After shock

After shock
Christchurch’s chocolate-box facade has cracked. The city will never be the same— but what will it choose to become? Kris Herbert meets the Cantabrians who are reinventing their city

Editor’s note: On February 22, just as Idealog reached newsstands, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch, which was already regrouping from the quake of last September. Our thoughts are with everyone affected.

It's now more important than ever that the city be re-created, and we invite readers to add their own updates and input in the comments section at the end of this story.

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Christchurch’s chocolate-box facade has cracked. The city will never be the same—but what will it choose to become? Kris Herbert meets the Cantabrians who are reinventing their city

illustration by tane williams

Canterbury is still reeling from tectonic shift. Tarps dot rooftops and the sound of paper shuffling is louder than sound of hammers banging. As disasters go, it got off lightly—and as far as earthquake rebuilding goes, it’s doing better than most.

When the dust settles and the mountains of building consents are filed in council drawers, we may even say that the 7.1-magnitude Greendale earthquake on September 4 was the turning point for Christchurch in the hearts and minds of her citizens—the day they looked up at the crumbling buildings, saw them for the first time and decided they cared enough to do … something.

The virtual architects

L’Aquila, Italy, 6 April 2009: A 6.3-magnitude earthquake killed 300 people and damaged more than 70 percent of the medieval city’s architectural heritage. Frustrated by the lack of an official plan to rebuild the city, a British architect, Barnaby Gunning, started a website where residents could upload before-and-after photos of the city’s buildings. Now, volunteers from around the world are using those photographs to create 3D models of the city on the Google Earth platform.

The result is a digital record of the city, owned by the people. It’s also a new template for quake-damaged cities around the world. Google Earth was launched in 2005 with the goal of creating a 3D, digital atlas of the world—including an estimated two billion buildings—and it relies on the public to create these models.

People like Christchurch architect Jason Mill, for example. Mill taught himself 3D modelling as a side-project to his architecture practice, practising on icons like the leaning tower of Pisa and the Coliseum, before his team at ZNO began focusing on Christchurch. These later models took on new significance after the September 4 earthquake—while many of the buildings no longer exist, their 3D record still survives on Google Earth.

The earthquake has exposed things that we already knew—that the central city is struggling. Gap Filler is just a subtle injection of different ways of thinking”

In response, Mill organised modelling workshops where volunteers helped to create more models of city buildings from photographs in order to build a fleshed out, publicly accessible, 3D platform. “The idea is to give the public more power to see what the city was and what it could be,” says Mill.

Canterbury University’s HITLab has made the concept mobile, creating an Android smartphone app that will be like a hand-held time machine. Point it at the now-demolished Manchester Courts building and the app will bring up a timeline—from the original construction to the quake damage to the various proposals for rebuilding.

The graduate

And these proposals have come from some unlikely sources, thanks to an initiative by architectural graduate Andrew Just. A few days after the quake, he was sitting at his usual desk, doing his usual work, when something occurred to him. “I was thinking, ‘This is bullshit. I have skills that could be used,’” he says.

However, he wasn’t allowed inside the cordon, so along with fellow graduates Juliette Taylor and Joseph Hampton, he came up with a plan. A week after the quake, the call for Ideas for Christchurch had gone out across the country and to friends around the world. People had ten days to offer their suggestions … any suggestions.

“We’re not established, 40-year-old architects,” says Just. “Who’s going to listen to us? So, we just bypassed all that. I wanted to throw some actual ideas on the table, get a whole lot of submissions and get people debating those suggestions because I think a lot of our jobs as architects is to show what could be.”

Almost 60 submissions were received, more than half from non-architects. There was a colourful submission from a four-year-old and one from a grandmother. There was a proposal for working parties to rebuild dairies, and another for a large-span bridge across Lyttelton Harbour. The submissions were subsequently exhibited at the CPIT, and a book is also in the works.

Just says he hopes the quake will be a positive turning point and that its creative citizens will be more willing to invest their energy into the city. “Most people my age leave. They complain about Christchurch, but I think, ‘What are you doing for the city? You’re just running away to leech off a cooler place.’”

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Gap Filler uses vacant lots in new and imaginative ways

The art collective

As the Ideas for Christchurch exhibition was going up, an installation incorporating similar ideas was projected onto a Tuam Street building. Visual artist Arte Nomade initially collaborated with sound experts The Greenhorn Company to create an audiovisual piece that celebrated classic architecture.

However, says Simon Kong of The Greenhorn Company, the quake gave the proposed artwork a new context. He remembers the weeks afterwards as a time when everyone suddenly looked up at the city’s buildings as if seeing them for the first time. “We were thinking of projecting onto a building anyway, so that became the focus of the workshopping. The debate was just starting about how to rebuild and we caught on to that feeling.” Since then, he says, the early momentum has slowed. “It seems like it’s all bogged down in paperwork.”

Kong wants to see more spontaneous art in the city. For his project, he didn’t ask permission, but had nearby streetlights dimmed for a couple of hours. People lingered to watch the nine-minute loop again. The police turned up, and a few city councillors who had been informally notified. There were no complaints.

Kong hopes the earthquake will make the city a bolder place. “Because it survived. These events don’t happen to every city. I hope Christchurch will take the opportunities it brings.”

The community group

One Idea for Christchurch has already become a reality. Gap Filler, run by Coralie Winn and Ryan Reynolds, takes vacant sites and turns them into art and performance venues. After the two submitted their concept to Ideas for Christchurch, Andrew Just and the Creative Licence Trust’s Tim Coombes came on board. The first Gap Filler ran for ten days in an empty lot on Colombo Street, with a very popular and packed schedule of live music, poetry, dance, petanque and film screenings.

“The ripples this creates are amazing,” says Winn. “It changes the mood. We’re part of a movement with other local initiatives Greening the Rubble and the Unlimited School kids, who want to turn the old Para Rubber site into a park.”

An ongoing project, Gap Filler’s second incarnation is a photographic essay by German artist Stefan Koppelkamm, which was gifted by the Goethe Institut and installed on a blank wall in Worcester Boulevard. “It’s not curated,” Winn says. “It’s about opening up to the community. The earthquake has exposed things that we already knew—that the central city is struggling. Gap Filler is just a subtle injection of different ways of thinking.”

The biennial

The SCAPE Christchurch Biennial of Art was just three weeks shy of its launch date when the quake struck. The year’s theme, ‘inner-city redevelopment’, was suddenly far more relevant than the artists and organisers could have imagined—though the venue itself, the central city, was out of action.

SCAPE adapted. It has been rescheduled to run over March and April this year, and its eight large-scale public artworks (seven temporary, one permanent) have taken on a greater depth and context.

Melbourne-based visual artist Ash Keating was the Christchurch Arts Centre’s 2010 artist in residence, and his project for SCAPE looked at the plan to have 30,000 more residents living in the inner city by 2026. Working with architects and designers, Keating created Gardensity, an online animation for the potential development of the heritage-listed Sevicke Jones building to incorporate native gardens, student accommodation, offices, public spaces and studios, with a linked Facebook group and Twitter feed, which was designed to stimulate discussion about the city’s future.

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Stills from before-and-after ideas at

However, he says, the earthquake did more to prompt this debate than Gardensity ever could. “In the days following, it became clear people were blogging and starting Facebook groups for the same reason,” say Keating.

When SCAPE opens in March, Gardensity will be presented in a ‘showroom’ in Cathedral Square. Visitors will be able to follow the online discussion and add their own comments.

The artist has also used the Gardensity Facebook page to promote other initiatives in this story, and says the discussions show people have ideas and concerns for Christchurch but felt their voices were not heard. “I will be making every effort to make sure that the discussion points are archived on the website and hand-delivered to decision-makers at Council,” he says.

Mayor Bob Parker says the Council already funds HITlab, and will financially support Greening the Rubble and Gap Filler, as the ideas behind them were part of pre-quake council initiatives. “This flowering of ideas is an indication of what creative people we have here, and it gives me a tremendous feeling of optimism about the future of the city. We are repairing the fabric of our city. There are some gaps and those gaps have become the catalyst for us to re-think Christchurch. The only thing that can create a city is creative energy.”

For more see:




The Greenhorn Company

Ideas for Christchurch

Greening the Rubble


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