AMAZING ART-LED REVIVAL
A NEW CITY RISES FROM THE EARTHQUAKE RUBBLE
One hundred and eighty-five white chairs, all different, stand silently on an otherwise empty street corner in the CBD of Christchurch, New Zealand.
They are poignant reminders of a city flattened by a massive, 6.3 magnitude earthquake on February 22, 2011, which destroyed 70 per cent of the city’s CBD and killed 185 people. The earthquake was the second and more damaging of two – the first having hit the city just five months earlier.
Artist Peter Majendie created the 185 Empty Chairs art and wants somewhere to put a permanent version as the city rebuilds. It is now in its second location – a Crown-owned corner site on Madras and Cashel Sts earmarked for the city’s new stadium.
Elsewhere, along the Avon River in the city centre, a Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, opened in 2017, marks the disaster more formally.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, the government moved quickly to restore the most important parts of a functioning city. Not only had major public and commercial buildings, including hotels, collapsed but infrastructure like roads and bridges had been shattered.
Silt that had bubbled up from the earth clogged sewerage systems. Powerlines were down. Homes shattered.
Such was the initial desolation, for a long time afterwards you could look through the dusty windows of a closed-down CBD cafe and still see an untouched February 22, 2011, edition of the local newspaper.
But, true to its British colonial heritage and tenacity, the city began rising from the rubble, rediscovering its past and inventing its future. A new city is now emerging, vibrant and energetic, where creativity and innovation are thriving.
A good place for a visitor to start is the Quake City exhibition in Durham St North. It tells stories of heroism, hope and loss from the earthquakes. It explains the science and the phenomenon of liquefaction – when the shaking from the earthquake liquefied the ground and it bubbled up, burying streets and sinking buildings.
The new Christchurch, which is being marketed as “greener, more compact, more accessible and safer”, will cost about
Nz$40bn – almost 20 per cent of New Zealand’s annual GDP.
Ever-inventive retailers, having lost their buildings, quickly began to trade from a mall made entirely of steel shipping containers. Cafes and coffee shops sprang up in the shipping container “city” which was always meant to be temporary (though its popularity meant it lasted a very long time).
They will be replaced by an NZ$80 million Riverside Farmers’ Market, expected to open in early 2019.
Another major retail hub, New Regent St, is rediscovering its flair as a shopping and restaurant locale. Its beautiful Spanish Mission architecture dates back to 1932 when 40 buildings on the street were one of the few large-scale building projects undertaken in the South Island during the Great Depression. The street is now filled with boutique shops and eateries in distinctive pastel colours.
Nothing symbolises the city more than the Gothic-revival style Christchurch Anglican Cathedral. Built between 1864 and 1904, the cathedral was one of the city’s main tourist attractions. Now battered and broken, its once-dominant tower and spire, overlooking the main city square, crashed in the earthquake. It stands knee-deep in weeds and mountains of rubble – awaiting restoration over 10 years at a cost of NZ$100 million – a symbol of all that the city has endured.
In the meantime, Christchurch has a “transitional cathedral” in Latimer Square made largely of cardboard, the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who pioneered the use of cardboard as a structural material.
Christchurch’s vibrant street art and mural scene has become a strong element of the city’s new and ever-changing streetscape. Street art was once something found tucked away in Christchurch. The quakes afforded it new prominence.
Artists have created masterpieces of colour and creativity that adorn otherwise dull building walls – from inspiring large murals right through to small paintings that entertain (Lonely Planet has named Christchurch as one of the street art capitals of the world).
As new walls emerge in the rebuild, so, too, does more art, often sneakily tucked away down side streets or behind building facades.
It’s now easy to fill an afternoon with a self-guided tour of the city streets to take it all in – by foot or bicycle. Or a guided tour with Watch This Space. Launched in 2017, it is a 1.5-hour street art walking tour on Saturdays. You can also download a free, interactive street art database and map on phones, tablets and computers.
Yet another example of the city’s innovative response to the earthquakes is
Gap Filler, an idea that grew out of the rubble and vacant spaces left behind after the earthquakes.
Gap Filler has facilitated more than 70 projects, mostly temporary, in Christchurch since the quakes – from a cycle-powered cinema to the popular Dance-o-mat. The projects are aimed mostly at the youth to bring them back into the city and give them some entertainment.
Dance-o-mat is Christchurch’s much-loved outdoor dance floor on a vacant city site. An ex-laundromat washing machine has been converted so that you can plug in your headphone jack, insert $2 and get 30 minutes of lighting and sound to dance to.
And how’s this for imagination? Among the offices and concrete of the inner city, an edible orchard is emerging. Otakaro Orchard is a unique, community-run edible park being created on a NZ$3 million former central city office site. It will feature a heritage orchard, herb and vegetable gardens and space for educational workshops, an amphitheatre, local food information centre and café.
A convenient way to see Christchurch is the Hop-on-hop-off bus tour with Soaring Kiwi Tours. Choose the red line to learn about the history of Christchurch and view areas affected by the earthquakes and the city’s resurrection.
Or choose the blue line to visit city attractions such as Canterbury Museum, the International Antarctic Centre and Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
Some things haven’t changed. You can still hop on a beautifully restored heritage tram to explore the city centre or have a romantic date on the restaurant tram.
And you can still glide along the Avon River on an authentic Edwardian punt for a real throwback in time.
Out of the tragedy of multiple earthquakes is emerging one of the world’s most interesting and innovative cities.
A NEW CITY IS NOW EMERGING, VIBRANT AND ENERGETIC, WHERE CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION ARE THRIVING.