3 Oct 2020

Christchurch Catholic Basilica deconstruction: 'The building is very dangerous'

4:32 pm on 3 October 2020

The head of the team working to deconstruct Christchurch's Catholic Basilica, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, says they are endeavouring to save important features, such as sculptures by Llew Summers, but have to weigh up costs and safety concerns.

The damaged Catholic Basilica in Christchurch

The damaged Catholic Basilica in Christchurch Photo: Peter Fleming

Demolition work is underway on the heritage building which was badly damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes.

Tony Sewell is the project director for the Catholic Cathedral precinct, which includes the development and construction of the new cathedral and the deconstruction/demolition of the old cathedral.

He said as deconstruction has got underway it has become clear how dangerous the work is.

"The building is very dangerous. We have had one or two incidents of falling pieces of material, which make us glad we are taking the approach we have. We're now in a position to investigate how we can move into the building safely. People think we are just crunching it to pieces. I can guarantee you we are not. It's a very very slow time consuming and careful process and at each stage we stop and review where we are going and look to where we are going to go next."

He said that was why the deconstruction will take about a year, and not just months to complete.

Sewell said the hope of saving some of the more structural pieces is becoming less and less practical, so they are now looking at how they can save some of the more important items in the building.

He says many of the important artefacts have already been removed.

Sewell says some of the remaining items, which they are trying to determine if they can be saved, include stained glass windows, the organ and the Llew Summers Stations of the Cross.

Sculptor Llew Summers' 14 Stations of the Cross were commissioned for the Cathedral in 2000, but the sculptures attracted controversy due to Jesus being depicted naked in one of the images.

"I can't say to people yes we will save the Stations of the Cross or this or that, because we can't ascertain it until we go through these stages."

He said for example to save the Stations of the Cross they would need to put someone into the building to physically remove them by breaking them out of the walls, where they are plastered in.

"Can we put that person in there safely and not put their life at risk to save these things, and what is the cost of doing that? Or do we have to take it down in another way to allow that to happen. These are the issues we are dealing with. Its not just a question of getting someone to walk in there with a chisel and chip them off the wall. It's just not that easy."

He said they also have to consider whether the cost of removing the organ, for example, would be more than the cost of putting a new organ into a new building.

Tony Sewell said the work is expected to finished by about August next year.

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