Manchester, Christchurch

The earthquake that happened in Christchurch just over a month ago now is claiming its first tall victim. While the country is ecstatic that the series of quakes has caused no deaths to Cantabrians, there is a pretty gloomy feeling amongst certain lovers of modern heritage buildings that time is nearly up for the Manchester Courts building – formerly known as the Express building.

The Christchurch Civic Trust is fighting hard for its retention – and we’ve joined in as well – but the various Engineer’s reports do not make for happy reading. The City Council has signed the death notice, with Mayor Parker referring us to this website which gives links to those reports. It is sounding fairly grim:
“Demolition plans for the MLC Building at 160 Manchester Street has been brought forward following immediate concerns about the stability of the building.”

Well that’s a worry right there – it is not even called the MLC Building. I’m a little concerned that the Council is planning to demolish a building that it doesn’t even know the name of. Time for some history.

Designed by two brothers from Tasmania, the building is New Zealand’s first skyscraper. The Historic Places Trust website notes that:

“This building was built for the New Zealand Express Company in 1905-1906 and at the time of its construction it was the tallest commercial building in Christchurch. ….. Their Christchurch building was designed by Alfred and Sidney Luttrell, who arrived in New Zealand in 1902, and whose principal contribution to the history of New Zealand architecture was the introduction of the Chicago ‘skyscraper’. They were also noted for their use of concrete. The foundation and first two storeys of the New Zealand Express building are reinforced concrete. This was probably, according to Geoffrey Thornton, the first use of reinforced concrete in a commercial building in Christchurch.

Stylistically, this building is a compromise between British Edwardian architecture and the Chicago skyscraper style of the 1880s and 1890s. One example of this eclecticism can be seen in the corner tourelle, which was unusual in contemporary American architecture, but common within the English tradition. Technically the use of steel ties and standards, combined with the traditional brick masonry of the top five floors shows the same mix of sources. The ‘Chicago style’ was defined by the use of internal steel frames, which meant that the external walls were no longer load-bearing and therefore the height of the buildings could increase, and windows rather than masonry could dominate the exterior. With the New Zealand Express Company building the Luttrells moved one step closer towards a true ‘skyscraper’ construction method, which they finally achieved with their design for the same company’s head office in Bond Street, Dunedin, two years later.

The New Zealand Express Company building, now known as Manchester Courts, is significant as one of the earliest attempts at the Chicago skyscraper style in New Zealand. The building’s combination of contemporary American styles with the existing tradition of British architecture means this building occupies a unique place within the history of New Zealand commercial architecture. The construction of Manchester Courts helped to establish the Luttrell brothers as architects in New Zealand and the magnitude and style of this building reflected the importance and size of the company it was built for.”

So, these “concerns” that the Council has over the building – what exactly are they? Well, that the building has lots and lots of cracks in it, and might fall down – any second now, apparently.

Why is it falling down? What is it made of? That is exactly the point in question – it seems that no one really knows what the building is made of. The Historic Places Trust is pretty certain that it has a large reinforced concrete base on it, and then steel framing up above. However, engineers brought in by the owner, and other engineers brought in to vet their results, are not so sure. They’ve been searching for the steel frame, very carefully, and have yet to find the steel frame in the places they thought they would. That sort of thing gets pretty worrying to an Engineer.

Demolition is scheduled to start Saturday morning. That sort of thing gets pretty worrying to a Heritage Architect.


24 responses to “Manchester, Christchurch”

  1. While we had been contacted to add our voice to the supporters of teh building, it now seems that there is little to no likelihood of anyone saving the building:

    “The chief opponents of plans to demolish a Christchurch heritage building have given up their fight to save it.

    The Christchurch Civic Trust’s concession came as the Manchester Courts co-owner said he wanted to build a smaller building on the Manchester St site in time for the earthquake’s first anniversary next September.

    Trucks began unloading dirt for an eight-metre-high bund at the site yesterday, and demolition is expected to start on Tuesday.

    Co-owner Richard Peebles said one side of the seven-storey building would be opened up “like a dollhouse” at the start of the planned six-week demolition.
    He hoped one lane of the barricaded nearby streets could reopen within a month.

    Peebles revealed plans for a smaller building on the site that would have some features of the current block.

    The new building, which could be 14m high, compared with the existing 34m building, would have a modern look, with a glass exterior, but the interior would feature brick columns and other features of the 104-year-old building.

    The new building should be ready within a year, Peebles said. “It would be nice to be open in time for the anniversary of the earthquake.”

  2. The Christchurch City Council refers to 3 reports. The first, dated 13 September by Warrick Weber of Arrowtown based Gridline Ltd, appears to be quite a thorough report into the history and current condition of the Grade 1 Listed building, as seen from the outside. Remember, people have been banned from entering the building, so sadly, crucially, no one can perform any of the tests needed to find the missing steel skeleton.
    The report notes that “No original architectural or structural drawings are available however the overall construction is reasonably well documented in various sources.”
    It goes on to say that “There is mention in two publications of the time …of the use of steel standards and piers. It is unknown if these statements refer to steel columns within the masonry piers or to internal columns within the building. There has been discussion as to whether or not a steel frame exists hidden within the masonry piers and spandrel panels.”

    The second report, contained in a Christchurch City Council document from 5 October, is the result of a Ground Penetrating Radar test by Detection Services Ltd – undertaken from the rooftop of the building next door. This GPR survey identified “a number of targets which, due to their regular grid pattern, indicate a steel framing construction… at floor level and in the lintel area above the windows, strong steel reflections were observed.”

    The 3rd, and final (nail in the coffin) report, is also by Warrick Weber, and also on 5 October. It manages to drill a total of 6 holes in the outside face of the building, and does not manage to find any steel above ground floor level. It recommends that it is “neither feasible, nor possible to strengthen or save this building.”

  3. so this is NZ’s first skscraper and is an HPT category I listed building – why is the city council deciding its fate? Shouldn’t this be a national decision? Where the HPT and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in all this?

  4. You’re right – the Historic Places Trust are seemingly dumbstruck on this. It would seem, Richard, that the Engineers and Fire officers take precedence over the Heritage lobby on this – maybe not by law, but they’re certainly holding the control over urban heritage.
    The CCC have posted a transcript of a Verbal report to Council form the Unit Manager of Environmental Policy – Steve McCarthy – who said:
    “It was severely damaged in the September 4th earthquake and was declared as dangerous and unable to be used (red placarded) shortly thereafter. In the days following the earthquake, the Urban Search and Rescue staff, fire service and structural engineers sought to stabilise the building internally. Because of the danger the fire service ordered them away from the building and they were unable to continue their work. An engineer working with the USAR group considered the building a significant risk to public safety and ordered that there be no public access.
    A number of contractors who have been engaged to undertake investigations and repair on the building advised that they have had to stop because of the imminent risk posed to everyone in and about the building….”

  5. Will the brick columns of the new building be using the same recycled bricks from the old one, me wonders?

  6. Me thinks not. They’re going to be bashing it down in a pretty unsophisticated manner – bricks are going to be broken.

    And, from one report I heard, they’re thinking of a 2 storey high building, possibly made of glass.

  7. There is a much more serious principle at stake here, however. It is clear now that in the initial hours / day after the earthquake, a lot of heritage building owners took advantage of the damaged state of their building to get in and knock it down. Under State of Emergency rules, normal application to City Council and Historic Places Trust for demolition permits are waived – if the building is a danger to life, down it comes. Follow-up lawsuits that probably would have been likely in a few cases for overstepping the legal boundary have effectively been banned under the Canterbury Earthquake Emergency Regulations that have been passed, exonerating anyone from legal action, absolving anyone from having to provide documents under the Freedom of Information Act, and generally waiving the provision of all Acts and Regulations, or so it seems.

    So, while the builders and demolition crews might be having a field day, at least the lawyers won’t be.

  8. Skyscraper, pfft… It’s kind of an embarrassment – Just document it and let it go…

    I say that after a few glasses of Ashwell’s finets pinot noir, but I’m sure I’ll agree in the morning… it has to be one of the ugliest buildings of its time. Do you know whether there any identical structures in Tasmania that those who really enjoy could visit for their ‘heritage hit”…?

  9. Well there is the one in Dunedin which is easier to get to… and very similar.

    This Christchurch one does have the drawback of having been buggered around with up on the roof – the cornice has been removed at some stage, and a dodgy mansard installed – and, like you, I’ve also thought it was marred as a result.

    But I think they have tried their best to find out if it is reparable and savable – but I’m inclined to say, that if it has no steel columns, then it is totally without possibility of saving.

  10. M-D – what else did you imagine a NZ skyscraper in 1906 to be like?

  11. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, it’s a real shame this building wasn’t strengthened BEFORE the quake… I’m sure it will be a wake-up call for a lot of building owners.

  12. The Flatiron, of four years earlier, was 22 storeys. There has to be some kind of a point where buildings are deemed to “scrape the sky”, but the manchester surely can’t ever have been realistically in that category – especially if it doesn’t even employ a steel frame to hold it up…

  13. I note that in the official info it is labelled as Chicago skyscraper style – which is a fair call, I guess – although it’s detailing is fairly crude comparatively…

  14. If you’re wondering what is actually happening down there on site, the folks at i-open in Canterbury have organised a webcam, so you can watch the demolition live.

    M-D – you’ll enjoy this.
    Others – you might want to look away.

  15. I’ve already bookmarked it 😉

  16. I should clarify, that was said in jest, i do not celebrate heritage loss for the sake of it… I may not have any affection for this particular building, but I recognise and uphold other’s rights to value it, and am sad to see a valued building have to go – but if it is unsafe, i agree it has to go.

  17. a couple of questions – why was an engineer, who doesn’t appear to have any earthquake remediation experience, involved in writing the report? – surely for such an important building a structural engineer with more relevant experience and expertise is needed?
    – and if, as a couple of media reports suggest (esp the one yesterday in the Press about engineers assessing the building on Sunday), the building is able to be salvaged, why doesn’t the council buy the site? I mean didn’t the Christchurch City Council spend $17 million on another forelorn property owner, Dave Henderson?

  18. With all due respect, I would not call this a Chicago style building in any way, shape or form.

    The ratio of window to wall is skewed towards masonry. The detailing lacks the tracery-derived ornament developed by Sullivan, Elmsie, Purcell, Wright and others. The height does not reach the twelve stories associated with the classic 1880s examples in Chicago. And the massing is clearly dominated by the corner bay, as opposed to rising as a sheer vertical block.

    The second building pictured is far closer to the mark.

    The only thing that seems Chicago about the Manchester is a hint of Richardsonian Romanesque in the arches and the steel frame, which, it appears, is in some doubt.

    I would call it straight-up commercial Edwardian.

  19. This is a good link to some less well-known examples of the Chicago style:

  20. Engineer Avatar

    Shame on you Christchurh! This is a very important heritage building to the whole of New Zealand. It can be quickly and easily made safe. After that the structure needs to be understood and ways of repairing and strengthening investigated. There are many ways of doing this, and some cost far more than others. I believe it is likely the columns are reinforced masonry. This would have a reinforcing bar in each corner of the columns and ties every do often. This would be a likely construction for Architects who used reinforced concrete, and it would not have shown up in any of the tests do so far. It would also explain the way it behaved. The point is there was many options, and they haven’t been looked at. The owner thinks it is in his best interest to demolish and he has got his way. Very sad!

  21. Nice to see some positive posts on this site – the majority of people using Stuff etc seem to be out to attack anyone in favour of saving the building. Very true about the roof, it’s really a shame that it was changed, but overall I think the loss of this building is a huge one for Christchurch. It looks a lot like the owner is going to benefit financially from its demolition – just the fact that he’s replacing a seven storey building with a three storey one says a lot. I also can’t help but mention that for everybody who claimed that it was ‘perilously close to falling down’ and showing ‘impending signs of failure’, it’s had its floors, most of the roof, and corner supports cut out, and is still standing, through heaps of aftershocks, one in particular that was the biggest I’ve felt since September 5. Pays to have friends in high places….

  22. Also, in response to richard – this is another Dave Henderson situation, except this time they’re helping the him out by NOT buying the site – I read it was insured for around $5 million…

  23. I like this building. Hope it will rebuild!

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