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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blog - Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Starting Over

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Starting Over

IS GERRY BROWLEE RIGHT? Should we bulldoze the slate clean? Should Christchurch start over with architectural blueprints more akin to the aspirations and values of 21st Century New Zealanders?

These are reasonable questions: and I take my hat off to Mr Brownlee for having the political courage to raise them. He also deserves our praise for the gruff honesty with which he so firmly declared his preference for the bulldozer.

Whether Mr Brownlee was simply displaying the instincts of a practical politician when he called for all but the two great cathedrals, the Provincial Chambers and the Arts Centre to be cleared away; or voicing his support for a new architectural vision of Christchurch, I cannot say.

My suspicion is that, like so many Cantabrians, his eyes and his heart have grown weary of the rubble and the ruins. A dusty vacant lot pregnant with the hope of something new would please him more, I think, than being reminded constantly of the old. The longer these tombstones to the Christchurch that was remain standing, the harder it is to imagine the Christchurch that will be.

But simply bulldozing flat the heartbreaking remnants of 19th and early-20th Century Christchurch is not a sufficient answer to the painful sense of loss which they inspire. If there is no clear commitment from local and central government to a creative, generous, and most importantly, a long-term plan for the reconstruction of Christchurch, then for the sake of all Cantabrians – let the ruins stand.

At least while the ruins remain in place, the sites they occupy cannot be filled with graceless, lowest-bidder structures dedicated to nothing more uplifting than the crass utilitarianism of bureaucratic administration. The last thing Cantabrians need is for their once beautiful Neo-Gothic city to be transformed into an antipodean version of Europe’s post-war urban landscape: an environment of rigid right-angles, reinforced concrete, stainless steel and glass.

This would add to the disaster that God made, a tragedy for which we alone are responsible.

It is easy to understand why the founders of Christchurch built their new city in the Neo-Gothic style. Not only was it the architectural fashion of the time, but the resulting structures replicated for the city’s emigrant population all the reassuring lines and forms of the towns and cities they’d left behind. Their civic buildings and places of worship were conceived in the same spirit as Christchurch’s spacious parks. They were the architectural equivalents of English oaks and elms.

Is that what we want the new Christchurch to be? A city (and a community) built in a quite conscious imitation of England? An exercise, it should be remembered, that extended well beyond mere architectural imitation. Canterbury was not only to boast the spires and towers, trees and flowers, of Mother England but also her rigid class system - and all the social deformities that came with it.

The Neo-Gothic architecture for which Christchurch is so rightly famous also has its disreputable side. For let us not forget that its great masterpieces – of which the Westminster parliamentary complex is undoubtedly the greatest – were constructed in the midst of industrial and political revolutions.

All architecture is political. The ideological impetus behind the Gothic revival reflected the nostalgia of a beleaguered ruling class for the political and religious certainties of the Middle Ages. Had history taken a slightly different course, the built environment of Nineteenth Century London (and Christchurch) could just as easily have been inspired by the democratic values and revolutionary construction techniques of the ultra-modern Crystal Palace – home of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This is why Cantabrians must quiz Mr Brownlee much more closely about his intentions. Because the future shape of Christchurch is, inescapably, a political question. If it is conceived in an atmosphere of crude austerity – where cheapness is the highest virtue – not only Cantabrians but all New Zealanders will be the losers.

This past dreadful fortnight Mayor Bob Parker has acquitted himself with real distinction. Now he must turn his attention to the all-important question of how the future shape of Christchurch will be decided.

If the process is not democratic: if the people (and that includes the people of Bexley and Aranui every bit as much as the people of Ilam and Fendalton) are not drawn into the process – and kept there – then Christchurch’s reconstruction will default to the blueprints of cash-strapped central and local government politicians and profit-driven private-sector developers.

The result will be a Christchurch configured not according to the imaginations and aspirations of its citizens, but to the cost-accounting imperatives of bureaucrats and businessmen.

If that is allowed to happen, Cantabrians will have no stake in their new city. The past they’ll recall with nostalgic affection. The future will happen somewhere else.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 March 2011.

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