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Our Environment: Issue 19 Winter 1999

Our Environment: Christchurch City Council's Environmental Newsletter

Lessons From The Peterborough Centre

"Those who can, do: those who can't, teach ... and those who can't teach, teach teachers." Whatever the origins of this well-worn saying, it cannot be said to be true in Christchurch. At the Peterborough Centre, Christchurch's former Teachers' Training College, the standard of practical know-how and instruction has never been seriously questioned. And while the teachers moved out long ago, there is still much to learn from the building which remains.

Christchurch's former Teachers' Training College was set up as a department of the Christchurch Normal School, established in 1876. Pressure for construction of a separate teachers' college building grew and in September 1924 the foundation stone of the present Peterborough Centre was laid. The building was erected in three stages: construction of the Peterborough street wing was completed in 1926; the Montreal Street wing a year later, and a smaller, north wing in 1930.

Peterborough Centre

The entire complex was designed in the office of Canterbury Education Board architect, George Penlington. Although the Gothic design was admired by many, it was also criticised as "altogether too ornate". The Chairman of the Training College, Ernest Andrews, responded by pointing out that the Education Board had decided that the building should be constructed of brick with a stone frontage to be in keeping with other educational facilities in the area: The Normal School (now Cranmer Courts), Christ's College and Canterbury College (later the University of Canterbury and now the Arts Centre).

From 1926 to 1978 the building was occupied by a succession of students and staff. Eventually, though, the college outgrew the building and in 1978 a long-planned move to the present campus at Ilam was completed. The Peterborough Centre then stood empty for two years before being used by cultural groups.

The building passed into private ownership in the mid 1990s and it became clear that a new use would be needed. In 1997 proposals for converting it into an apartment complex were developed, requiring significant alteration to the interior. When the first wing of the building was being erected in 1924, the Press had anticipated that the interior "should prove not a whit less interesting than the beautiful outer walls". In fact, although the proportions of many of the spaces were generous by today's standards, much of the original interior consisted of relatively plain, plaster surfaces. The corridors, which ran the full length of the Montreal and Peterborough Street wings, timber joinery and entrance foyer and staircase were the significant features.

The conversion proposal was therefore developed on the understanding that much of the interior could be altered but the Montreal and Peterborough Street facades and entrance foyer would be left intact. Significant alterations to the courtyard elevations were also accepted as a consequence of the change of use.

Redevelopment of the Peterborough Centre was completed recently. Superficially the complex invites comparison with the former Normal School, also converted into apartments in 1982-3. The differences in approach towards design of these two apartment complexes are, however, more notable than the similarities. There has been less alteration to the form of the Peterborough Centre and an interior courtyard has been conserved along with the building. And while the Normal School building was turned into apartments after a lengthy 'battle' to prevent demolition, no proposal to demolish the Peterborough Centre emerged. The superior structural condition of the Peterborough Centre made it a more likely candidate for conservation than the long-neglected Normal School building, but the differences in attitude can also be seen as evidence of growing support for heritage retention.

Doubtless economists, planners, conservationists, architects and others will continue to debate the feasibility of adapting Christchurch's heritage buildings to new uses. However, the success of the Peterborough Centre's conversion adds weight to arguments for conservation. In the final analysis, "those who can" have done their job admirably, and those who believe we can't should surely be learning how.

Peter Richardson
Assistant Planner (Heritage)

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