Friday 25 February 2011

The Spirit Of The Phoenix

Resurgam! (I Shall Rise Again!): The Phoenix should become the emblem of Christchurch's rebirth.

THE LEGEND of the Phoenix bears retelling at this awful time. Consumed by fire, this mythical bird rises up, reborn, from the debris of its own demise. From Greece to China, Russia to India, the symbol of the immortal firebird has given hope and comfort to humanity for three millennia. It’s promise of resurrection and renewal speaks to us persuasively as we contemplate the tragic devastation of Christchurch.

The image of the Phoenix, rising triumphantly from the flames, should be the emblem of Christchurch’s reconstruction. Most of the logos and brands we encounter in our daily lives are little more than pleasing shapes, but this ancient symbol is rich with meaning.

It reminds us that many of the world’s great cities have fallen victim to disasters of one kind or another. Rome and Constantinople were sacked. London burned. Berlin was reduced to rubble by bombs and shells.

But these cities did not die. Like the Phoenix they were reborn. From the ruins of Rome rose St Peter’s Basilica: from Constantinople, the beautiful Blue Mosque. Without London’s Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren could not have given us St Paul’s Cathedral. Without the bombs and shells, there’d be no magnificently reconstructed Reichstag at the heart of Berlin.

For more than a century, the City of Christchurch has been represented by its magnificent cathedral. That the damage inflicted by this latest, deadly, earthquake may prove to be irreparable, and that the whole building may have to be demolished, is truly heartbreaking. And, of course, the Cathedral is but one among scores of historic structures reduced to rubble by the earth’s murderous fury.

There will be calls for the exact replication of these familiar and beloved landmarks. They should be resisted. This is not a moment for clinging to the past, but for embracing the future. Our vision should be of a new, 21st Century Christchurch, with buildings to catch our breath and dazzle our eyes. Let the word go forth to the world’s finest architects; to its most imaginative and radical urban planners: "Come to Christchurch, clear away the debris – astonish us!"

Because we need to be astonished. We need to be amazed. We need to rediscover the pride that comes from building on a grand scale.

Professor James Belich, in his history of the "Anglo World", Replenishing the Earth, pays particular attention to the extraordinary speed of urban development in 19th Century North America and Australasia. "From zero permanent inhabitants in 1835, Marvellous Melbourne grew to 471,000 in 1891." Founded thirteen years later, in 1848, Christchurch expanded at a similar breakneck speed.

That same impatient energy is needed now, not only from the people of Christchurch, but from all New Zealanders. We need to ask ourselves how men and women living in the steam age were able to conjure a graceful and splendidly organised city out of the Canterbury Plains in just eight years. What became of the can-do collective spirit of our great-great-grandparents? How did we lose it? And, most importantly – how do we get it back?

This is no time to engage in petty politicking, but hasn’t the ideological conditioning of the past quarter-century rendered the whole notion of collective energy and collective competence vaguely ridiculous? Haven’t we been encouraged to simply take care of ourselves, and let the "invisible hand" of the market take care of everything else?

But, were they invisible hands that reached into the rubble to rescue the living and reclaim the dead? Or were they the hands of living, flesh-and-blood Cantabrians? Did invisible hands build Christchurch’s iconic Cathedral? Will invisible hands erect its replacement?

This is why the spirit of the Phoenix is so crucial. Because the story of the firebird is the story of humanity itself: of human-beings’ unique ability to conceive of, and plan for, the future. Yes, we are mortal, but it is our very mortality that makes the hopes and dreams we pass on to our children so important. Because as we dream, so shall we build.

The Christchurch that eventually rises from the ruins of Tuesday’s devastating earthquake will be no better – and no worse – than the material we human firebirds bring to the process of its resurrection. For the sake of the city: for the sake of our country; let’s make sure it’s as enduring as it is astonishing.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 February 2011.


Matthew Hooton said...

Rebuilding concept: Coventry Cathedral. So much more meaningful that it was rebuilt using the most modern design of the time, rather than a straight replica of what had been bombed.

Peter Cresswell said...

"This is no time to engage in petty politicking..."

Isn't saying that and then publishing this all across the mainstream media a bit like leaning over your neighbour's fence and starting off by saying "I"m not one to gossip, but ... "


It's odd, don't you think, Chris, that the impatient energy of nineteenth-century laissez-faire could conjure that graceful and splendidly organised city out of the Canterbury Plains in just eight years; whereas the early twentieth-century embrace of the "collective will" produced instead the lumpen urban prolixities of Pruitt Igoe, the Aylesbury Estate, Halle Neustadt and Karl Marx Allee; and the late twentieth-century embrace of TownPlanners Uber Alles has produced the paralysis you decry and the mundanity and mediocrity we all cry about.

And who produced those diggers, trucks, ladders, jacks, hoists, gas axes, cutting equipment, listening devices, medicines and breathing equipment used in shifting all that rubble if not those very capitalists whose invisibility you all but assume (or wish for?).

The hydraulic power used to move mountains of rubble wasn't produced by any sort of collective wishful thinking, but by impatient risk-taking entrepreneurs in the real competition of a rambunctious market.

So perhaps a re-embracing of that impatient energy, entrepreneurial drive, and can-do individualism that built the city and designed and manufactured those magnificent engines of rescue would be a more appropriate dream to resurrect today--that same individualist dream that drove those men and women living of the steam age across the world to make a new home in a new world one-hundred and sixty years ago--than to summon up the grey, flaccid spirit that has done its best over the last hundred years to crush it.

Chris Trotter said...

To: PC (a.k.a Richard McGrath)

Just go and read some New Zealand history, PC. You'll discover that laissez-faire capitalism never really got off the ground here in New Zealand.

From the NZ Company onwards, we've had a penchant for planning (and are all the better for it).

Our ancestors, God bless 'em, were decent enough people to think about the country their children and grandchildren would grow up in. Who do you think made provision for the town belts and public parks of our major cities?

You live in an ideological fantasyland, PC. A strange world where the worst totalitarian deformities of Eastern European socialism are somehow equated with the generous and far-sighted policies of New Zealand social-democracy.

Only a person riddled with the cancers of rampant individualism and capitalist hyper-greed could characterise New Zealand's post-war boom years as "gray and flaccid". Proof - if further proof is needed - that libertarianism is nothing more than pathological egotism dressed-up in a cheap rhetorical suit.

peterquixote said...

oh my God Chris you know all we need to know
do you dude,
feel free to humiliate the lesser political,
you tell us Chris we are all eyes,
rise from the social ashes Chris

SPC said...

One obvious design imperative is to to build "new school" energy efficient buildings.

Anonymous said...

A cheap rhetorical suit accessorised by size-twenty shoes, a red plastic nose and a raucous klaxon.

who produced those diggers, trucks ladders, hoists, gas-axes...?

Not the pink-fingered lily-livered paper-shufflers who've bought the anglo world to its knees and to whose fellation you've dedicated your precious life, that's for sure.

Workers built all those things, laddie; by the sweat of their brows, out of their innate drive for improvement, under leadership they accept as fair, just, and motivated by more than universally-reviled individual greed.

No surprise at all that most of them were built in the People's Republic of China.

Face it Bozo: you had a few short laughs, disracted Progression for a nano-second, but the neanderthal party's well and truly over. Prise open that shrivelled, clammy excuse for a heart or shuffle off the stage.


Joe Hendren said...

The tragic earthquake that hit my birthplace has upset me much more than I thought it would. I may be living in Auckland now but Christchurch is still dear to my heart.

While I have been thinking of the people first and foremost, I also have been thinking about how Christchurch can be rebuilt, and how this can involve the local people to provide a sense of hope that their city can be repaired and things can be better.

While London did remerge from the great fire with St Pauls - this was a lost opportunity from what could have been. Due to the complex demands of property owners, London was rebuilt on its medieval town plan, instead of the Baroque schemes of reinvention of Wren and John Evellyn. One wonders what London would have been like now had Wren or Evellyn been able to pull off a dramatic redesign - London would rival Paris and the former Italian city states for tourists seeking beauty. I also suspect this would have had a positive impact on lessening London's transport problems for the last 350 years.

jh said...

So perhaps a re-embracing of that impatient energy, entrepreneurial drive, and can-do individualism that built the city and designed and manufactured those magnificent engines of rescue would be a more appropriate dream to resurrect today--that same individualist dream that drove those men and women living of the steam age across the world to make a new home in a new world one-hundred and sixty years ago--than to summon up the grey, flaccid spirit that has done its best over the last hundred years to crush it.
The problem is that Christchurch grew to a nice size about 30 years ago and then the entrepreneurial drive started cutting up sections and the ugly infill began. The entrepreneurs bought the government and managed to start a migration assisted realestate economy.
While airplanes bought relief teams and firengines tried to get to burning buildings the streets were clogged with cars. Chch has been unusually gridlocked lately. Oil is getting more and more expensive (although the oil age won't finish with oil as they can still squeeze something dirty out of the ground).

It is time to question growth have we been growing to provide income for developers or is the real economy expanding?
This is a chance to rebuild a green city yet I haven't seen "bicycle" or "composting toilet" or "limits to growth" mentioned by the Green Party... I guess they just don't get it.

Anonymous said...

I was interested to see that the modernist architect, Miles Warren, actually lived in a very traditional mansion in Governors Bay. If any of it is still standing after Tuesday, I'm sure he will re-build in the existing gothic style. So why shouldn't the other heritage buildings also be restored to their former glory?

With regard to the rest of the CBD, no doubt commercial interests wil predominate. Isn't the irony of the ideological conditioning that lenders and rentiers will make a fortune, because the public authorities will not get access to credit (ie the Reserve Bank's money). Also, what hope for the State house suburbs, some of which were built with Reserve Bank credit, will these units be improved by the State? Why not start again north of the Waimakiriri?

Shirleyboy said...

I assume you are talking about the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Barbadoes St...
Seriously Chris, I've just got the power back on after several days of hell & goes...
1.WHERE THE F*** ARE THE ARMY? I've seen 5 soldiers-all poncing round at cordons, behind which there's nobody walking!!!! Theres people all over who need heavy machinery & muscle to dig em out- Burnham camp is just down the road??????????????????????????????????????
2.LAZY NEWS MEDIA FOCUS ON JONKEY, FATASS & BOBARAZZI MAKES ME PUKE (the only able bodied 'men' who don't have blisters & sore backs round here).
Front page stories in Press have been a kick in the teeth for the eastside- who cares about the big cheeses, get the power on & help to dig us out!!!!!!!!!
I feel much better now!

Cactus Kate said...

from the headline Chris I thought you were going to branch out into football and business commentary and opine on Terry Serepisos and the Phoenix?