Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christchurch Earthquake - Rebuilding a Fallen City

City Gaps, empty spaces where buildings have disappeared, have been taken over by a variety of temporary shops and services.
Christchurch is a fallen city. There are large numbers of unlivable houses, the downtown core remains a closed zone and city water supply and sewage systems are fragile and running at a limited capacity. Repairs and new projects are proceeding but these are complicated by the need to first remove dangerous ruins, deferred engineering evaluations and the increasingly complicated waters of insurance settlements. The level of uncertainty about the future raises concerns of disorder. After almost a year of waiting however, people mostly remain calm and carry on.

The Canterbury museum has mounted a display of the spontaneous collection of “hearts” of support sent to the city from around the world. These signs of caring are comfort for a damaged city.
Sam Johnson, a student at Canterbury University, organized the Student Volunteer Army, to help clean up after the quakes.
For many in Christchurch it has been a hard year. People speak of losing a year of work, but the time has been well filled. One University of Canterbury professor I spoke with acknowledged that her research had been set back as she spent more time supporting and mentoring her graduate students. Stephen was astonished when he returned to his school after the quake to find a bunch of his students with shovels and wheelbarrows beginning the clean-up. The Student Volunteer Army (SVA), a web-based crowd sourcing organization, grew out of this spirit and has been an important element in both the clean-up and the construction of new community relationships. Despite the challenges of addressing their dislocation and material loss, the people of the city are addressing their uncertain future through the strengthening and expansion of social networks.

Erin and Stephen have responded to this vibrance. They've purchased a house, acquired chickens, planted vegetables, taken in cats and strengthened their commitment to their home place because of the relationships to place they've found themselves in.

Lyttleton, Christchurch's port, was also heavily damaged in the quakes. The town, built on the steeply sloped interior of an ancient volcano, suffered from both the quake and the subsequent fall of rock from above. Nevertheless people have worked together to mend their community.
A town planner in Lyttleton who cheerfully continues her work in making the Christchurch region a more liveable space. Geological devestation is simply another issue highlighting needs and a new frame for making a better community.
The Lyttleton weekend market, Anna Moorehead of Gruff Junction sells her local goat cheese “from teat to table”. Others offer fish caught this morning, fresh baking, chocolate delights and heaps of just harvested vegetables and fruit. The market is back. Though some stalls are still to return, spirits are high.
In Lyttleton I get to experience a GapFiller. Like the SVA, another group of earthquake “activists”, the gap fillers, moved to take back their city. Making arrangements with owners of lots cleared of wrecked buildings - gaps - they have organized a series of events including a historic photo exhibit of bombed European cities (now rebuilt and vibrant) and a community activity site (where Erin and Stephen set up the “Hammer Time” stall where kids could bang nails and be builders). In Lyttleton they met with community groups who bemoaned the loss of all their public meeting spaces. In reponse they organized a community event to clean up a downtown lot and created “The Petanque Court”, a new community meeting space. We subsequently attended follow-up event there to “rebuild Lyttleton.”

A professor of art at the University of Victoria, Wellington, unpacks his portable town reconstruction kit, tent, work table, blocks of clay and working tools.
We all built model houses for the new Lyttlelton. Stephen worked on a fairy tale theme for his street of houses.
We all built model houses for the new Lyttlelton.
Cashel Re-Start, the temporary downtown of Christchurch, blossoms amongst the city ruins.
In downtown Christchurch the municipal government and business community have similarly moved to engage the people with their city. The Cashel Mall, largely destroyed in the quakes, has been artfully redone as “Cashel Re-Start” with colourful shipping containers fabricated into store fronts. The main shops have established a foothold in their downtown. The lively pedestrian mall brings people together in new spaces.

Buskers help create a shared experience of fun and community in Re-Start.
The hard work of re-making a city includes bricks and mortar. In Christchurch it is also clear that cities are re-made through the strengthening of social networks and the acknowledgement of different interests and the celebration of shared experiences and challenges.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Christchurch Earthquake - near a year on

Erin's artistic response to the loss of her house in the February, 2011 earthquake.

Taking apart Christchurch one stone at a time.
Earlier in December Erin and I walked into Cathedral Square, closed since the earthquake last February. The municipal government is working hard to have people reconnect with their city. For three weekends only, a two block long fenced-in walkway was opened to the Square. People, hanging on the fences looking down the familiar but now empty streets, watched giant cranes taking apart the tall office buildings and hotels too dangerous to enter. At the square people gawp at the shattered cathedral. There is a debate about both the secular and religious heritage values associated with this city icon but the expense of reconstructing the whole city appears to have doomed this stone pile.

Odd to see modern office buildings tilted so far from mathematical perfection.

Pedestal without a statue. The founder lost.
Most churches in town have heavy steel beams leaning into the walls, one had the two ends of the transcept punched out, only after seeing this dark void did I notice that the complete church steeple was neatly set on a wooden stand in the parking lot out in front. The churches especially are unnerving, they portray a post-rapture landscape. Still, it is summer and the cherries are ripe so even post-rapture has its charms.

City supplied outhouses on the street mark the homes of determined residents.

I took a five hour hour bike ride through the earthquake damaged parts of Christchurch where Erin and Stephen used to live. Built on reclaimed land (swamp with dirt on it) the eastern part of the city was the worst hit. As I entered the neighbourhood you could see the roads change from pavement to gravel. Still occupied neighbourhoods are marked with portable toilets parked along the street. A heavy blue hose snakes along the sidewalk delivering fresh water to houses via attached garden hoses. As I move further along however the number of toilets along the curb dwindles. Then the blue hose stops and you enter the empty blocks.

A wilding garden
Yards are deep in a year's unkempt growth, vegetation flourishes in the damp and mild Canterbury summer. Unclipped rose bushes stretch above their supporting bowers and fushia and other flowers branch out wildly. The grass grows tall in most yards, but it seems at least a few people drop by to mow the lawn and look in on their house - home now somewhere else, possibly one of the always “no-vacancy” motels along the main entries to the city awaiting insurance and engineering decisions about their future.

The Yellow card that makes you leave home.
Too dangerous to enter, a Red card.
The town is full of construction and de-construction workers. Heritage advocates are making the case for the preservation of at least some of the Gothic-Victorian architectural face of colonial Christchurch.
At the same time the city heritage park has developed a collection of earthquake debris. The earthquake is on its way into history.
Few of the houses look damaged. Some have lost portions of their brick veneer, most are without chimneys, often just a ragged blue tarp is tied around a stump of bricks. But looking along the street there is a lot of “out of the corner of your eye” abnormalities - roof lines have a bend, several houses on the river bank look like they've nose-dived into the earth and a footbridge is almost tied in a knot. Regardless, almost all are scheduled for demolition.
Foot bridge over the Avon River in Linwood, a few blocks from Erin and Stephen's old place.
A rememberance of the fishmonger who died when her shop collapsed. We shopped there during our stay in 2009. Both sides of this street corner were devastated, fish shop, bakery, diary and news agent are now just weedy brick-strewn  lots.
I ride along one of these broken streets, the road surface covered in fine silt, large holes swallowing orange warning cones and empty windows staring mindlessly at the street. There are no people, no barking dogs, no cars, a few have fading handwritten signs warning off trespassers. Whole blocks of houses, some 6,000 in all, home for 20,000+ people, will be levelled and cleared. Many places will never be built on again.

I watch one of the first of these houses being turned into a pile of iron roofing, a stack of bricks and a large midden of smashed doors, clumps of gypsum and wall paper amid shards of timber that once rang with the sounds of shared meals, family celebrations and lives lived. It is wrenching. The city is collecting people's experiences of the earthquakes, they are available at Kete Christchurch.

Over the past week there have been more earthquakes, Christmas shopping interrupted, more liquifaction covering streets, gardens and filling houses with fine silt. The seismologists assure Canterburians that these are the final settling of the previously unknown fault under Pegasus Bay but...  there's nothing quite like being literally shaken out of bed early in the morning with your first thought being "get into an interior wall corner and pray."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Napier - An Earthquake City

Napier, New Zealand, was heavily damaged by an earthquake in February, 1931. Much of the town was rebuilt in the then popular Art Deco style. Remarkable today is the free internet access for the whole of the downtown area, only one example of the city's business community in making Napier a "go to" place.
The main part of Napier was built on reclaimed lagoons. The earthquake raised the level of the ground significantly and the present city of Napier has taken advantage of this higher ground in its modern expansion.
The coherence and continuity of the 1930s reconstruction of Napier moves the city beyond a collection of individual architectural treasures to be an Art Deco urban landscape. A real, and rare, treat to walk through.
Louis Hay was New Zealand's leading exponent of Chicago School architecture in the thirties. In this building, Hay derived the proportions from the work of Frank Lloyd Wright's, Unity Temple, Oak Park, Chicago (1905-6).
Hildebrands was a German-New Zealand training company. The building includes the attractive decoration highlighting the oceanic connection between the Germany of the Weimar Republic and the New Zealand Dominion.
Sadly Adolf Hitler was elected as head of state in March, 1933 and the old flag on this decoration was consigned to the dustbin in Germany.
For a fun description of Napier's present character see the Doctor's Review.
The city plays up its built heritage with an annual period celebration of its architecture. Each year has its own nostalgic theme inviting New Zealanders to join them for a late summer festival.
In 2007 New Zealand added Napier's Art Deco architectural legacy to its list of tentative nominations as a World Heritage Site.
Scenic Hotel Te Panea is a striking modernist building in Napier. So they are up to date too.