25 October 2012

A building weakened by red tape

"I was inside the main hall when the quake hit. As the building's tower came down, the noise and dust was unbelievable. The bottles, plates and glasses were like shrapnel flying all over the place. The three chefs were preparing a lobster bisque, which went all over the floor but missed them, as did a pan of hot fat. They came out through the dust looking like ghosts. We didn't have the composure to stop and grab our wallets and car keys - we just bolted."

Alan Slade
Octagon Live owner Alan Slade was short on sentiment as he looked back at the ruined building he'd narrowly escaped from, with his concern entirely focused on ensuring his staff were all out.

After the previous September 4 quake he'd had funny mannequins attached to the emergency scaffolding that had shored up the stone walls.

"I just remember looking at one of the mannequin's legs sticking out of the rubble and I just felt sick - my joke had backfired on me."

In retrospect, it was an unusual holiday purchase. Alan Slade, owner of a thriving wedding business in Australia, was visiting Christchurch when he heard the Trinity Congregational Church on the corner of Manchester and Worcester streets was for sale.

"We owned a number of churches in Australia, but when we saw the Trinity building we couldn't believe that such a precious icon of Christchurch would be for sale," says Slade. "It was a treasure: the interior was unmatched, and the ceiling was the jewel in the crown."

He admits that buying the building was a weak moment. "My wife says it was bought by a guy with a big heart and very little brain."

The church was designed by Benjamin Mountfort, the architect behind Christ Church Cathedral and the Provincial Council buildings. What followed was a 13-year renovation that transformed the site into Octagon Live, Slade's quirky vision for a restaurant with live music performances. Mountfort's vision of "beauty though a lack of ornamentation" was preserved.

"The building's H1 historical registration meant that everything we did needed consent, which took forever. The roof had a lot of water damage: repairing that with matching timbers was a long job. We even restored the dilapidated 1871 London organ to superb recording condition. Finance held us up, as things always cost more than you'd expect, but it was worth it."

The restaurant opened in 2006 and, after a quiet first year, business grew rapidly, with a strong following built on the restaurant's food and live music.

"By the third year we were second on TripAdvisor.com's list of recommended restaurants in New Zealand. In the season before the earthquakes we were booked out every day of the week," says Slade.

With four music schools in Christchurch, the restaurant was also instrumental in nurturing young talent.

"Learning to perform for an audience - rather than at them - is a critical skill. Where else in town can you learn that? We were strongly recommended by some of the teachers, and we always had a long queue of musicians hoping to work with us."

The building's acoustics garnered rave reviews, with pianist David Helfgott stopping by every six months to play.

Behind this success was an ongoing tension over heritage issues with the city council and the Historic Places Trust.

"When you take on a building like this, you do it with your heart, not your head. You are as keen to protect it as anyone. You don't want to cut corners, and preserving the building's integrity is vital. But the Historical Places Trust suspects every owner of deviousness."

The September earthquake hit Octagon Live hard, with more than $600,000 required to rescue the building. "We were allowed to take emergency action to build a frame to hold up the tower, but the retrospective consent ended up costing $8000 - for something I'd done to save the building."

The restaurant was closed for only two months, with the local community pitching in. The Boxing Day earthquake caused yet more damage.

Even though it was the building industry's traditional holiday period, Slade had 11 workers and two cranes onsite repairing the damage the day after, and the restaurant was open a day later, with the public enjoying the mannequins that adorned the temporary braces holding up the exterior walls.

Trinity Congressional Church was significantly strengthened in 1975, explains Slade.

"The engineers at the time strongly suggested earthquake proofing the tower by temporarily removing the roof, which would have meant some damage to the wooden shutters. They were over-ruled by the Historic Places Trust.

"Just recently, the engineer from the 1975 assessment told me that the tower was severely compromised, and warned that it was unsafe. Now it has come down as predicted. We were incredibly lucky no-one was underneath it at 12.51pm, but it was the conservative attitude of the conservation movement and the Historic Places Trust that caused the danger in the first place."

Slade believes this attitude in the heritage preservation industry amplified the consequences of the Christchurch earthquake.

"Maintaining our old buildings is incredibly important, but the heritage framework in this country has worked against keeping buildings in good condition. Spirit-sapping bureaucracy stands in the way of routine jobs like replacing weak stones. Even repairing roof tiles requires consent, and the damage that three weeks' rain can do while that is processed can be enormous. Many of Christchurch's treasured buildings are now in a pile, and the narrow-mindedness of the conservationists in the council and the Historic Places Trust played a substantial part in that. Sadly they will probably never be held accountable."

With thoughts turning to rebuilding the city, Slade is confident that Octagon Live will be a key part of the new city. The structure is considered saveable by engineers and the organ should be fine.

"I do think this is the time for us to radically change our approach to protecting our heritage," he says.

"I'd be very sad if we have to replicate our old tower stone by stone. The earthquake is a tremendous opportunity to be bold and adopt modern technology - the guts of the Cathedral Spire could be made from carbon fibre, for example. It is better to preserve elements of our heritage safely, rather than taking risks to keep whole structures. But we hold on to the essence of Christchurch, and I think the new desire for a low-rise city will allow our heritage buildings to dominate once again."

At the moment, issues are tied up with the inability to access the CBD.

"My chef's knives are stuck in the restaurant's kitchen. It's a simple thing and it sounds pathetic, but it's important to him. I can't access my payroll details. We don't know how long we'll be kept out of the centre of town for. They're talking about Christmas - heavens, I'd be expecting to have my building restored and my business running by then."

First published by The Press on March 12th, 2011