Sally Blundell, Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake, Once in a Lifetime

Sally Blundell: Resisting erasure in Christchurch

“There’s a vitality about Christchurch,” enthused Sydney Morning Herald travel writer Sue Bennett. “And some of the world’s most creative minds are there to work on a blank canvas.”

“Basically, we had a blank canvas in the CBD,” said Real Estate Institute of New Zealand regional director for Canterbury Tony McPherson, “and we can get it right.”

“The city’s arts, sports, and retail facilities will be rebuilt and improved,” assured the Canterbury Earthquake Authority (CERA), “to make the most of the blank canvas the earthquakes’ devastation created.”

Warwick Isaacs, head of the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), went further: “Between these four avenues there is (sic) in excess of 1000 buildings being demolished . . . the landscape is almost back to Ground Zero.”

Blank canvas? Ground Zero?

This is the dream of new beginnings, the promise of unfettered opportunity. Out of the trauma and devastation of the earthquakes, a new city will arise. Modern, progressive, successful.

It has always been a seductive goal. Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Durer, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, H. G. Wells – all bent their imaginations to an ideal city built on the foundations of aesthetics, ethics and functionality. In the fifteenth century Florentine sculptor and architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino (Filarete) designed Sforzinda, a utopian Renaissance city based on the talismanic powers of geometry and astrology. As a cityscape it was ordered, purposeful, rational, inhuman.

Such cities, of course, remained mere fantasies, the indulgent dreams of artists, philosophers and romanticists. As P. D. Smith writes, “Building an invisible city in the mind is like writing a novel made up of many narrative strands – national identity, local history, trade and commerce, culture, religion and architectural traditions . . . . New towns may begin as a fantasy, a vision of gleaming towers, but cities cannot survive long in the ideal realm.”

According to US economist Edward Glaeser, author of the alarmingly named Triumph of the City, cities generally evolve organically, developing around transport routes (rivers, ports, railways) into haphazard arrangements for working, living and wayfaring, later shuffled into shape by emerging planning regulations to meet the needs of growing populations.

Planned cities – military outposts or colonial settlements – are the exception.

Malvern, England, 1847. Colonial theorist Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Irish squire John Robert Godley confer on the aspirational Canterbury plan. A year later the fledgling Canterbury Association discusses the foundation of a Church of England settlement in New Zealand. Surveyor Captain Joseph Thomas sallies forth to select one million acres of dry or easily drained land. He rejects the Wairarapa. He considers the head of Lyttelton Harbour, present-day Teddington, but the required land reclamation is too costly and the distance from the plains ill-suited to agricultural development. He regards the land on the other side of the Port Hills, land previously dismissed as “swamp and mostly covered with water”, and sees expanses of potential farmland, a navigable river and good stands of forest.

In March 1850 assistant surveyor Edward Jollie has completed his map for the new city. Jollie is a Benthamite. His model city gives expression to the Benthamite ideal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As well as specified sites for a cathedral, college, marketplace and civic buildings, he inks in parks, wide streets, avenues of trees, a town reserve to improve the environment for the working class, separate the city from the country, control city expansion and guard against – and protect – ‘the natives’. Underlying this largely orthogonal streetplan is the notion of virgin land, unclaimed and uninterrupted. While roads and bridges tended to avoid the streams and springs that scored the landscape, the network of seasonal settlements, travel routes and physical expressions of whakapapa (geneaology) established by three waves of Maori migration – the Waitaha, Ngati Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu – are disregarded.

For the earliest European settlers this was fallow land, a desert waiting to be made productive as farmland and gardens. As Jane Deans, matriarch of Christchurch’s pre-Adamite pioneer family, wrote in 1887: “All (of the Canterbury Plains) was waiting the advent of a white race of people to reclaim them and make them useful or beautiful as a garden.”

As the city grew swamps were drained, springs capped, streambeds built over. The powerful force of the Waimakariri, the importance of the wetlands, the nature of a spring-fed land, the implausibility of a southern city in an English-style park were ignored. There was, writes John Cookson, “a world of difference between Christchurch’s development and the totally planned garden city being tried in England.” But the city’s parks and substantial gardens gave rise to its reputation as a garden city, a distinctly English antipodean settlement. Canterbury, claimed a 1914 guidebook, “is essentially English; but its English is English at its very best.” Even as successive generations replanted native plants, restored wetlands and promoted the daylighting of streams, the true character of the plains that shaped so much of its pre- and early human history was wiped clean.

The devastation wrought by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes brought about a rash of map-raking. Much of the city was built on swampland, watery and unstable. The Pyne Gould Corporation building, where eighteen people died, was built on top of an old levee where a number of buried streams converge. Did we forget? Did we really believe we could rewrite the plains city character?

Under the 2011 Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act the Christchurch City Council was tasked to produce a recovery plan for the inner city. As part of its Share an Idea campaign, run in partnership with Danish urban designers Gehl Architects, over 10,000 people used Post-it notes, video clips, Lego creations, workshops and websites to pitch their suggestions for a remodelled central city.

The resulting two-volume plan, completed in eight months, presented a modest but compelling vision, a compact and radically low-rise city incorporating cycleways, riverfront parks, a performing arts venue, a region-wide light rail system, an extension of the successful laneways and a range of green initiatives all facilitated by new height regulations, more adaptive re-use of heritage buildings and a range of business incentives.

Many of these ideas were familiar. Before the earthquake the Christchurch City Council was already looking for ways to revive a flagging central city and bring more residential life into the city. A 2009 study by Gehl Architects recommended a more intimate, ecologically sound “traffic-calmed city centre”, a new urbanist vision based on small, sustainable, mixed-use human-scale neighbourhoods as articulated in Copenhagen, Dublin, Milan and Rotterdam.

In August 2011 the Minister of Earthquake Recovery, the Right Honourable Gerry Brownlee, described the Council’s aspirational vision of a “city in a garden” as a “pretty big wish list”. He directed CERA to establish a new unit, the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), to revise and implement the draft rebuild plan. The resulting Christchurch Central Recovery Plan (CCRP), compiled in a heroic 100 days by a consortium led by landscape planning and design consultancy Boffa Miskell, described seventeen anchor projects, a series of precincts and a more condensed – hence higher value – central city focussing on the Avon River and contained to the south and east by a green frame.

Some of the elements of the Share an Idea process were included (although CERA did not reanalyse or reinterpret the Share an Idea data). The commitment to a low-rise city remained as did an Avon River park, but regulations requiring improved environmental performance from buildings were removed, financial incentives for rebuilding were dropped, the majority of transport provisions was deferred and the call for a sustainable, green city was subverted into the green frame, large chunks of which, we have been told, will be developed into medium density residential housing.

As Diane Brand and Hugh Nicholson note, the plan focused on “national government priorities, providing a regulated vision embodied in a range of catalyst projects that involve rebuilding critical public and economic infrastructure.” These include the hospital redevelopment, new convention centre and large outdoor stadium – as Brownlee alarmingly told media in 2013, Christchurch will be the sports capital of the country.

In its rush to ‘start afresh’ the government Blueprint ignores existing structures. As it stands the planned Performing Arts Precinct is on the other side of the river from the current Christchurch Art Gallery and Arts Centre. The footprint of the proposed 35,000-person capacity sports stadium obliterates the historic NG building, a vital venue for arts organisations and small boutique operations in the immediate post-earthquake cityscape. To facilitate the anchor projects and new frame the CCDU has begun negotiations to buy land and buildings from existing property owners. In an inner city that has already lost approximately 1500 buildings, some of those that remain, included newly completed or repaired buildings, are now under threat. As I write this a battery of excavators is pulling apart the art deco Majestic Theatre. Completed in 1930 it was Christchurch’s first fully steel-framed building, promoted as ‘The Show Place of Christchurch’, and now strategically placed close to the planned Innovation Precinct and the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT). According to CERA the building was badly damaged. This was not backed up by an engineering report but the building is in the way of the street-widening plans for Manchester Street as part of the CERA’s Accessible City transport chapter.

Other buildings, even without specific architectural or heritage merit, are nevertheless physical anchors in a city rapidly drifting away from its structural past. Our relationship with a city is based on such readings: familiar or evocative sites or structures that make up our personal maps, that lock us into a specific place far more than the shining new projects fresh from the designer’s drawing table. As Simon Schama says, “landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock.”

In the path of the new Blueprint are the Oaks SmartStay building, the IRD building, the Gloucester St carpark, the Calendar Girls building. All are critical to the story of Christchurch and the individual memories of those who live, or have lived, here. All, argues Christchurch lobbyist James Dann, “should be spared and put to use.” Dann has instigated the Those Left Standing campaign to protect the last vestiges of a cityscape that says so much “about who we are, and what we’ve been through.” Wouldn’t it be quicker, he asks, “for us to try and refurbish an existing building, which might take three or six months, than the government acquiring it, bowling it, flogging it off to a developer and then waiting for something to happen?”

Demolishing over half a city, agrees engineer Kit Miyamoto of Miyamoto International, is the wrong way to go. Instead of creating a blank canvas upon which the city would quickly recreate itself, he told Christchurch journalist Rebecca Macfie, the demolition crews would leave behind a bleak canvas of empty lots that would take up to 50 years to be rebuilt. “In a modern society like this, the taking down ratio should not exceed 10% or 20% maximum.”

With its pre-determined network of precincts and anchor projects, the new city Blueprint also ignores the plethora of community initiatives already succeeding in bringing new life and energy into the city – goals that, according to the CCDU plan, require a lengthy and destructive scorched-earth programme to fulfil. Since 2011 Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble, Life in Vacant Spaces and FESTA (the Festival of Transitional Architecture) have all succeeded in drawing people, activities and a much-needed sense of engagement into the inner city. Exposed walls have been painted, pocket gardens established, events planned, not on a blank and flattened cityscape but in and in relation to existing structures, features and historic uses.

Radical Swiss modernist architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier) believed in the blank canvas. His 1925 plan for central Paris involved demolishing a swathe of the historic Right Bank and replacing it with tower blocks, expressways and parks. His plan wasn’t adopted but the modernist ideology that favoured the single, purposeful master plan emerged elsewhere in the drear functionality of the central city expressway, the mall, the gated community and marooned campus. The impact of Le Corbusier and the modernist movement on town planning is now regarded as a disaster, a model, writes Australian poet and editor Laurie Duggan, “of totalitarian absurdity, undermining social fabric and destroying streetlife.”

Consider Brasilia, Brazil’s new capital, a heroic attempt to turn its back to its colonial past. In 1960 it emerged, as if fully formed, out of the scrubland. The civic buildings, mostly designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, are strong, linear, beautiful, but as a dynamic urban centre it has failed at the task. There is no streetlife, no chaos, no clutter of human complexity, no mess. Cars take precedence over people, pedestrian walkways are shadowed by tower blocks, iron-clad zoning reduces space to a single function. Today, writes Benjamin Schwartz, “the city is quite correctly regarded as a colossally wrong turn in urban planning.” According to Marshall Berman, this is the dream of modernism without urbanism, a “highly developed, super-technological, self-contained exurban world, comprehensively planned and organized.”

Over half a century earlier, in 1911, a competition for the design of a new federal capital for Australia was announced. Each competitor received a small wooden crate containing entry conditions, topographic maps, geological reports and a list of required buildings including a national art gallery, library and museum. Many of the resulting entries, wrote Duggan, ignored the topography, “treating the brief as a licence to produce utopian diagrams, modules which could, in theory, be placed anywhere.” These included a transplanted Paris of the Belle Époque, a “pastiche of world architectures” and an “improbable relic of totalitarianism in the Australian bush.” While the winning entry by Walter Burley Griffin (promptly combined with elements of other designs) respected the local geography, its use of precincts, linked nodes of government, commerce and the military, serves as “a metalanguage which makes sense only in the other-dimensional space of town planning. Its practical absurdity is demonstrated in the ideal of the ‘arts precinct’, a space, such as the one in Melbourne, which assumes its visiting population will wish to be able to move between the art gallery, the theatre and the opera house as quickly as possible, preferably on the one day.” Canberra’s problems are brought about by “visionary” town planning, says Duggan, implicit in modernity’s drive to produce a “homogeneous environment” accomplished either through “total erasure or through the totalitarian adherence to an unvarying neoclassical paradigm.”

Canberra today functions as a “displaced suburb” of Sydney or Melbourne. “Politicians fly in and out from elsewhere. When the children of the administrators grow up, they leave. A city which rarely holds among its population families of more than two generations is a purely modern phenomenon.”

Largely designed in its entirety, such a city remains fixed in time, purpose and population. As Smith says, “Ideal cities are very much the product of their own ages. Designed as complete urban statements, they bear the unmistakeable imprint of their own culture and world view in every street and building . . . to be successful a city has to be open to continuous development, free to evolve and grow with the demands of the new times. Like science fiction accounts of the future, ideal cities quickly become outmoded.”

Precincts date quickly or are quickly subverted. Large scale projects – convention centres, stadia, multi-purpose arts venues – support activities, writes Art History associate professor at the University of Canterbury Ian Lochhead, that usually present blank faces to the street: “And why should activities that primarily support the needs of visitors be given the best sites?”

For Gehl the priorities for a city are human interaction, inclusion and intimacy, a shift from a single heroic vision to a more iterative evolution of what cities can become. Rather than being frozen in time cities need to grow, ripen, evolve – as architect and design critic Edwin Heathcote says, the city remains stubbornly resistant to perfection. In cities around the world churches become mosques or takeaway bars, petrol stations become markets, power stations become art galleries, successive waves of migration impact on the city streets, a saw-tooth tannery, as in Christchurch’s The Tannery, emerging beyond the parameters of the planned map of the inner city, becomes a destination bar, café and retail centre.

Take London, says Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum. “It has grown, layer on layer, for 2000 years, sustaining generation after generation of newcomers. It’s a place without an apparent structure that has proved extraordinarily successful at growing and changing.” The London street has “citiness”, agrees Heathcote. “It is incoherent. Incoherent is good.”

In Christchurch, Miyamoto‘s prediction of the much-touted blank canvas tipping into a far less enticing bleak landscape is gaining credence. Projects are tipping over. Investors are pulling out. The buy-in from the local population is flagging in the face of inattentive think-big planning. There are cost-sharing wrangles between the government and Council and uncertainty over the anchor projects. After purchasing four of the ten properties required for the planned Performing Arts Precinct, the Crown has now pushed pause, claiming the Council’s decision to spend $127.5 million restoring the Town Hall leaves a paltry $30.5 million to build a venue for the Music Centre of Christchurch, a new Court Theatre and a facility for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO). (The Council is expected to fund the precinct, while the Crown buys the land). Already the CSO is looking at a permanent facility at the Air Force Museum in Hornby and a report prepared for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage warns that other potential tenants have concerns over the PAP project.

The CCDU’s decision to force the agglomeration of commercial development in the Retail Precinct is cutting out the small businesses and landowners that typified Christchurch and gave character and social and economic energy to the city. In the push to woo investors the needs of those who live, work and play in Christchurch are at risk of being overshadowed. As Lochhead says, “The central city has been treated as a blank canvas, its grid of streets a chessboard across which key projects have been moved until a game plan emerged. For the planners this may have seemed a winning strategy; as far as public participation is concerned, it is checkmate.”

The danger, he says, is that an increasingly disillusioned public will simply ignore the central city and continue to make do with the reconfigured city that has grown up on its edges.

The 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, states the introduction to the government’s recovery plan, “struck one of New Zealand’s oldest cities, a community with deep ties to the land, the environment and each other.” To date the heartbeat of this city has been sustained by local people and grassroots initiatives reclaiming the city and being involved in discussions about its future. Somewhere in the promise of a blank canvas this vital energy has been put at risk, those ties loosened. As Sudjic reasons, politicians just love cranes. “They need solutions within the timeframes of elections and cranes deliver them . . . . The result is a constant cycle of demolition and reconstruction that is seen as the substitute for thinking about how to address the deeper issues of the city.” This is what some critics calls the ‘colonial project’, the opportunity presented by bare land, the enduring desire to wipe clean the slate and start again. This is not an option for Christchurch. The cities that work best, Sudjic claims, “are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change.” Our most creative minds are working on such possibilities, on the opportunities presented not by an imaginary blank canvas but by an adaptive, resourceful city carrying its unique story into the future.

*This is an excerpt from Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, a collection of essays reflecting on the New Zealand government’s recovery plan for Christchurch post the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. The collection presents alternative approaches to city-building and archives a vital and extraordinary time. It was published by Freerange Press.

Dr Sally Blundell is a freelance journalist and editor living in Christchurch, NZ. She edited Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists (2007), which was short-listed for the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.