The Arts Centre te Matatiki Toi Ora

The Arts Centre te Matatiki Toi Ora is housed in the Gothic Revival buildings of the University of Canterbury’s former town site. The centre is a national landmark and includes New Zealand’s largest collection of category one heritage buildings with 21 of the 23 buildings covered by Heritage New Zealand listings.

Read The Arts Centre te Matatiki Toi Ora history for more information and search our Papers index for newspaper articles.

The Botany and Physics buildings
The Botany and Physics buildings and the Observatory of Canterbury College, University of New Zealand (now the Arts Centre) [ca. 1919] CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0033

Origins: The University of Canterbury

The University of Canterbury was founded in 1873. It moved in 1876 to the gracious 19th century Gothic-styled buildings (which now comprise the Arts Centre). The clock tower in Worcester Street was the first building constructed. It was designed by the pre-eminent Gothic Revival architect, Benjamin Mountfort, and was completed in 1877.

The rest of the stone buildings, designed by a number of prominent Canterbury architects such as Samuel Hurst Seager and William Barnett Armson and the firm of Collins and Harman, were added over the decades. This maze of inter-connecting buildings spread out over the whole 2.2 hectare town site. Included in this labyrinth were the original Girls’ High School on the corner of Rolleston Avenue and Hereford Street and the original Boys’ High School at 28 Worcester Street.

University moves

When the University celebrated its centennial in 1973, it obtained Government approval to preserve the historic buildings at the western end of the site by presenting them to the people of Christchurch together with a fund for their maintenance derived from the disposal of the eastern end. The University subsequently agreed to the imaginative proposal for multipurpose use of the whole site as an arts centre and the preservation of all the permanent buildings.

The transfer of all departments of the University to the present site in the suburb of Ilam, 6 kilometres northwest of Cathedral Square, was completed in 1975. 1978 saw the formation of the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Board, a registered charitable trust, formed to receive the ownership of, and administer in perpetuity, the old University town site.

A cultural and tourism focus

The complex became the home of a number of cultural organisations. These included the Court Theatre, the Southern Ballet, the University Theatre, and the School for Young Writers. The Arts Centre housed offices for several arts administrative organisations such as Creative NZ, the Christchurch Arts Festival and South Island Art Projects.

The market, craft studios and galleries attracted thousands to the Arts Centre. Outdoor entertainment and exhibitions were a regular feature.

Controversial years

In the ten years prior to the earthquakes, the Arts Centre was the cause of a number of public controversies around moves to introduce more commercial use of the complex. The most significant row was over plans to build a $24.3 million national music conservatorium on a car park on the site.

Significant community opposition saw the conservatorium plans, designed by Sir Miles Warren, refused consent after independent commissioners found it would harm the Arts Centre’s heritage values.

Earthquake recovery

In the early hours of 4 September 2010, a major earthquake caused extensive damage throughout Canterbury. The Arts Centre te Matatiki Toi Ora buildings were damaged - collapsing chimneys damaged the Great Hall, the Observatory Tower and the Clock Tower. 

The centre, which is held in trust for the people of Canterbury and its visitors, has been undergoing a large restoration since it was badly damaged in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Buildings are progressively reopening to the public as they are strengthened and repaired and more than half of the buildings have reopened.

The Arts Centre charitable trust is actively fundraising with the next stage to include the $10m restoration of the Observatory Tower and the restoration of the Physics, Biology and Engineering buldings. The Physics and Biology buildings will become home to a boutique hotel. The first buildings to reopen after the earthquake were Registry, Registry Additions and The Gym with Registry reopening in July 2013. The Great Hall opened in June 2016.

Sources

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