Saturday, 5 December 2015

Christchurch: After the Earthquakes

The grass is not always greener on the other side, even in a city that is known for its lush gardens. About 5 years ago, Christchurch went through a seismic event that would not only cost more than a hundred lives, but also damage the souls of more than a hundred. I will not pretend to know what it is like to lose someone in such an unpredictable situation, nor will I know what it feels like to be trapped in a safe place you once called home just to watch it crumble down; what I do know is that the city is still in ruins, even 5 years later, and the community has been trying ever since to make Christchurch the city that would do their childhood memories justice.

185 empty chairs...

... a temporary art installation reflecting on the loss of lives in Christchurch.

The CTV Site housed the headquarters of the Canterbury Televison, where 115 people lost their lives as the building collapsed.

Coming to New Zealand, I didn't expect much but green hills and sheep, as silly as it sounds. I wasn't prepared for a post-earthquake city, despite having heard about it from my friend who lives there. My first morning in Christchurch almost felt like I merely wandered around in a safe globe full of flowers, unaware of all the rubble and dust that has marked the city for years now. As soon as I made my way out of the gardens, trying to find lunch, did I realise how much of the city was still under construction.

Even now, 5 years later, the city is still under construction...

... as some buildings have become unrecognisable.
I was told that many classical buildings had collapsed; historic landmarks severely damaged within a few months. Since New Zealand is quite a young country, the loss of these already-scarce amount of buildings must've taken away much charm, and I am not only talking about this from a tourist's point of view. Imagine that little bar you'd always go to with your friends, now surrounded by detours which will not quite tell you whether that little bar is still standing upright or not. That's one bar, then how about a whole square?

Cathedral Square, like most squares, must've been a vibrant place for friends, lovers, family and tourists to gather. Like most European cities, a cathedral is the very embodiment of architectural excellence and religious history. This landmark is now fenced off from the public. Even though its back seems to remain in glory, its front is probably nowhere near what it used to be. While being in QuakeCity, a museum which houses Christchurch's earthquake story, I listened to footage of a woman who was within one of the cathedral's towers as the earthquake emerged. The little room in the tower was a place of peace to her, just as the gardens have been to me. Every day she'd sit in a chair by the window, watching the city come to live as she continued her work. Five years ago she watched the city and the tower shake in rage, only for the cathedral to become what it is now:

The Cathedral, after the earthquake...

... fenced-off as the community is still trying to decide what to do with it.

But there is more to Christchurch than rubble and sadness. After the earthquake, art sprouted from every corner, both encouraged by the community and randomly coming to live from those creating their art in the shadows. The city has been flooded by graffiti, sculptures, and giraffes. Giraffes? Yes, giraffes. 99 giraffe sculptures have been unleashed through the concrete jungle of Christchurch as part of Christchurch Stands Tall, sitting there quietly for both tourists and locals to find them. On the 11th of February in 2015, these giraffes were auctioned to raise funds. During my stay in New Zealand, I happened to see 3 of these giraffes from a far distance, as proud buyers put them in their gardens or behind glass.

The painted giraffe sculptures have stood tall in Christchurch for a couple of months.
Picture taken from

It's not just giraffes which have been embellishing the empty streets. Pop-up artworks have been filling the empty spaces just to breathe new life into the city. Why use fences when there's art anyway? Giant art installations, such as the ones which are part of 'Scape 8: New Intimacies' are placed to 'communicate the idea that public artworks can create new connections between  people and places'. Most of the artworks are only meant to be temporary, as they will probably make space for buildings once time and money permits. I am glad I was there to witness the sculptures before they are taken away:

'Nucleus', 'Call me Snake' and 'Flour Power'.

A giant couch to rest on after a day of spotting street art, while the
'Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers' look at you from the back.


Sheep, sheep everywhere.

I always says that in the wake of devastation, art finds its way. The fenced-off, blank buildings are perfect canvasses for graffiti artists throughout the city. It is only a consolation price, a pat on the shoulder and hearing someone say 'maybe better next time', to read such words from a trespasser who knows nothing about natural disasters. Indeed, I come from a country where nature is rarely cruel. But I believe that the artworks have been colouring the city, both literally and figuratively. Whether we choose to remember Christchurch as a city of tragedies or not, to many, it is still a place to call home. This home is blossoming, and even though it's been taking five years already, it's eager to grow on:

Proof of this perseverance are some buildings that are both innovative and meaningful. The Transitional Cathedral, sometimes known as the 'Cardboard Cathedral' by locals, might seem dull from the outside, but its foundation is an architectural surprise. Its entirety is made of cardboard, local wood, and steel. Even with such a delicate and unusual main material, it is able to withstand fire and rain. This cathedral was designed by Shigeru Ban, who designed a cardboard church after the earthquake in Kobe as well. The Transitional Cathedral is meant to last for at least 50 years, and it stands near the outskirts of the city centre with modesty and quiet beauty.

Desolate, modest, yet oh so majestic inside.

Or perhaps it helps to look at it from the front instead of the back.

Another interesting work of architecture is Re:START, a 'quirky container mall in central Christchurch'. It is meant to be a 'transitional retail precinct until permanent stores are rebuilt' (according to its folder). Walking through Re:START feels like strolling through a little town made of containers, containers that must've become very familiar to those living in Christchurch as you will find them at the feet of the hills as well, where they are meant to keep the rubble from the roads if another earthquake emerges. The mall is simple but colourful, containing food trucks as well which you will find in other places during particular days of the week.

Re:START, despite small, allows for quite some time to walk around.

One of the places where you'll find the same food trucks is, yet again, Cathedral Square. Even though its main star is not what it used to be, I think the community is still trying to breathe life into the place as it organises life music and a food market each Friday, where you can enjoy the orange glow while eating a twisted potato next to the 'Chalice' (or icecream cone). This was probably the place where I've seen most people hang around (besides the Re:START mall), with or without foodtrucks. There's still a long way to go to make the open spaces less lonely, but it's going somewhere:

Cathedral Square and the Chalice in the soft glow of the sunset.

Going to Christchurch was a new experience to me as a tourist. Most of us travel around, in search of something different or better in order to distract us from the stress that's going on back home, or simply to discover. We sometimes forget the need to educate ourselves, to not only learn about others, but also learn about ourselves through others. This city has endured the loss of homes and familiarity. Electricity and water supplies were run short. People dug holes in their backyards due to the lack of working toilets. Simple things such as brushing one's teeth got new meaning. Every day we wake up and stand in front of the mirror, brush our teeth, worry about our hair, without realising how lucky we are to be alive and able to look at ourselves, reflecting on ourselves each and every day.

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