Christchurch is the major city of the South Island of New Zealand, an attractive place that I have visited a few times. It is one of the most anglicised places in the Southern Hemisphere, designed with parks and squares around its central district which reminded me of an English city like Cambridge or Oxford. Even the names of the streets add to the feeling, every one named after a British cathedral city.
But in February 2011 we were on holiday watching television when we saw a devastating earthquake had hit the city, killing 185 people. It possibly could have been far more, prevented perhaps because of the construction standards on this earthquake riddled island and the fact that most of the residential areas are single storey. 115 people died in a single building, the Canterbury TV station. We were deeply shocked then as we heard about the impact, the disruption to lives and the damage to buildings we had visited like the 150 year old cathedral. And then of course the news value and awareness diminished gradually, especially as we were living 12,000 miles away and because nobody we knew was injured in the process.
Now three years later we could not just pass by Christchurch without taking a day to explore the city and see what had happened in the intervening years.
Looking back now I just cannot believe how little I really knew about what had happened to the city and the impact it is still having today. This is a modern, 21st century city that has had its city centre reduced to rubble, where many homeowners are still unsure about the future of their houses, services like sewage are still not connected and there is a sense of the temporary about much that we saw.
We learned much about the immediate impact and the emergency that followed the earthquake at the excellent “Quake City” museum in the city centre which contained a wide range of photos, artefacts, video reports and other material that told the story of the earthquake.
But what made the most impact was the city centre itself. We drove in from Hanmer Springs through the suburbs heading for the city centre. As we followed the signs into the car parks we worked our way through numerous diversions and construction sites until we pulled into what seemed to be a side plot for a building site.
Only gradually did we realise that this building plot was not just a piece of spare land. Across the former central business district it seemed that almost half the land was now razed to the ground, buildings so damaged that they could not be recovered.
And the main activity we saw on every corner was demolition. Having removed the completely unsafe buildings first the next stage of the procedure is to remove the damaged sites so construction can begin on a new footprint.
But then we gradually realised that we were not just looking at ruined buildings. Around us we could see numerous “survivors” that broke up the sad open spaces and the demolition sites, however as we approached the buildings we realised that so many more were boarded up, almost as they had been left in February 2011.
They are not survivors, they are just not a priority for demolition, or their future just cannot be determined. Yet. This city has been gutted. “Munted” is the local term. Over 70% of the buildings will eventually go because they are unsalvageable, or they cannot be trusted to withstand the ongoing aftershocks or a future earthquake. I found so many parts of the city centre as sad as a ghost town because even where buildings remain there is almost nowhere to work or shop so most of the life of the city has had to move away.
At the core is the cathedral. Cathedral Square is one of the Christchurch spots I remember most from previous visits, with the legendary Wizard proclaiming every day and permanent giant chess games going on around the hustle and bustle of tourists and residents.
Now the Cathedral is the symbol of the damage to the city. A shock to the senses to see the spire gone and the walls ripped away. It is also a symbol because no decision has been made what to replace it with. Should it be replicated as a traditional cathedral in stone, just earthquake proofed? Or is it time to move on and join the new vision for the city? For now it continues to dominate the Cathedral Square as it has done for so many years, but in a very different way.
We agreed afterwards that it was all rather overwhelming, we really had not expected to see the whole of the central city still disappearing.
However there were some outstanding signs of the determination to keep the city alive and to improvise solutions to these new challenges. The first we found was Re:Start Christchurch, a complete shopping mall recreated out of shipping containers, including an excellent coffee shop. The mall not huge, but it is hugely important that it is there. It is also, remarkably, mobile, so it can relocate from site to site as new works take place in the city.
And just outside the central district is another important building which perhaps points the way for the future of the original cathedral. The temporary home of the Christchurch Cathedral is the so called “Cardboard Cathedral”, a structure whose primary structural material is giant cardboard tubes which support a steep translucent polymer roof that allows natural light into the structure.
It’s simple, elegant interior space is really attractive, surprising given its somewhat plain and functional exterior. Even the ubiquitous Christchurch shipping containers have been discretely incorporated.
I found it different, interesting, modern and appropriate to its setting. I hope the slow, painful reconstruction of the rest of the city can also achieve the results the people want, it doesn’t get swamped by the impersonal commercial imperative of so many property developers and I hope I can go back there when it has come back to life.
I guess too that it is vital that people like us keep spending our tourist dollars in places like Re:Start, to be part of the city recovery. So I am glad that we went, despite the fact I am left with strange disturbing images of a city devastated by the earth, a sombre but fascinating scene of change.
More about the earthquake here.