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150 years of indelible academic architecture

01 May 2023

Over 150 years, the University of Canterbury has left an indelible mark on Christchurch, with buildings reflecting the architecture of the times, from Gothic Revival to Brutalist beauty and modernism to contemporary architecture.


In its sesquicentennial year, Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | the University of Canterbury (UC) is connected to multiple events and buildings featuring in the Open Christchurch architecture festival – from its original home in the cultural heart of the city to its Ilam campus and its student halls, and ever evolving, cutting edge educational spaces.

Explore the past and present academic architecture of one of the oldest modern educational institutes of Aotearoa over the festival weekend of 6-7 May 2023.

UC Fine arts and music

Free talk: A Distant Prospect: Memories of Canterbury University College with Dr Erin Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies, UC
As a special event to mark the 150th anniversary of the University, UC’s Teece Museum is pleased to present ‘A Distant Prospect: Memories of Canterbury University College’ as part of Open Christchurch 2023. This free public talk will explore the memories of a selection of staff and students who worked, studied and played on the ‘town site’, the original location of Canterbury University College. Dr Erin Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies, UC Arts, will converse with former students, academics and support staff, and highlight some of the personal stories captured in the walls of these historic buildings. Seats are limited so register to attend. Sunday 7 May, 3pm-4pm.

Guided walkTransforming the Campus of a Te Tiriti Based University with Corban Te Aika (Ngāi Tahu), Kaiārahi, UC
Join Corban Te Aika (Ngāi Tahu), Kaiārahi at UC, to learn about how cultural narratives are being realised through design at the Ilam campus. Enjoy a walk around UC to see how these are expressed in new and refurbished buildings. Think about what is involved in the University’s journey towards becoming a Tiriti-based institution and what architecture’s role is within this. Sunday 7 May, 11am – 12.20pm Tickets: $5 + BF

Guided walkEngineering tour of the University of Canterbury with Dr Giuseppe Lopocaro, Lecturer in Architectural and Structural Engineering, UC.
After the 2010/2011 Christchurch earthquakes, UC’s Ilam campus went through a design transformation. Next to the award-winning, 53-metres-tall Puaka-James Hight (Central Library) building and Jack Erskine building, new buildings have been recently completed such as the five-storey Ernest Rutherford building, the tall timber Beatrice Tinsley building, eight-level Rehua, and the central Engineering Core, Rātā. The architecture of these buildings fully expresses the innovation in the field of earthquake engineering developed in recent years. This tour will take you around the UC campus where you will learn how architecture, engineering and innovation are integrated. Dr Giuseppe Loporcaro, a Lecturer in Architectural and Structural Engineering at UC, has a background in both architecture and structural engineering. He loves when materials, structures, history, and innovation are the protagonist of architectural design.

University architecture celebrated

Te Matatiki Toi Ora | The Arts Centre
Various; restoration: Warren & Mahoney
Address: 2 Worcester Blvd
Sat & Sun: 10am-4pm Multiple activities including audio tour
The 23 buildings that make up the historically and culturally important site cover 2.2 hectares and are best understood as a collection of buildings, something that the consistent use of Gothic Revival style has enabled over the span of the buildings’ ages. The site was originally acquired as a home for Canterbury College (now Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury), which was in charge of Christchurch Girls’ High and Christchurch Boys’ High. The University, celebrating its 150th year in 2023, was based there for 101 years before moving to Ilam. The Arts Centre has recently developed a cultural narrative in conjunction with mana whenua as a means to rebalancing the history of this site, which starts with the whenua. Explore the cultural landscape and take in the Ngā Whāriki Manaaki, the three woven mats of welcome, placed at various key points and visit the Rauora/Revival exhibition.

Chemistry Building – UC Arts (Teece Museum/UC Classics/UC Music)
 Collins & Harman, 1910
Address: 2 Worcester Blvd
Sat & Sun: 10am-3pm Open access
As you approach the Chemistry Building, take in the turreted tower, oriel or bay window and decorative roof ridging – these signal the importance the sciences had gained by the time this was built. Soon after, chemistry became the largest university department and included labs, a lecture room, prep room, and a basement for storing chemicals – and for the occasional winter game of cricket. The roof’s steep pitch speaks to lofty student aspirations; the building’s materials showcase the products of the regional quarry industry.

College House (University of Canterbury Hall of Residence), Ilam
Warren and Mahoney, 1964-67; Wilkie & Bruce, 2015
Address: 100 Waimairi Rd, Upper Riccarton
Sat: 10am-3pm Access via free, bookable tours
Sir Miles Warren deemed College House their best building. Through the application of modernist materials (concrete block, exposed concrete beams and lintels) and his ability to create order out of a complex system, Warren and Mahoney designed not just a dormitory, but a community, complete with chapel, library and dining hall, grouped together to encourage connection. The Oxbridge tradition of quads and halls melds with modernism in an effortless display from the masters, with a nod to Gothic Revival in the reverse pitched copper roofs.

Angus Tait (formerly Data Centre) building, University of Canterbury, Ilam
Hall & Mackenzie, 1966
Address: University Drive, central Ilam campus
Sun: 11am-2pm Open access
Originally designed as a telephone exchange, this distinctive, modernist building boasts sleek lines and a graceful form. Chunky structural members prop up the building, so that the upper floor appears to float despite its heavy, brutalist materials. Inviting comparison with the Brazilian works of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Angus Tait now houses the University’s future learning team and has been structurally upgraded and retrofitted to serve its purpose. Be sure to check out the other programmed Hall & Mackenzie building on campus: the Macmillan Brown Library.

Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury, Ilam
Hall & Mackenzie, 1970
Address: Arts Road, central Ilam Campus
Sun: 11am-2pm Access via free, bookable tours
Housed in a Brutalist beauty of exposed concrete and local timber that was originally part of the University’s Forestry School, the Macmillan Brown Library occupies a space, Te Ao Tūroa, that has been retrofitted for its purposes. See how this research library cares for its diverse cultural heritage collections and take a look at the architectural drawings they have on display from their collection – the largest of its kind in New Zealand – on this bookable behind-the-scenes tour.

Puaka-James Hight (Central Library) building, University of Canterbury, Ilam
Ministry of Works, 1969-74
Address: University Drive, central Ilam Campus
Sun: 11am-2pm Open access
This 53-metre-tall beacon of Brutalism can be seen from many parts of the city, signalling its commitment to knowledge and Modernism far and wide. The form fits the function in this imposing structure of confronting and exposed concrete, as seen in its legibility, interior flow and the longevity of its use: it was designed as, and remains, a library. This tower on a podium rewards closer inspection: don’t miss the strong sculptural elements, such as stairs dramatically floating over water or the oversized exterior balustrades.

Ernest Rutherford building, University of Canterbury, Ilam
 Jasmax, DJRD Architects and Royal Associates Architects Ltd in association, 2018
Address: Science Road, central Ilam Campus
Sun: 11am-2pm Open access
A unique response to both its function and a strong cultural narrative, the Ernest Rutherford Building unusually houses 6 different scientific disciplines in its X-chromosome-shaped structure while reflecting mana whenua’s sense of place. The breath-taking atrium best expresses the concept of te ara a Tāwhaki (a pathway to knowledge) and the Māori god Tāwhaki’s ascent through the learning levels with its spectacular vertical emphasis. This timber-lined space unifies the variety of disciplines and services housed in the building without compromising sound levels. 

Check out more about this year’s Open Christchurch festival.

Videos for UC buildings (2023 festival) include:

UC Open Christchurch video playlist.

Canterbury College

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