Christchurch, the city

Wow.  This was a hard post to write.  What to say about Christchurch.  There were always 2 cities one had to see in the South Island, Queenstown and Christchurch.  If you fly to NZ from overseas, you land either in Auckland or Christchurch; Christchurch is a very important NZ city.  However, if you remember, Christchurch was badly damaged in a huge earthquake in late 2010, and then really brought to its knees by another earthquake in early 2011 (and a third one after that).  But all of that was 3 years ago.  We expected to see a nearly mended Christchurch, and the travel books talk about this and that reopening.

The nature-made pieces of Christchurch are beautiful and seemingly timeless.  The River

Avon wends through the city, and one can take a punt (think poling Venice-like gondolas) through the city or gardens.  The gardens are extensive – one can get lost in them, literally.  Christchurch is called the “Garden City”, and its collection of flora is unrivaled on

the South Island.  In contrast to nature, man-made Christchurch is a very sad story, looking like it was recently bombed.  In residential areas there are frequent empty lots or

houses just starting repair.  We didn’t get to the area near the water, where the ground liquified.  The city center wasn’t hit as hard, but we didn’t need or want to see worse

desolation.  The city center has a lot of big, cleaned up, empty lots, as shown above.  Sitting.  Eerily.  Nothing moving.  Ghost town squares.  It has a whole lot of buildings

Container Wallthat are braced up, as shown above, presumably waiting for decisions to be made or construction to start – or demolition to start.  Shipping containers are big here, as you’ll see later in this post.  Originally these trans-ocean shipping containers were used as protective walls to keep suspect buildings from toppling onto people.  They’re still used for that function, as shown on the left, but more often one sees buildings being supported by steel girders.  It’s hard to tell if the girders are part of the rebuilding process or just a holding action.  There are no construction personnel in those areas.

Much – a whole lot – of the city center is cordoned off, some with construction going on, some just quietly sitting there.  The skyscraper in the left picture below looks fine, from

afar – you can’t get closer – but it is condemned, along with the adjacent buildings.  They’re waiting their turn to come down.  Other skyscrapers look fine as well, but are for sale : for sale “As is where is”, the sign says.  I like the “where is” part; more Kiwi humor: as if you could move it.  Condemned buildings are common, examples below.

For us, the saddest part of Christchurch is its hard-hit neo-Gothic buildings; and in particular, the spiritual heart of the city – its landmark cathedral (historical pictures

above).  As you approach the center, there is a lot of rebuilding activity going on, as shown below, and you think OK, Humpty Dumpty is being put back together.  Let’s see what the

cathedral looks like.  And then you see the cathedral, below.  It can’t (or won’t) be saved,

and will be demolished.  Wow.  That’s their history.  Some of this history is being saved, of course, as shown below.  Just not so much.

So why the slow progress, and why not rebuild the cathedral (with the original stone, even, like in Germany after WWII)?  It’s all about the money.  First, although a portion of everyone’s taxes goes into a disaster fund (NZ does straddle two tectonic plates, see post of Nov 6 on Rotorua), and the fund had a lot of money in it, after the first earthquake that money was gone.  Then came the other quakes.  Second, the city government says “Never again” and issues new building codes, such as buildings must anchor to bedrock.  The insurance companies on the hook say “Wait, the contract says we pay to rebuild like it was, not to these new expensive codes”.  Lawsuits ensue, lawyers have big grins, and nothing gets done.  The last issue is the size of the mess.  There are only 4.5 million people in all of NZ.  If everybody in the country – men, women, children – freely contributed $20 to rebuilding, that’s a whole $90 million.  How many skyscrappers will that build?  So the decision is to let the history go.

The response of the people of Christchurch is the heartwarming part of this story, as they make lemonade with their lemons.  Your shop is ruined and you can’t get money for a rebuild?  No government help?  What do you do?  Well – do it yourself, mate, just do it.  What building materials are available and cheap?  Well, debris (salvage) material for sure,

and it’s free.  The end result shown above isn’t bad!  Hey, it even has a roof!  Here is

another solution: a converted bus, a tarp and some tables.  The one we think is most innovative, and the cafe we supported multiple times, also used discarded detritus; walls made of interwoven wooden pallets (painted a jaunty blue).  There is no roof, the interior

is pure ghetto dolled up with flowers growing from the pallets, but it has a bar, a coffee shop, a cafe, several food stands (operating from converted vans), and a nightclub (the performance stage is the last picture above), with frequent band performances and a weekly movie.  Also weekly there is a farmers market and on another day a flea market.

I saved the best for last.  Another very clever solution goes mainstream in the city, and it’s fabulous.  What other building material is available and cheap (and comes with a roof)?  The city initially used stacked shipping containers to support unstable external building walls.   Sign of the TimesAs the buildings were torn down or supported with girders, the shipping containers were no longer needed.  So entrepreneurs step in ….   Do it yourself with one of these!  Much of the functional city center is now citizen-made temporary buildings made of these containers, as shown in the picture (below, left) of a breakfast cafe.  Breakfast cafeBetter yet, there is now an entire mall downtown made solely of these containers!  Called Re:START, the mall is fascinating, and colorful, and inventive, and fun.  Much of it is two stories tall, with the containers stacked at interesting angles.  The place is clearly temporary – the mall has no roof, just stretched tarps and corrugated steel overhangs in front of the stores – but the mall does have a critical mass; although the stores are small, like any mall you can get almost anything you want here.  Better than most malls, really, there is live entertainment as well.  I’ll show you a bunch of pictures of this fun place, a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Kiwis in particular, and us humans in general.  It is good to be reminded of the indomitable spirit of our species.

Wait!  Did you notice that last picture??  A bank! Is that acceptance or what!  Look who joined this commercial guerrilla movement!  And there is more than one, see below.

It’s nice to see banks involved in the community.  I confess I see US banks operating more as predators than as helpful community citizens.  So good for you, Christchurch.  I know you will claw back.

Next post – Christchurch  museums.

2 comments on “Christchurch, the city

  1. Brad Warner says:


    I’ve been following your blog–it’s very well done. Especially interesting is the info on the use of the storage containers as architecture. I was approached once to use these in architectural design but didn’t get the commission due to no experience. Really sounds cool, and some of the examples are intriguing.

    I’ll keep following your and Ginger’s travels!


    >________________________________ > From: trekinti >To: >Sent: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 4:45 AM >Subject: [New post] Christchurch, the city > > > >Ron and Ginger Warner posted: “Wow. This was a hard post to write. What to say about Christchurch. There were always 2 cities one had to see in the South Island, Queenstown and Christchurch. If you fly to NZ from overseas, you land either in Auckland or Christchurch; Christchurch i” >

  2. Hi Brad, thanks for the comment! Always interesting to hear other people’s takes on things. Although I think the containers are an innovative solution to Christchurch’s predicament, I’m not so sure they would be such a good idea if there were alternatives!

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