The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Look   we’re still here       


The colors of Christchurch are luminous orange and shrieking yellow, the hues of wrecking crews’ high-viz vests and helmets. The sounds are power chisels and screaming saws slicing concrete.  The smell is dust, painting the green weeds gray as they push through cracked sidewalks proving that life persists.

On 22 February 2011 the largest city in New Zealand’s South Island and a major tourist attraction as the most English town outside Britain, was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake.

It wasn’t the first.   Five months earlier a 7.1 magnitude shake caused damage but no fatalities.  But the second more shallow shock hit the heart of the city killing 185 and injuring almost 2,000.

More than half the fatalities were in one six-storey building that included a language school.  The victims came from 20 countries (though not Indonesia) and included tourists and students, most from from Japan and China.

In the following months 4,000 lesser shocks kept survivors on edge, delaying repairs. The earth seems to have stopped quivering and the NZ$ 15 billion rebuild is getting underway, cautiously.

“Slowly” is the standard response from locals when asked how they are coping. There is anger and bitterness, but this is largely reserved for cumbersome bureaucracy -  more frustration with human frailty than fury at nature’s brutality.  The Earthquake Commission which compensates homeowners has around 100,000 claimants.

Casual visitors don’t encounter these emotions, but a stoical cheerfulness as survivors work to reassemble their lives and make Christchurch splendid again.

One day it may regain its title as the garden city but the new Christchurch won’t be the showplace of neo-gothic architecture that attracted millions. Nineteenth century stone built churches with towers and spires crumbled and crashed as the restless earth punched hard.  

Catolic Basilica - before and after

The city’s centrepiece, the Anglican Cathedral fronting the town square was so cruelly crippled demolition was ordered.

This is now on hold as traditionalists claiming a rebuild is possible take legal action.  In the meantime a new cathedral made of cardboard and designed by a Japanese architect Shigeru Ban is rising in Latimer Square opposite a fence festooned with fading photographs and wilting flowers.

This was the site of the Canterbury TV building which pancaked and then caught fire, killing 115.  An inquiry has heard allegations of poor engineering causing great angst in a country that long claimed to be quake-ready, lying on the same Ring of Fire that embraces Indonesia.

But Christchurch, squatting on a flat sandy plain was always regarded as the city least likely to be thumped.  Scientists believed the prime target was the hilly capital Wellington built on three known faults.

When the quakes struck a new word entered the public lexicon – liquefaction, where the vibrating soil turns into quicksand sucking down vehicles and undermining buildings.

So is the city ready for tourism, once its mainstay?  The answer is a cautious ‘yes’, though not for the reasons that originally drew crowds.

Christchurch is the place to witness a city in transition, celebrating creativity, initiative and resilience. It’s not a bounce back but a clamber out of the rubble, proof that the human spirit triumphs.

A sign widely seen reads: ‘Our building has gone, but we’re still here’.

Rising up - the cardboard cathedral

In the weeks after the quake raw-nerve residents were angered by ‘disaster tourists’ drawn to gape, or ‘rubberneck’ as they say locally.  That emotion has passed and sightseers are now welcome. 

Hotel ‘No Vacancy’ neons flash that the economy is recovering; many rooms are occupied by contractors and tradespeople drawn by work, but tourists are returning. Seven international airlines still fly into Christchurch.

There’s no risk in strolling the streets with a camera snapping the misfortune of others who now find it cathartic to answer visitors’ questions about the tragedy and chat about their hopes.  There are even scheduled bus tours of the Red Zone, the cordoned-off epicenter of the quake.

Disputes about insurance payouts and whether repairs are possible means many dramatically damaged buildings still stand.  The renaissance-style Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament known as the basilica is a striking example.  In the foreground a billboard reminds of the before, the reality behind is of the after.

The Quake City exhibition, billed as ‘a unique multi-sensory attraction aimed at informing, engaging and educating New Zealanders and international tourists about the Canterbury earthquakes’ draws crowds. 

Among the souvenir pictures of the quake on sale at the exhibition are copies of a book critical of insurance responses.  It’s as though everyone is determined not to hide the hurt while praising the heroism and remembering the miracle escapes.

Thousands have fled to other parts of NZ or Australia and the knock-on impact has been severe.  Low enrolment schools have shut or merged, factories relocated, businesses closed as patronage shrinks.   Before the shocks 377,000 lived in Christchurch – a post quake census has yet to be released.

The stayers determined to succeed.  Their attitudes aren’t forced or false, just statements of clear intent.  Shake us, bash us, but our roots are here. We’ll not be cowed.  Come and see what we’re doing.  

Quake City is alongside the Container Mall, shops, banks and offices cleverly constructed out of shipping containers, while others have been stacked to prop up buildings.  Nearby teenage girls dance on a low stage inviting passers-by to join them and express their joy of being alive.

Yet it’s easy to cry in Christchurch. It was such a quaint and placid city, its vast, almost medieval square drawing performers, exhibits, citizens and visitors to wander, chat and share.  Those days have gone. 

In their place big street displays show plans for the future and invite public comment. Opportunities to make the city special and different, rather than just restore, are constantly stressed. Architects and planners are letting their imaginations loose.

The quake savaged randomly, clawing beachside suburbs, only stroking those in the west.  Drive down an avenue of apparently intact homes smiling in normality, turn the corner and hit a roadblock, gaps in the dentures, portable toilets kerbside while sewers are fixed by hard hats wielding jackhammers.

On some cleared sites remnants of a tiled floor, painted car park space, doorsteps leading nowhere remind that people lived, loved and worked here.  Nowhere is this more poignant than in local artist Pete Majendie’s installation facing the Cardboard Cathederal.

This is how he describes it:  “It’s 185 square meters of grass depicting new growth; 185 white chairs, all painted twice by hand as an act of remembrance.  This installation is temporary – as is life.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 14 April 2013)


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