04.07.11 by Mike Hartley

Considering Christchurch

Conversations Towards an Understanding of the Christchurch Earthquakes

For some it dawns immediately. For others, they need to experience and feel it before an event becomes a reality.

In the last few months I’ve had three trips to Christchurch.  The following discussions and visceral experiences have led me to an understanding of where Christchurch is now.

‘You know you’re from Christchurch when: GeoNet is saved as your homepage.’

My visits to Christchurch have all had ‘after shocks’.  I find them thrilling.  Adrenaline coursing through your veins will do that.  However I have not been there for the big three; for those who have, Chinese water torture would be more pleasant.  People can only take so much ‘flight or fight’ readiness; their bodies and minds are weary.

Project manager – demolitions:

MR – It’s process, we need to get demolition consents and then need to contact every person who has a vested interest in that building to notify them of their half hour access.
MH – Half an hour… doesn’t seem very long to clear out…
MR – We can’t guarantee safety, no one can.  We simply don’t know when the next shock will hit.  We’re not too keen on having people just wandering around…
MH – There’s a few blank slabs – quite a few buildings have already come down.
MR – Yep, we’ve had to leave the slabs.  The Historic Places Trust see the opportunity to excavate Christchurch’s past.  However there simply aren’t enough qualified people to do it, so we have to seal it all in with the slab for when the appropriate qualified excavation can be done.

‘Yuk, what happened to the water?’

As high school chemistry students setting experiments we were advised that the water flowing from conventional plumbing was most likely to be purer than any distillate that we could ever produce.  The natural filtration process occurring as the underground water made its way from the Southern Alps down to the sea really did a great job. Opening a tap let forth water that had the fresh crisp taste of a mountain stream.  Now it tastes like any other large city.  ‘Tainted water’ is a massive blow to the identity of those living in Christchurch.


MH – You busy?
NF – Not more than usual, not yet.  It’s very strange.  There is an obvious need but the projects are yet to take form.  The traditional project drivers are considerably different right now.  It seems to be a waiting game.
MH – Yet we have competitions for ‘temporary homes’ that no architect is invited to.
NF – Hmmm temporary.  Likely to be there for a while…

Walking around the western edge of city I am struck by how strangely deserted it is.  There are many signs of population, drinks half full at outdoor cafe tables, awnings at full stretch above, gas heaters poised.  No one there, a movie set on a break.

My parents moved into the city for the concentrated amenity that cities provide.  Friends, food, the arts, goods and services all in close proximity.  One trip ‘to town’ could tick off the whole list.  The list is now achieved in fits and spurts.  Supporting the same shops, services and people requires multiple trips, often to separate suburbs.  A one-hour trip now takes three.  Why stay?  They’re not.  The city will take many years to rebuild, years they would prefer to spend elsewhere.

Engineer A – trip into the ‘red zone’

JR – Yeah g’day.  I’ve got a couple of Auckland Architects here.  I want to show them my building.
Check point Charlie – We can show you photos.
JR – Na, they need to see it.

So after a completing the formalities we were admitted to the ‘Red Zone’ but only after we had been told to keep an eye out for fence jumpers.  There had been five that morning.  In two hours all we saw were three police cars.

MH – The destruction is quite incredible, it looks as if they all need to come down.  How come there wasn’t more after the first one?
JR – February, while being less on the Richter scale, measured the highest ever recorded in terms of acceleration, 2G.  Pretty much straight up.  Carnage.

Carrion is in the air

The smell is incredible, memories of farm offal pits scream forward, though apparently this is due to thousands of abandoned lunches.  We walk past a McDonalds, the stench is ripe.  We thought they lasted forever…

Engineer B

AW – The Insurance Companies hold many of the cards at the moment.
MH – Do we really want insurance companies setting the project frameworks for rebuilding a city?

Where to from here?

The destruction is overwhelming.  The latent potential to re-envision the city has been exposed.  The possibilities to resolve public spaces are alluring.  Who knows, ‘the square’ might even become a place worth inhabiting rather than just passing through.

What are the catalysts for the regeneration and regrouping of a dispersed city?  I suspect there is huge potential for architecturally seeded projects forming the basis for a reconsidered city. Visit http://lowestoolrental.org for more info.

(Original photos supplied by Ben Lloyd)

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