely inserted into the triangular space between the Limes Room wing, the kitchen block and the James Hay Theatre. This is constructed on the site of the Cambridge Room that was deemed un-repairable and demolished following the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. The new, three-level structure is steel framed with a lightweight exterior of copper that contrasts with the weight of the exposed reinforced concrete structure of the original town hall complex but also relates to it through the use of copper covered brise-soleil on its east facade. The fact that this building is a later addition is clearly expressed but because of its scale, location and external cladding, it is unobtrusive and does not detract from the architectural character of the 1972 building. Although the C.S.O. building is connected to the main complex at ground floor, mezzanine and first floor levels it is structurally separate from it. Glazed walls on the C.S.O. building adjacent to the south wall of the James Hay Theatre allow this separation to be expressed while also preserving the physical integrity of the original structure. The building provides administrative space, storage, meeting and rehearsal space for the C.S.O. Its principal space is the timber-lined Ron Ball rehearsal studio on the upper floor of the building.
A new electrical substation was added to the site during the 2015-19 restoration and refurbishment process. This cubic structure, located on the southwest corner of the site adjacent to the Douglas Lilburn Auditorium, is clad in pre-cast aggregate panels to match the appearance of the main building. An additional, smaller, services structure is positioned at the southeast corner of the site, adjacent to the C.S.O. building. Air conditioning plant and ducts have also been added to the roof of the James Hay Theatre and the Limes Room but these are only visible from a restricted number of viewpoints.
1968 - 1972
Introduction of an acoustic 'doughnut' above the stage of the auditorium
Rieger organ installed
Earthquake damage and closure of building
Strengthening, repair and restoration (including reconstruction of Limes and Avon Rooms at south of building)
Building reopened 23 February 2019
Fair-faced concrete; pre-cast concrete panels; timber, copper, brass, steel, glass
23rd June 2020
Report Written By
Julia Gatley (ed.), Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture 1904-1984, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2008
Warren and Mahoney Architects, 2005
Warren & Mahoney Architects, New Territory: Warren & Mahoney: 50 years of New Zealand Architecture, Balasoglou Books, Auckland, 2005.
Auditorium Acoustics and Architectural Design. Taylor & Francis, London, 2009.
L.L. Beranek, Concert Halls and Opera Houses. Springer-Verlag, New York, 2004.
W. J. A. Brittenden, A Dream Come True: The Christchurch Town Hall. Christchurch Town Hall Committee, Christchurch, 1972.
Alington, William H., ‘Some Comments on the Christchurch Town Hall’, Landfall, 103, (September 1972) pp. 195–199.
Christchurch New Town Hall and Civic Centre Competition, 1966
‘Christchurch New Town Hall and Civic Centre Competition’, NZIA Journal 33 (10) October 1966) pp. 292–325.
Beranek, L. L., ‘Music, Acoustics, and Architecture’, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 45 (8) (May, 1992) pp. 25–46.
Halliday, Jessica, Christchurch Town Hall. docomomo, International working party for documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the modern movement, New International Selection Full Documentation Fiche, 2010. http://www.docomomo.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/Christchurch_Town_Hall2.pdf
Heritage Management Services, 2010
Heritage Management Services, Conservation Plan for the Christchurch Town Hall. Christchurch, 2010.
Lochhead, Ian, ‘Distinguished, with X-ray clarity of sound’ [The Christchurch Town Hall], Architecture New Zealand, 3, (2019) pp. 58-66.
Lochhead, Ian, ed., The Christchurch Town Hall, 1965 to 2019: A Dream Renewed. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2019.
Marshall, A. H. ‘Aspects of the Acoustical Design and Properties of Christchurch Town Hall, New Zealand’, Journal of Sound and Vibration 62 (2) (1979) pp. 181–194.
A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Christchurch Office of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.
Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.