A City Recovers


In the early hours of 4 Sep 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake centred around 40km west of Christchurch shook the city and caused some damage to older buildings in the centre, but no lives were lost. The epicentre was a rural area and deep gashes opened up in fields and pastures and the South Island railway line was bent and buckled. Many in the city thought they were lucky to get away so lightly.

Jump forward 5 months to 22 Feb 2011.  At 12:51pm, when people were out enjoying lunch in the summer sunshine, Christchurch suffered another earthquake.  This time the tremor was much more powerful, being much closer, centred around 10km from the city centre and only 5km deep. When the dust had settled after 24 seconds of what must have been a terrifying experience, the city had changed for ever. Christchurch Cathedral spire had collapsed, walls and verandas had cascaded down on passing shoppers and two multi-story office blocks had pancaked.  In total 185 people perished that day and much of the city lay in ruins.  Months of aftershocks followed and the impact of these events will last more than a generation. 


“Everything is Going to Be Alright”  Reassuring Message to Christchurch after the earthquake

Seven years on, as we drove in to Christchurch, I was thinking about that day and the experience of the locals and wondering how much progress the city had made in its recovery.

Our accommodation is located about 15 minutes walk from the centre of Christchurch and as we walked in to visit the I-site, evidence of the damage caused in 2011 was still all  around us.  We could see areas of waste land where buildings once stood and had been cleared, old buildings which had been shored up with steel girders and props so that they do not collapse, and where new buildings had been constructed to replace those destroyed in the earthquake.

The I-site had recently been relocated to a building next to an Art Gallery.  This building used to form part of the University campus but was severely damaged in the quake and although much of it has been restored, there are still areas where work is ongoing.  Nevertheless the I-site is just one element of this building now.  Several businesses have started, selling arts, crafts, and artisan foods, and a cafe. The sun was shining so we ordered coffee and sat outside watching the tourist trams rattle by and people out for a stroll.

Top Row: Sculpture on top of the new University building roof; Part of the old University, now an Arts Centre – Note ongoing repairs at the Gable End.                                             Bottom Row:  Street Scenes from Christchurch

A short walk around the city centre before our guided tour, showed the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake.  In the immediate aftermath, because much of the city centre was wrecked by the quake the city council set up a “containerised” shopping area on a quickly cleared area of land.  Known as Re:START Mall, it enabled businesses who had lost premises in the disaster to start trading again from requisitioned shipping containers.  Most of these have now been removed as the shopping centre has been re-built, but one or two street-food retailers are still trading there. The area where the containers were located has been fenced off pending development.

Left and centre:  Wall Art: Right: All that is left of RE:START Mall

We met our guide outside the Museum and quickly got into the history of the city. A party of European settlers established themselves in what is now Christchurch, early in 1840. Their abandoned holdings were taken over by the another group in 1843 and these people stayed on.  In December 1850 the first of four ships carrying what became known as the Canterbury Pilgrims arrived.  They were part of an ordered Church of England project to colonise New Zealand and spread the Anglican word. The name “Christ Church” was decided prior to the ships’ arrival. The exact basis for the name is not known  but it has been suggested that the city was named for Christchurch, in Dorset; for Canterbury Cathedral or in honour of Christ Church college, Oxford. The last explanation is the one generally accepted as the truer one.

Today, Christchurch is the largest city on South Island and boasts Art Galleries, historic buildings, the stunning Botanic Gardens and the massive Hagley Park, a lovely green space with sports pitches and a golf course within its bounds, not to mention the cricket ground, venue for the forthcoming Test Match against England.

Clockwise from Top Left: Completely restored-part of the old university building now restored; Plaque to Ernest Rutherford; Part of the “Quad” with a statue by Anthony Gormley competed in 2016; University Entrance.

Our guide, Joan, took us round part of what used to be the University campus.  We saw the great hall, the building where the young Ernest Rutherford started his studies as a Nuclear Physicist that would lead him to greater things. Other areas of interest included some of the buildings which had been restored and strengthened as part of the rebuild.

Top Left:  Stained Glass Window in The Great Hall; Remainder – Work in progress.

From the old University building we moved to one of the few buildings to survive the earthquake relatively unscathed, the Main Art Gallery.  In the immediate aftermath the city council requisitioned the whole of the ground floor as their office space to plan the recovery.  They created “Gap Fillers”  a project to come up with ideas to fill the gaps left by demolished buildings. Projects ranged from art installations, performance spaces, mini gardens and a Dance Mat, an area with speakers on poles where kids can come along, plug in their tunes and dance away to their hearts content.  On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon it was not getting much use but Joan assured us it would come to life in the evening. The city council sanctioned the painting of a wide variety of murals on bare walls and these can be seen around the centre.

Left and centre – Two views of the Art Gallery; Gap Filler – Giant Chess Board

As mentioned above the Christchurch Cathedral was destroyed in the earthquake.  The site was barricaded off whilst the church elders decided whether to demolish the wrecked church completely and build a new one, or rebuild and restore what is left of the original.  After seven years of discussion and heated debate they have decided on the expensive option which is to restore the building to its former glory.  No-one knows how long this will take or how much it will cost.

Cathedral 1Cathedral 2Cathedral 3 What it used to be

Three images of the wrecked Cathedral, the bottom image has a photograph of what it looked like before the earthquake.

Sculpture LAtimer PArk

Close to the Cardboard Cathedral – Latimer Park – Sculpture

From the existing cathedral we made our way past many “gap filler” sites to the Temporary Cathedral or Cardboard Cathedral as it has become known.  Created in a triangular shape like Toblerone with a sloping top, it has a number of artefacts recovered from the wreckage of the old Cathedral inside.  The cardboard bit comes from the fact that the circular beams that support the cathedral from base to apex are covered in corrugated cardboard.

Cardboard Cathedral:  L – Outside C – The Apex R – Inside – The columns from the roof down are wrapped in cardboard, giving the building its name.

On a plot behind the Cardboard Cathedral is a very moving sculpture.  185 different types of chair, including a child’s car seat have been painted white and placed in straight rows, this to symbolise and remember those who died in the earthquake.  This is not the official memorial site but poignant nonetheless. On the block next to the cathedral a peaceful garden has been created in an open space left when a building collapsed. This memorial is a Garden of Remembrance and where 110 of those who died in the quake lost their lives, when a building they were in collapsed. It housed not only the local TV station, but an International Language School and many of those killed were overseas students studying here.

L – Memorial Garden R – Chairs Memorial

As we walked on we heard of the struggles the locals had to endure.  Out to the east and in places in the centre of the city, many buildings had been erected on reclaimed swamp land.  These have been lost owing to liquefaction, where mud, moved by the earthquake, overwhelmed the foundations of buildings making them unstable and unusable.

Walking back into the city centre the demarkation between old and new became clearer.  The new city centre is a series pedestrian walkways and modern, low rise buildings of innovative design.  The city council has stated that no building constructed following the earthquake is to be higher than seven storeys.  Hence the low rise look of the new. However at the outer edge of the new developed area, a large site had been fenced off.  A number of concrete piles stand proud and the outline of what was once there can still be seen, but the site was filled with mud and water – a live example of liquefaction.  Our guide told us the future of this site is unknown. Behind it, old brick buildings stood abandoned, part of the old Christchurch.

Clockwise from top left:  Books lie as they did after the earthquake; Greening Christchurch – an old Mitsubishi Lancer finds a new use; Liquefaction – mud and water fills the hole; Looking back up the new shopping street.

Renewal – More shots of the new bits.

At the end of this pedestrian area is a giant arch.  This is the city Memorial Arch, built to remember those who lost their lives in two world wars and in subsequent conflicts that New Zealanders have been sent to fight. It is a very impressive structure.  As you walk under you can see the river Avon to the left as it winds its way around Hagley Park.  On the left bank as you approach is a landscaped area with steps down to the waters edge and planting in places along the bank with modern seating. At the back of the bank is a large marble wall with the names of each of those who perished written in English, and in the language of their country of origin.  This was the National Earthquake Memorial, a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in this disaster.

Lyn at Memorial ArchMemorial Wall 2Memorial Wall 1

Memorials:  top:  Lyn under the War Memorial; Centre and Bottom: Two images of the National Earthquake Memorial on the bank of the River Avon, Christchurch

A walk along the river back to the Museum concluded what was a very interesting, thought provoking and at times moving tour.

Saturday afternoon Punting on the Avon

The New Art Gallery, which played such a central role in the immediate aftermath of the ‘quake was one place we wanted to visit.  It is built over two floors and houses a large collection of paintings by classical artists like Constable, Turner etc, but also more modern, and dare I say “off the wall” exhibitors.  There was one collection by a Kiwi artist by the name of Jacqueline Fahey which  particularly attracted Lyn’s attention for the stories they tell within the work.  Other exhibitors were less obvious, including one Japanese artist who had a passion for the colour yellow.  Every offering was in shade of this colour.  We did not stay long in there!

Lyn here: To start with, the banner for this exhibition ‘Say Something’ spoke to me and when I saw the paintings, I became engrossed. I am ‘saying something’ through my writing; telling my story / my truth. Jacqueline Fahey is doing much the same through her art. Many of her works feature her Mother, top right for example and bottom left. For those that know me well, I don’t need to explain the poignancy. 

Finally, the Botanical Gardens.  Thirty Hectares of landscaped gardens created by the first  Canterbury Pilgrims in 1857.  They had brought trees, native to the UK along with them and these still exist in the garden along with many local varieties and a number of annual beds, water features and all bounded by the meandering River Avon.

Views of the Botanical Gardens

The events of 2010 and 2011 have clearly had a huge impact on Christchurch and its inhabitants.  Many left in the aftermath, never to return  and it is estimated that it will be another 20 years before all sites are fully utilised.  Nevertheless the city has recovered much in the way of life and attitude and its people have shown a great resilience and determination to rise from the disaster.  The National Memorial is a lasting tribute to all who perished and of the frailty of life.  It is to those who remain that the task of sustaining and completing the recovery falls and if what we saw is anything to go by, they are doing an amazing job.

We like to dip in and out of cities but not linger, and rarely return.  Christchurch is different.  It has space, its people have time for you and it is a very friendly place with a warm welcome.  I think we may be coming back at some time.



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