Wednesday 9 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Starting Over

What Sort Of Future?: Cantabrians must decide whether they want to reproduce an architechtural past that was itself a kind of lie, or construct a new city that is less a copy of Mother England and more a statement about 21st Century New Zealand.

IS GERRY BROWLEE RIGHT? Should we bulldoze the slate clean? Should Christchurch start over with architectural blueprints more akin to the aspirations and values of 21st Century New Zealanders?

These are reasonable questions: and I take my hat off to Mr Brownlee for having the political courage to raise them. He also deserves our praise for the gruff honesty with which he so firmly declared his preference for the bulldozer.

Whether Mr Brownlee was simply displaying the instincts of a practical politician when he called for all but the two great cathedrals, the Provincial Chambers and the Arts Centre to be cleared away; or voicing his support for a new architectural vision of Christchurch, I cannot say.

My suspicion is that, like so many Cantabrians, his eyes and his heart have grown weary of the rubble and the ruins. A dusty vacant lot pregnant with the hope of something new would please him more, I think, than being reminded constantly of the old. The longer these tombstones to the Christchurch that was remain standing, the harder it is to imagine the Christchurch that will be.

But simply bulldozing flat the heartbreaking remnants of 19th and early-20th Century Christchurch is not a sufficient answer to the painful sense of loss which they inspire. If there is no clear commitment from local and central government to a creative, generous, and most importantly, a long-term plan for the reconstruction of Christchurch, then for the sake of all Cantabrians – let the ruins stand.

At least while the ruins remain in place, the sites they occupy cannot be filled with graceless, lowest-bidder structures dedicated to nothing more uplifting than the crass utilitarianism of bureaucratic administration. The last thing Cantabrians need is for their once beautiful Neo-Gothic city to be transformed into an antipodean version of Europe’s post-war urban landscape: an environment of rigid right-angles, reinforced concrete, stainless steel and glass.

This would add to the disaster that God made, a tragedy for which we alone are responsible.

It is easy to understand why the founders of Christchurch built their new city in the Neo-Gothic style. Not only was it the architectural fashion of the time, but the resulting structures replicated for the city’s emigrant population all the reassuring lines and forms of the towns and cities they’d left behind. Their civic buildings and places of worship were conceived in the same spirit as Christchurch’s spacious parks. They were the architectural equivalents of English oaks and elms.

Is that what we want the new Christchurch to be? A city (and a community) built in a quite conscious imitation of England? An exercise, it should be remembered, that extended well beyond mere architectural imitation. Canterbury was not only to boast the spires and towers, trees and flowers, of Mother England but also her rigid class system - and all the social deformities that came with it.

The Neo-Gothic architecture for which Christchurch is so rightly famous also has its disreputable side. For let us not forget that its great masterpieces – of which the Westminster parliamentary complex is undoubtedly the greatest – were constructed in the midst of industrial and political revolutions.

All architecture is political. The ideological impetus behind the Gothic revival reflected the nostalgia of a beleaguered ruling class for the political and religious certainties of the Middle Ages. Had history taken a slightly different course, the built environment of Nineteenth Century London (and Christchurch) could just as easily have been inspired by the democratic values and revolutionary construction techniques of the ultra-modern Crystal Palace – home of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This is why Cantabrians must quiz Mr Brownlee much more closely about his intentions. Because the future shape of Christchurch is, inescapably, a political question. If it is conceived in an atmosphere of crude austerity – where cheapness is the highest virtue – not only Cantabrians but all New Zealanders will be the losers.

This past dreadful fortnight Mayor Bob Parker has acquitted himself with real distinction. Now he must turn his attention to the all-important question of how the future shape of Christchurch will be decided.

If the process is not democratic: if the people (and that includes the people of Bexley and Aranui every bit as much as the people of Ilam and Fendalton) are not drawn into the process – and kept there – then Christchurch’s reconstruction will default to the blueprints of cash-strapped central and local government politicians and profit-driven private-sector developers.

The result will be a Christchurch configured not according to the imaginations and aspirations of its citizens, but to the cost-accounting imperatives of bureaucrats and businessmen.

If that is allowed to happen, Cantabrians will have no stake in their new city. The past they’ll recall with nostalgic affection. The future will happen somewhere else.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 March 2011. 


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the garden city should be rebuilt as the green manufacturing hub of Te Tai Tonga - the South Island. Indeed a green manufacturing hub of the South Pacific.

It has engineering expertise and an ex Mayor with an interest in clean energy. Do not forget that the green party has an MP based in Brownlee's Ilam, which also has a lot of students, who have provided great leadership as the student volunteer army, re-building their city, and coming to the aid of those in need. Labour also has an MP in the center of the city - he is Labour's climate and water spokesperson.

New Zealand needs a low carbon economy if it wants to be a climate leader and to rebuild its economy, we need green jobs - what better place for out greentech center that Christchurch.

Wellington has a Green Mayor and Auckland has talked about becoming an Eco City, widering what was originally a concept from the West, from Waitakere.

What would a world class, modern and green/low carbon Christchurch look like? It would treasure its heritage, and rebuild for a bright future. The building begins.

The ashes of Christchurch, will be used to fertilize the garden city.

Victor said...

An excellent post and an interesting and challenging first response from Anonymous 1:33.

Adze said...

First they need to decide if rebuilding several suburbs on a swamp is a good idea.

They should just rebuild in an intelligent way that satifies the needs of Christchurch, and worry less about stylistic (read: political) concerns. Even the Art-Deco style famous in Napier didn't get that label until after that fashion had passed, from what I understand - almost any contemporary style will be recognisably early-mid 21st Century.

Unknown said...

Other than imposing some arbitrary hight limits, guidelines for colours and a formula for calculating car parks, it's difficult to see how our elected representatives can impose a prescription upon commercial developers, who, like it or not, have to generate a return upon their investment, or they simply invest elsewhere.

The real risk we run is not that the city will be re-deveoped in an 'ad-hoc' and unpleasing way, but that it will not attract sufficient private investment to be re-developed at all.

The CBD had been in steady decline for many years, and you could hardly blame developers and retailers for looking elsewhere to reinvest and re-establish their businesses.

Personally, I hope that does not happen, and we do end up with a modern vibrant city we can all be proud of. That will mean allowing for freedom, creativity and innovation, rather than some arbitrary prescription thought up by a central committee.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this, my sympathy for Christchurch residents but the city did attract people who liked to think they were better than others. If this was due to the architecture, the earthquake has made a chance for the city to join the rest of New Zealand in the 21st century.

Loz said...

"it's difficult to see how our elected representatives can impose a prescription upon commercial developers"... actually no its not.

Family members of mine in Christchurch built their home a decade ago. The commercial subdivision they purchased into prescribed minimum sizes for homes, limits on the number of levels, general levels and the building materials used. The process was simple enough and ensured that the entire area developed a uniformly positive character without fly-by-night developers coming in for a quick buck and ruining everyone else’s investment.

If commercially driven subdivisions can enforce such tight rules for development then it is more than acceptable (if not preferable) for elected officials to do the same Brendan.

I really hope Christchurch does enforce a theme for redevelopment that reinforces its past.

Victor said...

Anonymous @ 9.52

I don't live in Christchurch and don't think myself better than others.

But conformism and censoriousness are not desirable attributes. Nor are uniformity and mediocrity desirable goals.

You really shouldn't have such a tender ego. It will make your life miserable.

peterquixote said...

Agree with Brendon, Central City has been in a long decline, and thats why we have a periphery of shopping malls, and alternative villages.
There is not enough money in the earthquake fund New Zealand to rebuild suburban infrastructure as well as the Central City.
Wait to you hear the insured value of the sewer system, and then later the real cost of repair and upgrade of sewer, communication channels, and roads.
Presently calculated at book value of a few billion, real cost astronomical, and beyond our means .

jh said...

Reading the history of Diamond Harbour it was the Lyttelton Borough Council which owned and developed the land. It is a fallacy that developers will come up with the best outcome, just the most profitable. We need to encourage the participation of members of the public who care about the urban environment they live in.

jh said...

These days cities suffer from a lack of open space and human scale. Lake Victoria is a fine example of the sort of public building that made Christchurch a better place to live. Also (in future), band rotundas (gazebos), buildings using wood and stained glass. Hopefully as many people as possible will leave the garden city, leaving only the gardeners behind.

jh said...

This is why Cantabrians must quiz Mr Brownlee much more closely about his intentions. Because the future shape of Christchurch is, inescapably, a political question. If it is conceived in an atmosphere of crude austerity – where cheapness is the highest virtue – not only Cantabrians but all New Zealanders will be the losers.
This may help explain why we get what we get?:
Marian Hobbs:
First, I would like to thank the Council for the invitation to attend today.

Secondly I would like to acknowledge the importance of the sector and the size of the interests that the Council represents;

* 20 corporate members
* $14 billion of assets, and
* Contributes significantly, through rates to the functions of Local Government.
But with so many legal resources trained on the process of the RMA is it any wonder that this law and its procedures have become so bound in litigation. Some of the litigation and resulting case law is of high value but much is a result of trying to protect vested interests of all sorts. When one looks through the case law and the investment this involves I become concerned about how much actually relates to environmental matters? I suggest very little.

Rather too much in my view continues to be about property rights, commercial influences and the use of the RMA to advantage one party or the other in a trade or similar debate, using the RMA as another commercial battleground. And here I am referring to the supermarket circus that continues, altruistic shopping centres, petrol stations with very community minded concerns about traffic, etc. All consume valuable resources in the RMA process. However much of this is based upon the process rather than the fundamental tenets of the Act which was to be enabling provided this resulted in good environmental outcomes.

Anonymous said...

What interests Brownlee the most is the prospect of channelling public funds to local wealthy property developer/construction industry friends of the party. Follow the money.

Anonymous said...

I learnt today that Brownlie drives a Hummer?

Anonymous said...

Developments we want (from a past president of the South Island branch of the Property Council):

“Obviously the developers couldn’t buy the local politicians and public officials off fast enough in Dallas Fort Worth to overcome the zoning impediment – but they have been trying as this article Fed Up: Texas Monthly November 2007 illustrates. It goes on pretty much everywhere of course – but only illustrates how zoning tends to assist in inflating prices and stalling supply responses.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting

Anonymous said...

This is an insight into the intoxicating effect of fast money and power that shapes our cities:

This urban planner was so enthralled with this mans status that she would o/k developments for sex

"The NSW corruption watchdog has recommended charges be laid against former Wollongong town planner Beth Morgan and her erstwhile lover, developer Frank Vellar, over a sex-for-development scandal at Wollongong City Council."