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Hole Or Hope

With a crumbling Cathedral at its centre, the rebuild of Christchurch may appear to be no further ahead than when the Government released the blueprint for its recovery two years ago. But apocalyptic woes involving insurance, political interference and flooding are not the whole story. Christchurch journalist Deborah Nation finds those leading the charge are upbeat and optimistic about the future of New Zealand’s second largest city.

One of the many shocks for people coming new to post-quake Christchurch is the amount of sky. When the view opens up to the hills from the centre of town and the ground is excavated deep for new and better foundations, there is a lot of space in between. Visitors see a cathedral in ruins, deep holes full of water, and a quiet square that was once the heart of the city. Most recently, visiting Australian architect Michael Bilsborough concluded “Christchurch is in danger of becoming a donut.” A ghastly thought for citizens who loathe junk foods.

 Bilsborough claims the city will have an empty hole in the middle, if more isn’t done to lure business and people back into the centre. It is the kind of comment to spark a furious reaction. “There is an enormous amount of private sector investment going on in the central city,” thunders Chamber of Commerce chair Peter Townsend.” The reality is we are running out of available space.” Regularly dodging traffic cones from one end of Columbo St to the other, from home to office, Townsend says he sees something new every day. Unlike Bilborough, Christchurch residents have learnt to walk, cycle or drive straight ahead and not to compare what was, with what is. Instead they see the ministeps taking them forward; a new coffee cart, a street swept clean and ready again for use, an office, an apartment block, a cafe up and open for business. “We are about 10% into the rebuild,” says Townsend. “Now really big construction has begun. It’s been a slow start because first we had to get the horizontal infrastructure sorted, and the land evened out, but just in the last few weeks, there are more cranes working on putting things up than taking things down.” 


Saying we could become a donut city is “out of date and uninformed”, says Christchurch architect Jasper van der Lingen, who recently ticked off the first new landmark in the CBD. The Strange Building (in the photo on the previous page, for non-Cantabrians) stands on the intersection of Lichfield, Manchester and High Streets and speaks to the new aesthetic residents will see more of post-quake, he says.  Steel, timber and glass, opening to courtyards and laneways, the building is home to bars, bistros and brasseries on the first two floors, and offices on the third. Van der Lingen, a director of Sheppard and Rout Architects, says progress is thanks to the vision of KPI Rothschild Property Group directors Shaun Stockman and Dean Marsh. “If anyone deserves knighthoods, it’s these guys. They were the first to put their money where their mouth is, when everyone else was too scared. They started building when the army cordons were still in place.” There are a lot of big projects on the boards and underway, van der Lingen says, citing the recently-trumpeted and futuristic four-storey ANZ Centre (being developed by CHC Property for an estimated $85 million), and the $53m bus interchange to be built as a joint venture between Australian company Thiess and Christchurch’s Southbase.

These and other projects will provide the city centre with a critical mass of activity, says Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority CEO Roger Sutton. “I don’t want to sound like a salesman, but much more is happening now. The Convention Centre – expect an announcement any day; the Arts Precinct and the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct – both are well on their way.” Sutton turns to his city map, littered in red dots. “Two hundred sites have been consented in the CBD,” he says. “The Cambridge Terrace retail precinct is all private investment.” Local architects Warren and Mahoney are leading a consortium on the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct – the first major publicly-funded project to get started since the earthquakes. Prime Minister John Key is quick to point out that the $300m development: four new buildings, with offices, cafes and retail outlets, will bring 18 government departments and agencies, and 1700 state employees back into the Christchurch CBD by 2016, alongside cafes and retail outlets. 

Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck is optimistic. “I’d like to see an announcement rolled out every week, to keep us all feeling that the momentum is there. And not for the start, but for the completion of a building.” She reckons it’s not a coincidence the sudden recent surge in activity comes in an election year.  Buck, a former Mayor (she resigned in 1998 after three terms, only to stage a post-earthquake political comeback in 2013) says she is thoroughly enjoying her return to an office that doesn’t require cutting ribbons, but from which she can leap into a newly-formed city council, and make a difference.

Still, one eyesore remains, and it’s one that gives some credence to the donut theory. Open to the elements, surrounded by garish safety fencing, and right at the centre of the city, Christ Church Cathedral is the one building everyone has an opinion about, although they are not always as predictable as you might think. Jasper van der Lingen, the architect involved in the steel and glass Strange building, sees the next wave of architectural style in context with the city’s distinctive neo gothic past and recent modernist heritage. And as part of that, he believes the cathedral is too important to lose. Ideally it should be restored, but with a “twist”, he says; something new that recognises the extraordinary events that have happened in its time. Meanwhile, a determined coterie of Canterbury citizens litigate against its destruction with dogged determination. Equally determinedly on the “pull-it-down” side is an obstinate Anglican hierarchy, which has long since moved off to the lighter, brighter, transitional Cardboard Cathedral, with its much cheaper power bills.

There’s a historical tendency for Christchurch citizens to move heaven and earth to stop change in the garden city

 “Everyone wants to ‘own’ and litigate about our city, which is both good and bad,” says Townsend, acknowledging an historical tendency for Christchurch citizens to get deeply involved and if necessary move heaven and earth to stop change in the garden city. Others think recent events demand change and a new way of thinking which, as van der Lingen says, is far more complex than people who come in for a few days’ visit could possibly understand.

The blueprint: Help or Hell –

The Government Spatial Blueprint for the future city is the new reality which developers, councillors, architects and observers, are now coming to terms with – two years after it was launched. It was not the first vision for the city, recalls Vicki Buck. That was “Share an Idea”, launched in May 2011, just three months after the most destructive earthquake. The Christchurch City Council encouraged residents to have a say about how the central city should look, and its design team used ideas written on post-it notes to formulate a city plan. Internationally-renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl came to the party, which led to Christchurch being featured in the acclaimed documentary The Human Scale, which examined theories of pedestrian-friendly future cities.

“Share an Idea” was recognised in the movie as a groundbreaking co-creation initiative, and to those who were involved, from citizens to urban planners and architects, it was exciting, visionary and possible. But then the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority moved in, says Buck with more than a hint of bitterness. “Cera came along and over a 100-day period locked themselves away and completely rewrote the rules.” Share an idea became the 100-day-plan. The then council showed little resistance. Buck alludes to a (then) council lacking money and transparency, and making poor insurance decisions regarding the city’s assets. Confidence was hampered by on-going earthquakes, and virtually nobody in the private sector was prepared to jump in, she says. However others feel that while inevitably the city plan deeply offended many property owners, whose buildings have to go, and frustrated a previously autonomous Christchurch City Council, it has also offered surety and a plan of action for the city. Opus Architecture’s director Mark Burke Damaschke, who is working on the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, recognises that in a city the size of Christchurch, with a relatively small population per land mass, the blueprint offers a good framework within which to plan and build. Still he also feels it will be important to “blur the edges” between the zones.

It’s those areas “between the zones” that Vicki Buck also believes to be crucial. ”I used to get a week’s work done just walking from one end of The Strip to the other,” she says, recalling the popular restaurant and bar scene which spilled onto the pavement opposite the river. Buck worries that having everyone slotted in to their various precincts will restrict the natural cross-pollination of people and ideas which comes from a city that is developed in an more ad hoc way. She also thinks the blueprint has been slower than it needed to be and runs counter to Christchurch’s character.

“Where the Government hasn’t taken land they have imposed a development plan. It’s requiring all the developers to agree, which is counter to the intrinsic character of developers.” The blueprint has pros and cons, says Colorado-born architect Camia Young, who arrived in Christchurch soon after the major earthquakes and in time for the many that followed. “It’s great for putting momentum and certainty into the future of the city, but the plan is last century.” Young believes precincts and hyper zones don’t work. Land vaues will become prohibitive for investors, she predicts. “You can’t design a city in 90 days. Christchurch needs someone at a high level to say, this is just a starting point and not a closed book.

” Drawn to an alternative scene of artists, designers and thinkers in post-quake Christchurch, Young became immediately active in the internationally-cool urban regeneration initiative Gap Filler which, like Greening of the Rubble and Life in Vacant Spaces, creates quirky and people-friendly transitional structures and events in the gaps left by destroyed buildings. Her current project is “The Exchange,” a production and startup space for the creative industries. “Like Auckland’s Shed 10 but with a bar as well.” Young feels she “won the lottery of life” arriving in Christchurch at this time. “There is so much going on. It’s impossible to keep up.” She has also become “sous chef” of “Studio Christchurch”, a shared unit involving every school of architecture in the country.  From the moment the blueprint was released, her students began critiquing and looking at alternatives. (But then they also critiqued “Share an Idea”, Young says. “It was too small and focused only on the CBD. It had no economic strategy.”)

Young, who practiced with Pritzker prize-winning Dutch “starchitects” Rem Koolhaas, and Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron on the Tate Modern conversion of the Bankside Power Station in London, says many masterplans involve good intentions and poor outcomes. “ Look at the prototypes. La Defense business district in Paris, Canary Wharf in London. These are economic glass towers divorced of their contexts.” Still, the irrepressible Roger Sutton says most landowners feel the blueprint works. “You always want faster progress, and there will be people disaffected; it’s inevitable if you are going to do big bold things. But by and large property owners have been selling to us. ” He says talk of division between CERA, the City Council, and others is exaggerated. “We may disagree respectfully on some issues but often we will resolve things over dinner.”

One assumes from recent photo opportunities that similar conversations happen on cycling rides with members of Mayor Lianne Dalziel’s team, since a group of feisty women have now moved into the city council in place of former TV show host Bob Parker and his team.  Roger Sutton, who won the hearts of Christchurch when he was head of power company Orion chief, plugging the city back onto the grid during the major quakes, is optimistic. “Most disasters around the world don’t see cities come back as strong as before, but in this case we will.” Sutton points out the high level of insurance, the fact that the Government has stepped up with involvement in the anchor projects, and a strong economic base thanks to core industries such as IT, dairying and now post-quake reconstruction. Not everyone agrees. Christchurch-born freelance urban designer and masterplanner Noah Fagan brought his family back from England partly because he wanted to be part of the rebuild. “I was here for the 6.2 at Christmas and there was such an optimistic atmosphere,” he recalls. But living on the periphery of satellite town Halswell, Fagan worries Christchurch is just banging out homes, with little thought for their community planning. “Once the concrete is down you can’t go back.”

He sees snowballing pressure to house people at any cost around the edges of the city; in isolation and with no rules in place. That’s worrying and depressing, he says. Prestons Rd, Wigram Skies, Oaklands, Lincoln, and Prebbleton are varying examples of how one should and shouldn’t develop satellite communities, he says. “A lot of housing development is occurring, but how are they going to link together or back into the city centre?” Fagan spent 12 years working on UK housing projects ranging in scale from 30 houses to new villages of up to 15,000. “I really enjoyed seeing everything come together to make a sustainable community.” During his time in Britain there was a big move to rethink the rules and work with local councils to make an “informed response”, Fagan says. Now he worries about the cavalier approach to housing development here. “As long as you meet the technical requirements, you can design what you like.” He worries there is little connection between the various “pockets of development” and that new areas of unimaginative housing stand in isolation and without amenities. Residents have to get in their cars and drive even for a cup of coffee, or to catch a bus, he says. He sees parks or “green spaces” which may work well for the immediate community, but fail to link on to other destinations.

Vicki Buck concedes there are some shocking areas of housing around the outskirts of Christchurch, but believes the council is now working (with CERA) to fast track progress in this area. Shops, parks, amenities and bus stops, she assures, will be part of the deal. Meanwhile back in town, Victoria St, the northern gateway to the centre of Christchurch, is another area reaching a critical point of near completion.  Accountants and lawyers have settled back into offices amidst the latest bars and restaurants. It’s a nightmare to find a park but the place is busy and vibrant. “My hope is that there is flexible, design-led thinking in CERA and the City Council,” says van der Lingen, whose transparent glass Matisse building, with its state-of-the-art seismic solutions in pine and steel, stands out amongst the crowd.

“My fear would be that the blueprint is managed with inflexible implementation, he says, carefully choosing his words. “To be bureaucratically managed is stifling. It needs to be design-led, with the creatives in positions of power and influence.” What “donut” Australian architect Bilsborough perhaps failed to see in his brief visit to Christchurch is that despite the inevitable differences of opinion, those bringing expertise and passion to building a new Christchurch are determined to make it work. Here, along bustling Victoria St, you can begin to imagine the day when suits will outnumber fluoro vests, and all those cool, graphically designed people, photoshopped and smiling in every city plan and commercial proposal, might even come to life. ×

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