It was 2014: we had just arrived in Christchurch and were sipping wine in New Regent Street. It was a sunny day and people were spilling out of the cafés and bars and onto the street, finding a seat wherever they could. I looked at the carefully preserved early 20th century buildings, their facades smartly painted in pastel shades, and watched a newly refurbished tram trundling past. But this was no ordinary city centre street. It was a road to nowhere, its ends stretching into rubble and wasteland: a legacy of the earthquake that devastated Christchurch three years earlier.
A Heritage in Ruins
We walked down to the old Anglican Cathedral, mostly intact at one end but collapsed at the other. This story was repeated across the city: once grand buildings whose former glory was apparent but which remained unsafe to enter. We saw grand colonial houses at Mona Vale and at Riccarton, houses that that were lived in by great pioneering families and later became part of the heritage of Christchurch, used as amenities by its citizens, but which were now closed and shored up by scaffolding.
Elsewhere, buildings that were still in use had tell-tale cracks across the walls and there were signs of damage in the road surfaces. Beyond Christchurch, where the hills separate the city from the sea, whole cliff faces had been secured to stop any further rock fall onto the buildings below.
Reconstruction work began immediately after the earthquake, starting with necessary repairs to the infrastructure, including the roads and sewage system. One of the first projects was the Restart Mall – a shopping mall built entirely from shipping containers and completed within a matter of weeks. The Mall was successful in attracting people back to the city centre: when I visited it had the air of a trendy leisure area, bustling with shoppers, market stalls and buskers.
The Cathedral posed more of a problem. The church authorities planned to demolish it and to commission a new structure; campaigners fought to save the building, saying that it was an integral part of Christchurch’s heritage. In the meantime a temporary replacement was built – the pro-Cathedral, more popularly known as the Cardboard Cathedral. Even this was not entirely uncontroversial; when I visited St Michael’s Church (a wooden church dating back to 1851, the oldest in the city) a churchwarden told me that many people had expressed surprise that St Michael’s itself had not been chosen as pro-Cathedral.
Rebuilding is a long term project and the Filling the Gap project encouraged people to put forward interim ideas for the use of empty spaces. Walking around the city centre I saw lots of street art, sculptures and murals, creative ways of bringing life back to desolate areas.
Looking to the Future
On our last day we went to Quake City, a museum that looks at the impact and legacy of the earthquake. We read about the ways in which the infrastructure is being repaired and building techniques are being developed to reduce the effect of any future seismic activity. It was both sobering and uplifting to hear the personal stories of those who had lived through the major earthquake of 2011.
Perhaps surprisingly, the exhibition ended on a note of optimism. It quoted the Maori concept of Te Ao Hurihuro – the forever changing world – which suggests that the past influences the present and the present influences the future. One side effect of the earthquake was the unearthing of many previously undiscovered Maori artefacts. Another was the development of the creative projects initiative, allowing people to suggest their own regenerative schemes. The earthquake was a terrible, destructive force, but it also enabled people to reconnect with the heritage of their city.