The Restorations of Christ Church Cathedral & the Dilemmas of Further Action - Open House Dublin 2022
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The Restorations of Christ Church Cathedral & the Dilemmas of Further Action

When you step into Christ Church Cathedral, the first thing a guide will ask you is to look down the main aisle and figure out what is wrong. It takes a few seconds before you see that the entire north wall of the nave leans out 18 inches. 

No matter how many times you enter Christ Church, the shock at such a clear structural anomaly remains. Believe it or not, the Christ Church you step into today has undergone countless restorations, as well as careful preservation efforts to get it to its modern state. Multiple collapses, unstable ground, later additions, and the rescue funds from the Roe Whiskey barons have allowed the Church to survive for the modern audience. Yet the wall still visibly leans, and no one is shy about the fact that the building still needs work.

Despite the original medieval wall of the nave presenting an obvious visible concern, there is no current plan in place to correct the issue, and without a background in restoration it may be difficult to understand why. 

The conservation of what is categorized as immovable cultural property is one of the most complex areas of restoration. Christ Church is a patchwork of architecture from the medieval period to the Victorian Era, when gothic elements which were never originally present were added based on what architect George Street felt a 13th century church should have looked like. The buttresses added to the outside of the building are in contrast to the Romanesque style used throughout most of the cathedral, and the choir was entirely redone. The south transept showcases 12th century architecture meeting the later 19th century renovations, a mash of Gothic and Romanesque details.

North wall as seen from the West entrance

The restorations done in the 1880’s would never be accepted practice if undergone today.  It is considered unacceptable to strip a building of features to try and present a unified design. Street attempted to streamline the architecture and created a version of Christ Church which never existed. As a working building there had been additions and rebuilds since the first 11th century church structure, and there was never a homogenous design because of continued use. Now we consider unifying the design like Street did to be an erasure of a building’s history, however because of that, if Christ Church is restored moving forward it is likely that Street’s efforts will be preserved with the same care as all other elements, even though it is well known that none of his designs are original, nor reflective of how the church was when he began.

If restored again now further issues would ensue due to the structure. The boggy Irish soil has been one major cause of the Cathedral’s historic collapses. We know the building will be prone to collapse again in time, but ethically in architectural restoration, best practice is to preserve the original elements of the cathedral (such as the stonework of the north wall). To simply -said only in the context of minimum impact not the difficulty of what would be involve- straighten it all out and keep the original stone structure, the wall would likely fall crooked again in a matter of decades, a costly and invasive conservation process undertaken only for continuous efforts to be needed down the line. Short of moving the entire building to a new plot, it may not be worth the effort until there is a more serious structural concern. Yet, the longer the repairs wait, the more it will cost, and funds would have to come from somewhere.

This elaborate catch 22 at the forefront of architectural conservation exists when preserving nearly any historic construction, but it is so rarely as visible as in Christ Church. The one thing that can be agreed upon by preservation institutes and architectural scholars, is to see these monuments while you can, because the delicate balance between doing harm and good, conserving vs rebuilding and limitations on funding sometimes leave inaction as the only action, until the mounting problems verge on disrepair.  

Contributed by Abigail Settlemier


Instagram @abbysettlemier

North wall as seen from the choir
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