Conservatorium-The Sound of Music or The Sound of Silence?

“…Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.”    

                                                                       Simon and Garfunkel  

Will the nearby new civic halls be alive with the sound of music or will the University of Canterbury’s proposed National Conservatorium of Music at Christchurch’s unique Arts Centre be art garfunkled?

This is another Christchurch Sturm und Drang in a tea cup. It’s been depicted in black and white, but if the conservatorium goes ahead the outcomes are certainly not all black, as painted by some opponents, though they may be a paler shade of white than portrayed by some proponents.

I have been open, but with some reservations, to the concept of building the Conservatorium on the vacant Hereford Street site to complete the original 1873 vision of progressively building a university campus in a gothic revival style. This vision didn’t include the mock Tudor building now occupied by the Dux de Lux, for which we ex-town site students have so much affection. Owner and opponent Richard Sinke seems to have got his Dux in a row rather more adroitly than the UC and the City Council.

Perhaps it’s time to try to clarify some of the thinking behind the concept and to do some rethinking.

The proposal

The proposal for the Arts Centre site is for a building that will replace existing inadequate facilities for music at Ilam, to which the University of Canterbury finally decamped in 1974. Its centrepiece would be an auditorium: “Performance would be the focus of our programmes at the conservatorium. An auditorium would be necessary for rehearsals and performances by staff, students and others… .the School of Music would flourish as a centre of musical excellence with a focus on conservatory-style training in the performance of classical music, providing the highest calibre artistic education for gifted musicians, in particular in strings, piano and voice, and with the possibility of developing a specialised opera programme.”

There is obviously a major international performer behind the concept who fully understands the need for top class rehearsal and performance facilities!  So far so good.

Conceptual Confusion

 The proposed site is in the heart of the city’s cultural precinct, which attracts residents and visitors. The prospectus states: “Entry to the Performance courses (piano, organ, orchestral instrument, recorder, brass band or voice) is limited. Places are awarded on the basis of a School of Music audition held in October 2009.”

There are many professional and amateur performance opportunities in the city. Christchurch is home to a symphony orchestra and the country’s second biggest, if currently somewhat shaky, arts festival. There are also efforts being made to breathe new life into the opera scene.

But there seems  to be some conceptual confusion which stems from a blurring of the related but quite different dimensions of music education and music performance:   “Students would also be able to pursue their interest in a comprehensive study of music, including musicology, music history and music education.”

Music education and music performance are at different ends of the knowing/doing continuum and should not necessarily be lumped together. For example, UC’s Bachelor of Music prospectus lists six pathways available within a Bachelor of Music:  Composition; Digital Music, Sonic Art and Recording Technology; Music Education; Music History, Culture and Research; Musicianship; Performance (Instrumental and vocal).  Presumably all but the last are capable of still being taught at Ilam-as is all or most of a Bachelor of Arts in Music, which contains a wider range of subjects than just music.

We shouldn’t confuse a more general music education, as in Stage I Music, with performance imperatives for those who wish to specialise in music. Apparently  Stage I music lectures will still be held at Ilam, with some staff, not students, doing the commuting;  likewise other music programmes would continue to be offered at Ilam for the likes of students studying for a double degree.

Rectification of Terms

What is a conservatorium? The eighteenth century French origin of conservatoire, as in conservatory of music or theatrical arts, was the word for an orphanage.  Early schools of music originated in orphanages where a musical education was given. An orphanage detached from the Ilam campus is what some fear if the Arts Centre proposal gets the go ahead.
Confucius emphasised calling things by their proper names. Perhaps it’s time for the  rectification of names and for dropping the inflated term “National Conservatorium of Music” in favour of the more descriptive “UC Music Performance Centre”, with an appropriate stress on music performance more general music education. The Music Performance Centre would be something to which serious music students “graduated” to in their second or subsequent years. The School of Music, as the umbrella organization, would span activities at Ilam as well as in the Arts Centre. Some music subjects, not necessarily performance related, are useful for those pursuing education or other careers. 


The overshadowing weight of the design of the four story building is a big issue. The “edifice complex” was one of the reasons why Elric Hooper wants to knock it out of court.

One of the FAQs on the UC website: “Q: Could it be smaller? A: The current size is considered to be necessary for a facility of this sort. Further, it is no higher than the surrounding buildings and the quadrangle it creates will be the largest of the quadrangles”.  

The “all Arts Centre” or “all Ilam” dichotomy is a false one and perhaps has led to the  building being overspecced, not in terms of rehearsal, recording and performance spaces but in terms of staff and administration offices.  We can’t tell. The design has been pulled from the UC Conservatorium website.

The university needs to avoid acting like a homing cuckoo depositing an inappropriately large egg in a rather small nest, thus destroying the organic ambience of the present centre when a more sympathetic approach would enhance it.  

I’ve been been involved in a charitable organisation which, just prior to pushing the button on a new building on an old site, saw the need to have an eleventh hour rethink about the function and design of the building after neighbours raised objections. Substantial design and location changes were made and produced a final outcome acceptable to all parties. Perhaps it’s time for UC to move towards the middle ground.


If following the Special Consultative Process, the Council resolves to proceed with the proposal, the recommended structure would involve the Council borrowing the funds required to build the centre ($24.355m million), leasing the land from the Arts Centre and providing working capital to Civic Building Limited (CBL), which would be responsible for the development.

CBL would then have a long-term lease agreement with the University, up to 200 years, which ensures lease payments are sufficient to Recover the whole construction cost of the building over 50 years, meet all maintenance and refurbishment costs, pay the interest on the required loans, repay the debt and ensure the structure is cash-flow (and rates) neutral to Council

The financing of the project is the only part open for consultation. Recent Council deals have raised suspicions about the consultation process, or lack thereof. In this case it’s limited to the funding modus operandi not the wider concept. Some previously concealed financial data, eg the price tag for the Conservatorium, has only just surfaced as the Council hearings began because the Ombudsman has once again prised the facts from a coy Council pleading commercial sensitivity and pursuing its own interests in the shape of subterranean staff car parks.

Sinke’s lawyer Margo Perpick says: “There is a strong indication that the city council has predetermined the outcome of the consultative process.” The Arts Centre Trust has already applied to the City Council for “boundary realignment” for six allotments on the proposed music school site.

 Despite all this, the financial arrangements appear to be a reasonable way to achieve a visionary mix of civic and university goals and bring some more life to the city centre.  

Promise and compromise

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of either/or thinking. It is possible and desirable to keep a substantial presence of the School of Music at Ilam, particularly the lecture components and some administration and to have a second hub, the UC Music Performance Centre, at the Arts Centre.

Having some music staff and students working and performing in the centre of town would add to its vibrancy, attract more visitors and provide significant spin-offs for businesses in the inner city. But not all UC music education needs to be in the new separate from the main teaching and learning Ilam family.

The creation of a performance focussed building at the Arts Centre site would, as proponents aver, provide a central city location for the University and be useful for other University events such as the UC in the City Lecture series and alumni events. “This location has the potential to maximise audience numbers and community participation at such events and also at School of Music concerts.”

A modified concept can still be aspirational without being overblown.

Let’s have high quality music in the Arts Centre-in the new auditorium, in the Great Hall and elsewhere throughout the city centre, with UC performers  sharing their talents in a mix of non-profit and commercial contexts.

The Arts Centre is already a showcase, a meeting place, a marketplace and a performance venue for theatre, film and music.  It is no longer an education facility and is not zoned for tertiary education. 

The cosy coterie of proponents  and lack of real consultation has aroused suspicions and raised hackles, but on balance, with some rethinking and redesign, I would support the concept. To make it work some of the more avid supporters might need to get out of their own way  and discard a take it or leave it approach – and some of the critics who have been trying to sink the proposal might need to open their minds a little to a vision still softly creeping.

A modified concept and  revised design offers the prospect of filling in the longstanding gap in the Arts Centre with a blended porcelain filling rather than a transplanted gold-capped tooth. It would foster town/gown connections and enhance the vibrancy of the heart of the city’s cultural precinct.

The Arts Centre “one of New Zealand’s most significant historic and cultural attractions” could then be renamed Christchurch Arts and Music Centre and be alive with the sound of music seven days a week.

“We want music seven days a week, seven days a week will do
Any more than this would be greedy, just so greedy, too true….”      

                                                 Mark Walton  7 Days a Week

Lyall Lukey 2/11/09 

 BLINKS     Save Our Arts Centre from inappropriate development.

Heritage Alert  Graphically illustrates just how significant the proposed building will dominate the Arts Centre site and how totally unsympathetic the proposed new building will be in respect to the existing heritage buildings.

Sound Of silence – Simon & Garfunkel (live sound)


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