A Guide to Architecture and Art in Christchurch
Ōtautahi Christchurch’s cityscape is ever evolving and the combination of historic structures versus new modern buildings, works together in harmony to create a vibrant city.
Words by: Julia Rutherford
Christchurch has long been acknowledged as the most ‘English’ of New Zealand’s cities, as some of its most iconic sites would not look out of place in London or any other major British metropolis.
Alongside these architectural gems, the city also attracts talented creatives, and around Ōtautahi you will find galleries and other exhibition spaces full of incredible works of art. So whether you are visiting or have lived in Christchurch your whole life, let this guide help you discover some of the very best architecture and art this amazing city has to offer.
The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora
2 Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch Central City, Christchurch, Christchurch & Canterbury
In the decade since the earthquakes, Christchurch has lovingly restored some of its most treasured architectural gems, the Arts Centre included. A true landmark in the central city, the Gothic Revival-style Arts Centre complex comprises 23 buildings in total, and an incredible 22 of these are listed by Heritage New Zealand.
The Arts Centre has lived many different lives. Established in the 1870s, the first buildings housed Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury), Christchurch Girls High and Christchurch Boys High. Today, you will find cafes, a restaurant, a cinema, boutique shops, event spaces and a hotel, as well as nods everywhere to the former inhabitants. Take your time wandering around the different areas, and soak up the history and surprises you will find around every corner. It’s very easy to spend several hours exploring, so it’s a must to stop at Cellar Door afterwards, for a wine flight and a chance to reflect on your time at the Arts Centre.
Watch This Space
In recent years, Ōtautahi Christchurch has emerged as the country’s street art capital, with numerous artists bringing their creativity and talents to the blank canvases around the city.
Watch This Space is a charitable trust that is passionate about preserving these works and ensuring their legacy. They host a crowd-sourced interactive map online, as well as hosting walking tours that take you on a journey of street art, murals and graffiti. From Bulky Savage’s signature skulls painted on the side of Riverside Market, to Mark Catley's pop culture-inspired paste-ups on the wall of Rollickin’ Gelato’s Cashel Street store, to the award-winning Rise From the Rubble mural by Brandon Warrell, this is a great way to learn more about the history of urban art and explore Ōtautahi.
Isaac Theatre Royal
The Isaac Theatre Royal has had quite the theatrical past, and the current building is actually the third iteration of a theatre royal in Christchurch. The previous two stood on the opposite side of Gloucester Street, until the theatre as we know it today in all its French Renaissance-style glory, was erected in 1908.
This grand building is the only Edwardian-style theatre left in New Zealand, and regularly attracts performers from around the world due to its exceptional acoustics and ambience. Meticulously restored following the earthquakes, the Isaac Theatre Royal is a must-visit if you are in Christchurch, so make sure you check out a performance while in town. Marvel at the opulent interior and finishings, the traditional royal box seats and don’t forget to look up - the painted dome ceiling is a sight to behold.
The Old Government Building
28 Cathedral Square, Christchurch Central City, Christchurch, Christchurch & Canterbury
The Old Government Building is another iconic property in the central city that first opened in 1913 to house - you guessed it - government departments. This grand Italian Renaissance Palazzo style design was the brainchild of renowned architect Joseph Clarkson Maddison, and since 1996 it has been home to the Heritage Hotel.
Significant work has been carried out over the years, especially post-quake, to maintain and preserve this heritage-listed building. Alongside the hotel and a state-of-the-art health club, also on site is the beloved bar OGB. With speakeasy vibes, live music and a welcoming environment, stop in for a drink and a bite to eat after you’ve wandered the hallways and explored the majesty that is the Old Government Building.
Te Pae Christchurch Convention Centre
188 Oxford Terrace, Christchurch Central City
This stunning new convention centre is a key part of the regeneration of Christchurch and the city’s gathering place. Designed by renowned architecture firm Warren and Mahoney, the inspiration behind Te Pae is very much grounded in the influence of the environment, the city’s architectural history and paying homage to the local Ngāi Tahu iwi and their traditions.
As a venue, it’s world-class, and has been purpose-built to host a variety of events and meet different requirements. From large-scale conferences utilising the entire space, to smaller bespoke needs, Te Pae is for both visitors to the city and locals alike.
Urban street art at Fiksate
54 Hawdon Street, Sydenham, Christchurch, Christchurch & Canterbury
Head to the outskirts of the city centre and you will find the creative and artisan hub of Sydenham. In and amongst industrial workplaces in the suburb, there are galleries and creatives producing incredible work. Fiksate is one such place. It is so one of the country’s leading urban art galleries where street and urban contemporary artists are celebrated. Fiksate is operated by a group of artists who utilise the workspace out the back, giving an extra community and welcoming feel. With exhibitions rotating frequently, there are always new pieces to discover and fall in love with.
Jonathan Smart Gallery
52 Buchan Street, Sydenham
Also located in the heart of Sydenham is the Jonathan Smart Gallery, an art space that since 1988 has been committed to showcasing art that encourages discussion and debate. A range of contemporary art mediums are exhibited at Jonathan Smart, from painting and photography to sculpture and installations. As you wander around the gallery with the natural light streaming in, the juxtaposition of the industrial feel of the neighbourhood combined with the beauty of the art, makes for a very sensory experience.
Photo: Jonathan Smart
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
312 Montreal Street, Christchurch Central City, Christchurch, Christchurch & Canterbury
It’s an art and architecture two-for-one at the Christchurch Art Gallery, as not only are there stunning exhibitions to enjoy, but the structure that houses them is also spectacular. Designed by the Buchan Group, the gallery opened in 2003 and its unique glass facade makes an impact on the landscape of the city centre. Inside, there are many different exhibition spaces, where a revolving collection of art, sculpture and creativity are displayed.
The gallery is focused on cultivating and working with new talent, as well as celebrating established artists and historic works. If you’re visiting, make sure not to leave without stopping by the gift shop, the very aptly named Design Store. You’re sure to find a treasure or memento to remember your visit.
Ravenscar House Museum
52 Rolleston Avenue, Christchurch Central City
Ravenscar House Museum is another example of the worlds of spectacular architecture and art meeting. This award-winning building was opened to the public in 2021, and is the second version of Susan and Jim Wakefield’s dream to share their art collection with the city but in a tranquil, contemporary domestic setting - hence the house museum name.
Designed by one of the country’s leading architecture firms, Patterson Associates, Ravenscar’s structure is a nod to the iconic neo-Gothic buildings nearby, the Arts Centre and Canterbury Museum. Yet at the same time, it’s incredibly modern and forward-thinking in its construction and layout. The collection housed here is one that the Wakefields passionately curated over many years, and includes artworks by some of New Zealand’s most treasured artists such as Colin McCahon and Charles Goldie.
Absolution & The Physics Room
The Arts Centre, Christchurch Central City
In the heart of the Arts Centre precinct, you will find the contemporary exhibition spaces of Absolution and The Physics Room. The former is found on the ground floor of the Old Boys High building and is primarily known as one of the city’s best tattoo and piercing studios. It also doubles as a gallery, and every 4-6 weeks the exhibitions on display switch out. Plus there is also an exquisite range of jewellery to peruse.
Just around the corner in the Old Registry Building, you will find The Physics Room, a contemporary art space that is dedicated to the celebration of new and innovative works in New Zealand. As soon as you walk through the green leafy adorned frontage, you will be greeted by thought-provoking pieces.
249 Moorhouse Avenue, Christchurch Central City, Christchurch, Christchurch & Canterbury
The National is a one-of-a-kind gallery that should absolutely be on your ‘must-visit’ list if you are a lover of contemporary art and jewellery. Spearheaded by owner Caroline Billings, the exhibition programme changes on a monthly basis, and while jewellery is the specialty, The National also showcases sculptural ceramics, glass and object-based works.
Walking through the gallery, the minimalist aesthetic and polished concrete floors allows the pieces on display to truly shine, and unlike most galleries, here you are encouraged to touch and even try on pieces.
City Art Depot
96 Disraeli Street, Sydenham
Beginning life as a picture framing workshop, City Art Depot in Sydenham, is well-known around the city for their expertise in this area and for conservation and art care too. Over the years they have also grown a reputation as excellent art exhibitionists, and have branched out into the gallery space as well. Supporting contemporary New Zealand artists, City Art Depot regularly changes their exhibitions, showcasing talent from around the country and embracing different styles, techniques and artistic methods.
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An effortless combination of old and new, Twenty Seven Steps is a modern and sophisticated restaurant on New Regent Street.
The Custard Square Bookshop
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Three Boys Brewery
Pop into Three Boys Brewery and fill a rigger, order a keg for that next bash or sit down and enjoy a cold one right here – there’s a comfy space upstairs to set down your tush and watch the brewers at work.
Whether you’re after a caffeine kick, a cool spot for a catch up, a resupply of beans or a new espresso machine, Prima is the place - they’ve got parking out the back, too.