City Art Reader 10: Stitching up the Town Hall

28th Feb 2019

For the hundreds of Cantabrians filing through the restored rooms of the Christchurch Town Hall, it was a nostalgic homecoming. The 1970s lights were there, the Rieger organ, the mahogany balustrades, the timber-lined 2,500-seat auditorium, the Rainbow Pieces mural by Pat Hanly, commissioned by architect Miles Warren, and there, hanging on the wall above the stairwell, the huge 9.3 x 2.5 metre Women’s Suffrage Commemorative Wall Hanging stitched over a quarter of a century ago by members of the Canterbury Embroiderers Guild.

Women’s Suffrage Commemorative Wall Hanging

In 1993 the brief issued by the Christchurch City Council Women’s Suffrage Sub Committee was straightforward – a large wall hanging representing the lives of women of different ethnicities to mark 100 years since New Zealand women gained the right to vote.

The execution was more complex.

Photographer, sculptor and performance artist Di Ffrench, who died in 1999, was commissioned to design the hanging. That design was then translated on to the fabric. From there it took 100 members of the Guild to stitch the approximately 24,000 metres of cotton and wool on to seven panels of carefully dyed fabric.

The work was exacting. Incorporated into the design are the commemorative dates, “1893-1993” and a number of finely detailed motifs including a weta, a giant Powelliphanta snail, a bridge symbolising the opening of new opportunities for women over the previous 100 years, vines of white camellias and symbols of the four natural elements – earth, air, fire and water. The triangular structure of the work represents the fault line running through New Zealand and the shapes found in traditional tāniko weaving techniques. The five female figures illustrate cultural diversity in New Zealand, the waving lines in the right hand panel represent Canterbury’s fabled nor’west wind and the forest depicts both the New Zealand landscape and the universal symbol of the female.

Women’s Suffrage Commemorative Wall Hanging in situ after reinstallation alongside information plaque with a City Art Depot frame made from original unused balustrade pieces of mahogany

Working in three-hour shifts in their studio in the former Girls’ High School building on Cranmer Square, Guild members completed the project in a mere eight months, interrupted only when Peter Jackson asked to use the former classroom for the filming of Heavenly Creatures.

Those women who couldn’t come into the Guild room worked on small parts of the design at home. The feather cloak was made by artist Cath Brown and master weaver Emily Schuster. “In terms of the mana of the weavers,” says Guild member and project co-ordinator Marianne Hargreaves, “we had two of the best.” For the border, stitched with the names of all those who worked on the project, the sheer bulk of the hanging demanded an improvised sewing machine on a mobile trolley to be wheeled around the edges.

As Hargreaves explains, for the Guild, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, it was a challenging but memorable undertaking.

“The brief from the Christchurch City Council was for a project that involved as many women as possible working together, and it completely fulfilled that brief. A lot of the women would come in and work on it in teams on a regular basis and many of them formed close friendships. Because it was a suffrage project there was a lot of talking about their lives. Older women had had husbands away at war and some had had quite difficult lives. It was an intimate atmosphere. They really missed it afterwards.”

When it was completed it was first hung in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery for visitors to get a chance to see it up close. It then took 15 people, including Hargreaves and Pippa Davies from the Guild, Anna Crighton from the Christchurch City Council, the gallery hanging team and people working in the Town Hall to install the completed work in its current location.

In February this year, just ten days before the Town Hall opened its doors to the public for the first time since the earthquake, City Art Depot staff and a handful of volunteers, including Hargreaves, Davies and conservator Lynn Campbell, climbed up on to scaffolding high above the staircase to carefully re-install the hanging, which had been stored in a City Art Depot crate for many years, in its rightful place.

Inspecting the artwork before the rehanging

It might never have got there. A 2012 seismic performance review undertaken by structural and geotechnical engineers Rutherford + Chekene showed the earthquake sequence, particularly the earthquake of 22 February 2011, had caused widespread liquefaction and lateral spreading of the ground under the Town Hall. This had caused the auditorium and lobby to tilt towards the river and the restaurant to tilt away. The resulting subsidence caused different areas of the building to separate and gaps to appear in some pedestrian bridges. Concrete shear walls and block walls cracked and splintered to accommodate the movement in the foundation, timber flooring and wall framing distorted and much of the basement became flooded with water, sand and silt. Demolition was an option. The building was missing from the 2012 blueprint for Christchurch’s redevelopment, which listed a new performing arts precinct “in the event that the town hall cannot be repaired”. In 2013 then Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee declared his hand when describing restoration as an “expensive challenge”. In an opinion piece in The Press that year he said, “We have a clear choice: try and recapture the magic of the past and patch up the town hall, as some want to do; or deliver modern facilities that could again have Christchurch leading the world for quality performing arts spaces.” But in June 2015 city councillors voted 12 to 1 to push ahead with the job of repairing the landmark 1972 building. Despite escalating costs, from an initial $127.5 million to $167 million, the land beneath was remediated, the foundations strengthened and the building repaired to 100% of the New Building Standard (swelling costs seem to be par for the civic course when it comes to earthquake strengthening – the price tag for the Wellington Town Hall has gone from $43m to $60m to $90m to an estimated $112 million).

The restoration of the entire Christchurch Town Hall will not be completed until August but until then those attending some of the planned events will be able to see a suffrage project born out of dedication and commitment, now reinstalled as part of the returning heritage of Christchurch.

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