I sit in one of the white chairs and suddenly start sobbing. Deep heart-wrenching tears of grief and sadness. There are 185 chairs in all, each one different. There is a deep comfy arm chair, ordinary wooden dining chairs, directors chairs, office chairs, a wheelchair, a couple of wicker chairs, a bar stool, a child’s chair, and an infant’s car seat. There is every kind of chair imaginable, arranged in neat rows, and all are painted white, a rich smooth bright white. Every chair has a fresh red carnation attached to it. I have been wandering around amongst them, trying to take the scene in, and then quite suddenly I sit in one of the chairs and unexpectedly the tears begin.
Each of the chairs represents one of the 185 people who died in the earthquake that hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011. The chairs are a temporary memorial to those who lost their lives. They sit in the vacant lot that was once home to the Canterbury Television building. Of the 185 who died, 115 of them were in that building.
I’m not aware that there has been a fourth anniversary ceremony the day before, hence the carnations. I think that someone, or some group of people, care enough to keep replacing the carnations. I cry for the loss of lives, I cry for the destruction of what was obviously once a beautiful city, I cry for the fragility of life and the impermanence of all that is, and I cry for the carnations, that people care enough to place carnations on the chairs.
I try to hide my tears but do not succeed. A tour group arrives. While they look around the tour guide comes to me and asks if I’d lost someone in the quake. I tell her no and try to tell her why I am so moved. She explains about the carnations, that they’d been placed there the day before for the anniversary ceremony. She also tells me to look out for giraffes, that people are placing giraffes all over the city as a symbol of standing tall in the face of tragedy, but I don’t see a single giraffe in four hours of exploring the worst hit part of the town. What I do see in many places is this:
flowers placed into the holes in the tops of garbage bins, as well as in traffic cones and orange plastic construction barriers, which, along with metal fencing, are the predominant feature of Christchurch streets these days – a small act of beauty being spread amongst all the rubble and reconstruction that is going on all over the city. Construction cranes are the major element of the skyline of Christchurch now.
We first became aware of it walking from the hostel to the supermarket in our neighbourhood close by the downtown core: a remarkable number of empty lots next to lovely colonial style houses. At first it didn’t register, but then we realized that on each of those empty lots a house had once stood. Then we noticed a house boarded up with a sign in the window: Danger – Live Wires. It was when we went into the central core that the reality of the damage to the city became absolutely clear. Ten thousand homes lost, fifteen hundred commercial buildings lost, and several million tons of rubble left behind.
Many buildings are boarded up. Many are shored up with steel girders to prevent more collapse.
We walked by many buildings that seemed to be fine until we had a closer look.
The devastation was all around us, streets blocked off with metal fencing, crumbling buildings, traffic flow somehow redesigned with orange barriers and traffic cones, and vacant lots everywhere.
In the midst of all this there is a massive amount of construction going on, and some wonderfully creative and unique new buildings. New ideas spring like flowers from the wreckage and the rubble. People are pulling together to rebuild their beloved town, with projects ranging from making public sculptures and furniture with salvaged wood, to creating small gardens to begin the re-greening of the city.
Quoting directly from the sign on the pavement: This stand of native rimu trees is a public art sculpture by NZ artist Regan Gentry. It uses wood felled for a family home, lived in and loved, salvaged post earthquake and returns it to an urban forest. It speaks to the city’s rebuild and to the challenges ahead for Christchurch.
Gentry’s trees soar high above the real trees that stand beside them.
Then there is the “Greening the Rubble” project. Transitional gardens are part of our city’s new identity. Their primary purpose is to create responsive public spaces that promote wellbeing and biodiversity. This is Pod Oasis, an example of their work.
A bigger project was the “Cardboard Cathedral”. The earthquake destroyed the tower of the neo-Gothic Cathedral. Aftershocks deeply affected the stability of the whole building, and shattered the famed rose window.
By chance a member of the Cathedral staff saw an article in a magazine about Japanese emergency architect Shigeru Ban. He had designed a cardboard church to replace the one that had been destroyed in the Kobe earthquake. A little over two years after the earthquake Shigeru Ban’s cardboard Cathedral opened in Christchurch. The building is made of huge tubes of cardboard, local wood, and steel, with a polished concrete floor and a polycarbonate roof. It is designed to last for at least fifty years and is built to 130% of New Zealand’s earthquake code. An exceptional and inspirational building. Emergencies often seem to produce extraordinary creativity.
New Regent Street was the only street in Christchurch to have been planned as a whole. It was always a favourite with its Spanish Mission style architecture, its symmetry and coherent design, and its pastel colours. It was the first street in the downtown core to have infrastructure repairs done. The architectural features were painstakingly restored, and with great fanfare it re-opened almost exactly two years after the quake. Even before the earthquake New Regent Street was considered the most beautiful street in Christchurch. Today there’s no contest. The re-opening was an emotional milestone in the reclamation of the inner city.
The beautiful and fanciful Peacock Fountain
is located in the Botanical Gardens next to the Canterbury Museum. The solid Gothic Revival museum building is over 100 years old and sustained little damage. I mention it, even without a photo, because it indicates the style and feel of the old Christchurch, the pre-quake Christchurch: some of it still stands.
And in the traditional fashion of the city’s British heritage, you can still go punting on the Avon River.
The most striking, and perhaps the most famous, project to arise from the destruction of the city is Re-START. Re-START is a downtown pedestrian mall built from shipping containers. Containers are strong, stable, earthquake resistant and durable, but whoever would have thought to turn them into buildings? A remarkable idea indeed.
You can see from the photographs that the steel walls of the containers have been cut out where necessary, and replaced with glass in the case of exterior walls. Most stores consist of several containers joined together so of course the interior walls are left open. In some cases the original doors of the container have been left as an exterior wall, or as the functioning doors of the business. With the exception of the building shown immediately below, the upper containers are for display only. The whole affect is bright, cheerful, functional, and very modern. There is something very appealing and enticing about it. It’s a happy place to hang out.
Christchurch is no longer the beautiful city it obviously once was, but I have no doubt it will be again. I have no doubt these resilient people will rebuild their city so that, although quite different, in every way it will be as good, and in some ways it will be even better than it was before. Bravo Christchurch for a strong and creative new beginning.
And so I must mention the tsunami that hit Japan less than a month after the Christchurch earthquake, the earthquake that shattered Haiti five years ago, Cyclone Pam that all but destroyed Vanuatu in March of this year, and of course the tragic and dire situation in Nepal after the earthquake of April 25th. In Nepal the death count is over seven thousand and will probably go higher. It has been difficult in Christchurch, but so much more so in undeveloped poor countries. Christchurch became very personal for me because I saw it first hand, thus these other situations become more personal also. More tears for the fragility of life and for the heartbreak it brings. But in the end I am moved most of all by the way in which people pull together and support each other in times of tragedy, by the innumerable acts of heroism and simple kindness, and by the seemingly infinite resilience of the human spirit.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.