Reconstruction and Renaissance: The Creative Thinkers of Christchurch

Christchurch is still a city of transition, and emerging from this are projects that give us insight into people's vision for its future. To mark this year's Festival of Transitional Architecture, Brie Sherow chats to seven creative thinkers in Christchurch.

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To mark the launch of this year's Festival of Transitional Architecture, Brie Sherow talks to seven creative thinkers in Christchurch. Here, she introduces the series:

If cities were boyfriends then my life has been a string of affairs and shameless flirtations, only staying long enough to get to know a place before tiring of it and moving on. Mount Maunganui was the wildly fun boyfriend that will never grow up. Antigua took me out for champagne in designer suits but turned out to be all style and no substance. Champaign-Urbana was the dependable boyfriend with a steady job that I cheated on for a whole summer with Curacao. I was never satisfied with where I was. I was always on the lookout for the next new thing, until I met Christchurch. Christchurch was the guy I’d known my entire life and never given a second glance, but when I passed the two-year mark I realised it had somehow won me over.

Now it’s been three years and I’m still trying to understand how Christchurch did it. I pride myself on my ability to master a city, but this one has me stumped. When I first moved here, shortly after the February 2011 quake, the national guard blocked access to the centre. I would ride my bike around the outskirts looking for clues as to what was inside. The suburbs were still reeling. It was difficult to meet people. They stuck to their existing networks and weren’t visible in the few common spaces that existed. Those who I did meet didn’t always share my enthusiasm about the state of the city and the opportunities available. During my first year in Christchurch, it seemed like this was a place that nobody knew. It seemed like there was nothing here to know. I think the only reason I stayed in those days was a stubbornness to understand what made the city tick. The city was not fun, or charming, or dependable, but that was part of its intrigue. After spending most of my life in transition it made sense to settle down in a place that was in a constant state of disorder. The circumstances that made many people feel unsettled here are the same things that gave me comfort. 

Christchurch is my first adult relationship. It doesn’t allow complacency. It’s the sort of place that forces me to confront the parts of myself that I’ve been resistant to change. It takes a lot from me, but like any good relationship, it gives a lot back. Change is difficult, but it forces growth and self-improvement. The city itself is undergoing the same transformation, forced to confront the parts that it had previously been reluctant to change. As far as I’m aware, Christchurch is the only city in the world that has ever wilfully destroyed its own centre. Other post-disaster cities rebuild using existing resources. They capitalise on the assets that made it through, even the damaged ones. In the aftermath of the post-quake demolition (over 1000 buildings in the city centre alone) we now find ourselves examining who we are and who we want to be in an effort to shape the city from the inside out.

we now find ourselves examining who we are and who we want to be in an effort to shape the city from the inside out

My job at Life in Vacant Spaces (LIVS) puts me at the centre of the creative upheaval that is shaping the city. LIVS manages space on a temporary basis, making it available to artists and entrepreneurs while the property owners work through their future plans. The city centre still looks post-apocalyptic, but experimental activities create some semblance of an urban environment amongst the rubble lots and ruins. I’ve lived in many cities that take pride in their eccentricities (the motto of my childhood home is ‘Keep Austin Weird’), but Christchurch is the most bizarre place I have ever lived and the city doesn’t seem to be aware of it. The activity that makes this place so surreal is not a gimmick or a fad, rather a response to the city’s condition by its inhabitants. It is an attempt to play a part in shaping the city when many people feel they’ve been left out of the process. We’re driven to create because with the heart of the city demolished, indifference is even more difficult than action. I’m privileged to work with many of the people behind these activities, motivated and innovative individuals who are devoting their energy to creating the sort of place that they’d like to live in.

Community initiatives weave themselves into the fabric of the city alongside the many new commercial developments. They form islands of urban life amidst the vacant spaces. I still struggle to make sense of what appeals to me about this city. In an effort to better understand it, I’ve posed the same questions that I ask myself to those who I’m working with. Questions around what has brought them here, what motivates them in their work, and what keeps them here. Throughout this series of interviews it’s become clear that the stories of the people and the city are intertwined, the people and the city shape each other. The work is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. We take opportunities to leave the city for reinvigoration, but we’re always excited to return because in Christchurch we see the results of our work as the city changes around us. The urban renewal occurring in Christchurch is relevant to cities throughout the world and we’re keen to share our experiences. In much the same way biologists study islands to understand more complex environments, those interested in urban systems should be keeping a close eye on Christchurch. We’re here and we’re making it work, and despite our complaints there’s no other place we’d rather be. For the rest of you, I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the often frustrating but starkly beautiful world of our strange city. 

Reconstruction and Renaissance runs through the week. 
In this series:
Bridget McKendry
Audrey Baldwin
Amiria Kiddle