Making sense of it all

It is interesting to consider how we are influenced by an intangible map of our senses and emotions tied to our place in the world. We pay little attention to how we feel walking around a familiar neighbourhood, looking at an iconic heritage building in town, or going to a public event. Yet on any given day these experiences can be very different for each person. Which brings me to the topic of today’s blog post: phenomenology and heritage. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but bear with me, I shall explain.

We often take for granted how we easily navigate through the city. We know to walk on the pavement, where to park our cars, the correct entry and exit points in a building. We practice our manners and courtesies and grumble when others make social faux pas. We live in this environment, entertaining, navigating and living in and around buildings without so much as a second thought. Phenomenology is the study of how we understand and interact with our environment. It has its origins in the study of philosophy. Philosophers Kant, Husserl and Heidegger first defined and elaborated on the subject, and it has been expanded upon through many other studies. For more (light) reading on this, have a look at Wells’ website on phenomenology, which gives a very concise run down on a very heady subject.

If we were to think about the identity of Christchurch, words which spring to my mind are as follows English, earthquakes, gardens, heritage and traffic (Figure 1). Some of you might agree with them instantly, or disagree entirely, but how did I form this vision of Christchurch? My experience is based on my knowledge of history and stories, my activities and memories created here, and assumptions formulated in my youth. This personal memory bank (without delving into the psychological theory of memories) influences the decisions I make, both consciously and unconsciously.

By Roger Wong from Hobart, Australia (20100130-07-Christchurch Cathedral Square panorama) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 1. Panorama of Cathedral Square, prior to the earthquakes. Photograph by Roger Wong, via Wikimedia Commons

My interest is in how people interact with heritage spaces and buildings, particularly how we interpret these spaces when we visit and participate in activities within them. My experience is different to yours, his, hers and theirs. It is this idea of experience and interpretation that feeds into phenomenological studies. Heritage buildings can be controversial (see the cathedral). They are seen through many different lenses and different eyes. People want them propped up, or torn down, others couldn’t care less about them. This begs many questions: Are heritage buildings relevant, vibrant community spaces? Are they mere sad relics of a by-gone era? White elephants in a world of progress? What is the point in keeping them? What do they say to people? Can everyone read them?

In Christchurch and wider New Zealand, gothic architecture is an indicator of local and national identity. Where heritage buildings are preserved, there is an emphasis on identity and community, based on the idea that these buildings reflect where we came from and form a picture of the place. The Arts Centre (as it is now known) is a collection of buildings constructed between 1877 and 1965 to house the educational sector of Christchurch, including the University College, the boy’s and girl’s schools, and the music and arts colleges (Figure 2, Figure 3). This was the primary campus for education before the university was relocated to Ilam in the 1970s.

Figure 2. The Great Hall prior to the earthquakes. Photograph by Greg O'Beirne (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 2. The Great Hall prior to the earthquakes. Photograph by Greg O’Beirne (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons.

Bgabel at wikivoyage shared [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. The School of Art, prior to the earthquakes. Image: Bgabel at wikivoyage, via Wikimedia Commons

We have been involved with monitoring the strengthening and restoration project at the Arts Centre for several years. During our most recent work at the Arts Centre we found the remains of the ‘Tin Shed’ as it was nicknamed – the first science building constructed in Christchurch, built for the chemistry department, (Figure 5, Figure 6, Figure 7). The building was demolished in 1916, and it has largely been forgotten in history, except for a fleeting connection to Ernest Rutherford – who spent his formative years studying chemistry in the building. When we were recording the remaining piles and external foundations, I began to wonder – what do we value when it comes to our history? The archaeology in question was mostly removed, save for some sections of concrete foundations and a few piles that were able to be left in situ. This was a practical solution as the services were not able to be redirected and were vital to the endurance of the standing buildings (Figure 8). It was disappointing, but the above ground history is the most visible component of heritage and so is perceived as the principal component. This points to a dislocation from many parts of the story, especially the ordinary, unexciting bits. People aren’t campaigning to save drains or utilitarian buildings even if they are protected under our legislation. We have these magnificent buildings to symbolise our past and authenticate our identity. So where does the rest of the story and the archaeology fit in?


The ‘Old Tin Shed’ , 1912. Source Strange 1994, p.7.

Figure 6. The remains of the tin shed found in 2015-2016 during archaeological monitoring. Image K. Webb and J. Hughes.

Figure 7. A section of the piles from the Old Tin Shed uncovered during 2015 monitoring. Image: J. Hughes.

Figure 8. The North Quad as it is seen June 2016. Image Source: The Arts Centre.

There are many studies that use phenomenology to explore the idea of place and history. Wells and Baldwin used two different neighbourhoods (one historic, the other a modern development) to examine what made the place feel “local” to the participants in the study (Figure 9, Figure 10, Wells and Baldwin, 2012). They used interviews and photographic survey to explore sense of place and feelings towards heritage. Where the character buildings of the suburbs were championed in the orthodox descriptions of the area, as defining the ‘feel’ or identity of the place, the participants came up with different answers. It wasn’t the buildings themselves that enhanced that neighbourhood, but the collective environment (warts and all). Walls, trees, and fountains became key for the identity of the place. The sense of place was reinforced by imaginative and taken for granted features.

I, Maveric149 [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 9. Historic Charleston homes. Image: I, Maveric149, via Wikimedia Commons

I'on streetscape 2008. Image:

I’on streetscape 2008. Image:

Other studies about museum and tourist experiences and even local views on neighbourhood identity tell a similar story: much of what we identify in our environment is unique to our own experience, memories and imagination (Hughey-Cockerall et al. 2014, Kowalczyk, 2014). Emotional attachment to a place validated it in the eyes of the visitors. Past and future events, small details and forgotten things are highlighted in this approach and point to the value of the experience.

You might argue being impartial and presenting a singular story means that it makes all experiences equal, making it enjoyable for all. But if you take the emotion out of the city it blocks our perception (positive or negative) and generates the apathy currently influencing discussions about Christchurch and heritage. Perhaps it is time for emotion to be dragged into the commercial sector and public engagement – shining a light on the ordinary things so that we get a broader picture. This means giving all avenues of evidence equal weight: subsurface archaeology, architecture and historical narratives and documents, and examining our attitudes towards it all.

Why should it matter? It matters in the sense that heritage buildings in Christchurch and wider New Zealand are always thought of in terms of value and mostly monetary value. With the focus on the dollar sign, are we losing some of the meaning when it comes to symbols of our past? Christchurch demonstrates that it is not simply a case of demolishing the “old dungers”. The desire to retain and use these buildings is admirable, and draws many sectors of the community. The impetus to redefine Christchurch and retain the heritage is at the heart of the rebuild efforts. There are many people concerned with taking back the identity of the city- so that everyone can feel at home or welcome. There should be more discussion about what makes Christchurch ‘Christchurch’. We should pay attention to what people feel when they walk down the street and into a building. We should study how we can enhance that. If we look at the work of Katie Pickles and Fiona Farrell – they have articulated what makes this city Christchurch, and how the earthquake has affected that. An articulated phenomenological approach would validate heritage buildings through the experience of a multitude of people. Such an approach would renegotiate the urban landscape into an inspiring, vibrant setting to live in.

Julia Hughes

Selected references

Farrell, Fiona, 2015. The Villa at the edge of the empire, one hundred ways to read a city. Vintage, Auckland.

Hughey-Cockerell, A., et al. 2014. Developing a sense of place in St Albans. Unpublished draft report for St Albans Residents Association. Accessed [online].

Kowalczyk, A., 2014. The phenomenology of tourism space. Turyzm 24 (1). Accessed [online]

Pickles, K., 2016. Christchurch Ruptures. Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand.

Strange, G., 1994. The Arts Centre of Christchurch, then and now. Clerestory Press Christchurch, N.Z.

Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384-400.

Wikipedia, 2016.,_Mount_Pleasant,_South_Carolina