Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - WORDS: DAVID POTTS

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.


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