A little while ago Nairn and I went “over the hill” to my old home town of Christchurch, and for the first time since the earthquake of Feb 22 2011 I went to the centre of the city - the former red zone. When I moved to Wellington 10 odd years ago Christchurch wasn’t my favourite place –the CBD was being strangled by shopping malls and as a result it was a grim city, grey and cold and full of office workers during the day and drunken louts at night. In returning post ‘quake I expected to find a city that was broken, abandoned and dying but I still wanted to get a firsthand sense of the hell that the city has endured.
The first thing that struck me was that Christchurch has become a
city of cyclone fences and shipping containers bound together by closed roads and detours. It makes it different and random, a far cry from the rigid grid I used to navigate so easily*. The destruction has broken the pattern, changing the dynamics of the city, and although this is probably more pronounced as the street closures move around it breaks up the straight streets and makes driving an adventure.
The darkness has gone too. Where once old buildings shaded back alleys the buildings are now gone and you walk in the sun, and see across the block and often across the city too. History is revealed - who knew that the old paint work and advertising signage sandwiched in the middle of a party wall was so interesting? In places that were previously dark and cold people congregated, more people than I have seen in the CBD on a Sunday afternoon for years.
A ramble down Lichfield Street, once filled with endlessly boring shop windows, now leads to funky re:start (the container mall) and often you find a quirky café or shop set up on a vacant site. The building is a bus or a tent or a shipping container, unconventional and often colourful. The results don’t feel temporary, they feel experimental but they also feel alive. I loved it and it seems that others appreciate the new city too; the recreated parts of the city are clean and free from graffiti and vandalism, not so true for the broken buildings that are waiting for the wreckers ball.
l left Christchurch more excited about the city than I have been for years. The creativity and resilience on display are inspiring and I am keen to revisit soon and see the progress and the changes. But I do worry, the rebuild is such a big project and already there are calls for a new city to be planned and designed. I just hope that the town planners and the architects keep away and the rebuild continues as it has begun, slowly and organically to meet demand, built by individuals with imagination and passion, this after all is how cities have traditionally developed.
*Christchurch was originally designed in England on a grid system. When the surveyors arrived to map out the streets they found that not only was the city planned for the middle of a swamp but no one had accounted for the fact that it was in the Southern Hemisphere so had to be designed for northern not southern sun.
In early 2012 Penny & Nairn moved from central Wellington to South Westland. Welcome to the record of their adventures.