When the noted architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner visited New Zealand in 1958 he drew a good audience in Christchurch. Pevsner admired the Provincial Council buildings, and went on to say that he’d also found a cathedral as good as anything in the new world. “And” he said “the one in Cathedral Square is not bad either”.
The building that Pevsner put on a pedestal was the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, so badly damaged by the recent Canterbury earthquakes. Well known architect Peter Beaven described it as “the finest classical building in New Zealand without question”.
In Timaru we have a close relative of the Christchurch building, from the same architect F W Petre (pronounced Peter). Legend has it that Petre fell out with the Church over this project since he intended an even larger basilica than the one we see today. But surely he has provided enough – a simple glance and one is transported to Romanesque Europe by the sheer confidence of this structure. The interior is the high point – the richness of the bold volumes all beautifully expressed. Since its construction in 1910 the Basilica of the Sacred Heart has been well cared for by the Church authorities to their great credit.
“Worship” a recent handsome book by Auckland architect and academic Bill McKay devotes 6 full colour pages to the Timaru basilica. McKay refers to Petre’s interest in reinforced concrete buildings at an early stage, pointing out that the limestone and brickwork of the basilica is all supported by a concrete core.
For the Roman Catholic Church Petre produced highly worked buildings in Christchurch, Waimate, Oamaru and Dunedin and is another leading New Zealand architect to have contributed to the Timaru townscape at the peak of his career.
View by date