Pop-up Christchurch

After two devastating earthquakes, Christchurch is in the midst of transformation, brimming with inventive ideas that restore the city's heart.

On 4 September 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit Christchurch. Buildings were damaged as New Zealand’s second largest city shook, but no lives were lost. Less than six months later, as the damage from that event was still being cleared, a second major earthquake struck on 22 February 2011. Though the magnitude was smaller at 6.3, the epicentre was closer to the city centre, and struck at lunch time as many residents and office workers were out and about in town. This time, the earthquake devastated the city and claimed 185 lives.

More than four years on, the impact is still surprisingly evident on the city’s streets.

Before we arrived, we didn’t quite know what to expect of Christchurch. We’d heard stories of families still living in temporary accommodation, angry at the slow pace of repair. The city has been described as a building site, and, more hopefully, a city in the midst of transformation.

We didn’t have to walk far to see evidence of the earthquake’s destructive power, with deserted buildings missing a wall or a roof, marked for demolition. Next door is a gaping hole, where another building once stood. There is scaffolding everywhere you look, and construction workers sporting day-glo vests and hard hats stroll through the streets. The Cathedral still stands in the central square, though the front wall has collapsed allowing onlookers to almost see through into the aisles. Poignantly, an art installation has been set up with 185 white empty chairs, ranging from a baby’s cot to a beanbag, wheelchair to armchair, in memory of those who died.

It all sounds pretty depressing, until you see how the city has responded. Empty spaces are being filled with innovative installations, such as a ‘Dance-o-mat’ public dance floor – just pop $2 in a washing machine to hear your music piped out over a large linoleum floor, to replace the dance studios that were damaged. A new cathedral has been built out of tough cardboard, like hundreds of giant poster tubes. And there’s no shortage of parking in all those rubbled squares.

In the city centre, colourfully painted shipping containers create a vibrant shopping area, housing stylish clothes stores and tasty treats. The hipsters have been undeterred by the dust – we visited a bar operating out of shipping containers clad in fairy lights and patio heaters, and a pretentious cafe serving coffee out of conical flasks, water out of a sewing machine, with toilets hidden behind a secret book shelf and signposted by Star Wars figurines (Luke Skywalker for gents, Princess Leia for ladies, Stormtroopers for staff). There’s definitely a sense of people just getting on, with a smile. And it’s pretty exciting to see the makings of a $40 billion regeneration plan in action, even if it is taking shape slower than many residents would like.

Christchurch is still a city under construction, but with pockets of colour where regeneration has taken place – either through permanent government-led schemes or temporary resident-led creativity. Many of the city’s attractive historical buildings have been damaged, but the make-shift new centres that have taken their place capture the city’s charm and resilience. A fascinating and inspiring place.

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