Canterbury College

Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873-1973. An illustrated history based on the Armson Collins Architectural Drawings Collection

Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873-1973


The buildings that form the original town site of the University of Canterbury, once known as Canterbury College, are far more than just bricks and mortar. They are no less than the building blocks of our institution, in which we may find stories of staff and students, of education and recreation, and of service to community. Although the first site of Canterbury College is no longer formally attached to the University, the buildings continue to serve the wider community as the Arts Centre, and in the hearts of many former students and staff they still represent a place where minds and lives were forever changed.

‘Learning by Design’ is a visual history of the building of Canterbury College from its humble foundation in 1873, through the College’s evolution into a University with ivy-clad cloisters, and finally to the gifting of the town site to the people of Christchurch in 1973.

The inspiration for this exhibition came from the visionary designs for many of the College buildings which may be found in the Armson Collins Architectural Drawings Collection. A project to digitize the Armson Collins Collection in 2012 has slowly illuminated a rich source of historical documents which show how much of Canterbury College was conceived and constructed.

By connecting the architectural drawings to the wealth of archives, photos, and books in the University Library’s collections, this exhibition highlights how architecture, education, and community combined to create Canterbury College. ¬†Although the University is now at home in Ilam, the legacy of Canterbury College lives on in its graduates, in our research collections, and in the buildings of the Arts Centre.


The history of the University of Canterbury is one that started with a grand vision, embedded in the ideals of the Canterbury Association. It began life in 1873 as Canterbury College on a small site in Worcester Street, home to just 87 students and one temporary building.


In the 100 years that Canterbury College occupied the original town site, numerous architects played a role in designing and creating its many buildings. The individual styles and visions of each of these architects shaped the way Canterbury College was to develop over time.


The way in which architects go about creating designs and producing architectural drawings has changed considerably over the last century. The history of those changes, and the preference for Gothic Revival style at the College, can be traced in the Amrson Collins Collection.


Block by block, the town site of Canterbury College was constructed between 1876 and 1966. Without an overall plan, buildings tended to be added as necessity demanded, and funds allowed. The result is that each building has its own unique character and its own story to tell.


After the construction of the Clock Tower in 1877, Canterbury College began to create its own rich culture and traditions, many of them centered around the experiences of staff and students who were living and working in the town site environment.


Canterbury College did not exist behind closed doors. Staff and students at the College enriched the life of the city, by sharing their skills, knowledge, creativity and enthusiasm with the community at large.


By 1949 the University had announced its decision to relocate from the town campus. Overcrowding had convinced the University that rebuilding in Ilam was necessary. Now the buildings of the old College needed a new purpose to ensure their survival.


The Armson Collins Architectural Drawings Collection represents an essential component of the story of Canterbury University. The project to digitize the Collection is just one way to ensure that it will survive for future generations to enjoy and profit from.

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