Consecrated ground, Ian Lochhead

Historic Churches: A Guide to Over 60 Early New Zealand Churches
Linda Burgess (Robert Burgess photographer)
Random House, $50.00, ISBN 9781775537335

Worship: A History of New Zealand Church Design
Bill McKay (Jane Ussher photographer)
Godwit, $85.00, ISBN 9781775538363

One of the inexplicable paradoxes of the human condition is the way in which the religious impulse leads, irresistibly, to the creation of beauty, but also, with seemingly equal passion, to its destruction. Throughout history, buildings and works of art have been created to serve religion, only to be destroyed by reforming zealots who see such works as inimical to worship. The iconoclastic purges of the early Christian churches, the destruction of images and the demolition of monastic buildings during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and, in our own day, the dynamiting of monumental Buddha figures by the Taliban in Afghanistan, all testify to these contradictory urges.

Closer to home, we have witnessed, in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes, an almost unstoppable willingness to complete the destruction of churches that nature had begun. This contradiction was thrown into startling relief in January 2012 at St Mary’s, Merivale, Christchurch, one of the city’s largest parish churches, built in 1926 of reinforced concrete faced with stone. Alerted to the imminent demolition of their church, stunned parishioners watched in disbelief as a digger remorselessly crushed kauri pews in the partially demolished nave, while stained glass windows were being recovered from the chancel. The on-going controversy over the future of Christchurch’s Anglican Cathedral further illustrates the willingness of some to countenance the destruction of a major place of worship that has been, since its consecration in 1881, the city’s most recognisable building, while others have done everything possible to ensure its survival and ultimate restoration.

If the Canterbury earthquakes have highlighted the uncertain future of many of our historic churches, societal change also threatens their survival. Now that consumerism has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses, religious observance has steadily declined, making it increasingly difficult for churches to maintain buildings that have recognised historic and community value, without some source of external funding. Historic churches are one of the most significant elements of our rural and urban landscapes, marking important stages in the evolution of the country from British colony to Pacific nation and shaped by differing denominational beliefs and cultural aspirations. Within a single building type, a multiplicity of forms, architectural styles, materials and structural systems serve varying shades of religious belief, both through and across time, offering important insights into the nation we have become. It would be a national tragedy if these buildings were simply to disappear through indifference and neglect, or succumb to the requirements of increasingly stringent building standards. The simultaneous appearance of two books that highlight the richness and variety of our national collection of historic churches should therefore be welcomed, since both, in differing ways, celebrate the historic, social and aesthetic value of these buildings.

Surprisingly, of the more than 120 churches featured in the two books, fewer than 20 appear in both, an indication of the differing intentions behind these two publications, as well as a measure of the remarkable number of churches that could potentially be featured. It would be a pointless exercise to suggest individual buildings that should have been included in either book, since no two selections of historically significant churches are likely to be the same, although buildings such as Christ Church, Russell (1835), Old St Paul’s, Wellington (1866), St Michael’s and All Angels, Christchurch (1872) and First Church, Dunedin (1873), are probably on most people’s lists of canonical examples. Historic Churches is, as its title indicates, a guidebook that focuses on 19th– and early 20th-century examples, organised by region from north to south. There is a slightly greater emphasis on North Island churches and the west coast of the South Island is overlooked altogether. This is unfortunate, since Westland is a region where tourism is a major industry, and there are certainly churches worth visiting, among them St James’s at Franz Josef, a precursor – in its use of a panoramic east window – of the better-known Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo.

Linda Burgess’s text provides an historical and social context for each featured church, with a directory at the back of the book to assist visitors in locating them. While many of those discussed are well known, others, such as the bastion-like King’s College Chapel at Otahuhu, built as a WWI memorial to the designs of an old boy, Richard Atkinson Abbot, in 1925, are more obscure. Another war memorial church, at Eskdale, just north of Napier, commemorates an individual soldier, Percival Beattie, killed on the Western Front in November 1918, only a few days before the Armistice. The architect in this case was James Chapman Taylor, and the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement is apparent throughout the church.

It would have been possible to double the number of churches discussed in the Burgesses’ book, and no doubt they visited many more than were included in their final selection. It is a pity, therefore, that room was not found for a summary list of other historically or architecturally significant churches within each region surveyed, since this would have allowed readers to explore further off the beaten track. Nevertheless, with a copy of this compact publication in hand, readers from Northland to Invercargill will hopefully discover for themselves the pleasures of church crawling and not just read it at home.

McKay’s and Ussher’s Worship is a more ambitious publication than Historic Churches, yet it is ultimately less successful. A large format, heavily illustrated volume, it is described in the subtitle as A History of New Zealand Church Design. Beginning with Shigeru Bann’s 2013 Transitional Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch, the book works backwards and concludes with the Church Missionary Society settlement at Kerikeri, established almost 200 years earlier. While there are valid reasons for constructing an historical narrative from a starting point in the present, this is a challenging brief for any historian and there needs to be a compelling reason for structuring a history in this way. In the absence of any stated rationale, the decision to adopt this reverse narrative seems merely quixotic and readers who do not have a general understanding of the evolution of 19th– and 20th-century architecture will be baffled for no real gain.

The development of a clearly argued historical analysis of New Zealand church building is also frustrated by the book’s structure, presumably one predetermined by the publisher. The volume is divided into six historical sections, each of which begins with a broad overview of the period. These are then followed by photographs, which illustrate a range of significant churches built during the corresponding time frames. Discussion of these churches is limited to a single extended caption, but no descriptive captions are provided for individual images. As a result, those who are not already familiar with these churches may struggle to understand exactly what they are looking at. While McKay makes an effort to emphasise the historical and social contexts of churches, the illustrations tend to subvert this by presenting them solely as objects for aesthetic contemplation. From this perspective, Ussher has provided much to enjoy, although there are some unaccountable omissions. The picturesque Northland church, St Gabriel’s, Pawarenga, is featured, but its interior, memorably captured in Laurence Aberhart’s haunting 1982 photograph, is only recorded in small detail images. A photograph of the interior of St Gabriel’s does appear in Historic Churches.

Worship differs from Historic Churches by including a generous coverage of 20th-century churches. John Scott’s celebrated Futuna Chapel is the almost inevitable cover image, but less well-known Scott churches, Our Lady of Lourdes, Havelock North (1960) and St Mary’s, Greenmeadows, Napier (1975) are also included. So, too, is the little known St Andrew’s, Le Bons Bay (1960), an austere modernist church designed by Allan Mitchener for a remote Banks Peninsula location.

McKay also highlights the unique qualities of Māori churches, from Te Rangiātea at ōtaki (1851 and 2003) to the significant group of churches erected between the wars and influenced by Sir āpirana Ngata’s efforts to revive traditional cultural practices. Outstanding among these is St Mary’s, Tikitiki (1926) with its richly embellished interior of tukutuku work and kōwhaiwhai. Along with Te Temepara, at Rātana (1928), these Māori churches are the product of an unprecedented convergence of indigenous and Western architectural forms and an important expression of Māori cultural resurgence during the interwar period.

Together, Historic Churches and Worship provide the most extensive illustrated coverage of New Zealand church architecture yet available. However, a detailed historical survey of New Zealand church architecture, taking into account buildings that no longer survive as well as those still standing, remains to be written. In the meantime, these two books will do much to focus attention on a major component of our historical and modern architectural and cultural heritage. By making New Zealanders more aware of this heritage, these books should also help to ensure its survival.

Ian Lochhead is associate professor of art history at the University of Canterbury.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Architecture, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category