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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Voices from abroad

Voices from abroad

Last updated 05:00 13/03/2011
LORD FOSTER: Superstar British architect

Norman Foster, whose iconic projects include the London's soaring "gherkin" skyscraper, Hong Kong's international airport and the 1999 restoration of Berlin's Reichstag, told the Sunday Star-Times that although he doesn't know Christchurch well, there are some fundamental principles to bear in mind when rebuilding a shattered city.

What happens now is going to affect future generations for hundreds of years to come so it has to be blessed with wisdom. You have three commodities: time, money and creative energy, and creative energy is the most important resource of all. It's not how much money you have; it's not how much time you have; it's how wisely you use it.

There has to be a champion – someone who says "we want to make our city better than it was before", and then you need a design-led initiative. But you don't want to get bogged down into the greyness of a stupid committee where in the end it becomes nothing. You need strong leadership – ideally strong political leadership or strong design leadership backed up by a political commitment. Look to the past: to Burnham in Chicago, [in 1906, urban planner Daniel Burnham devised a masterplan for that city]. You have to find a political will allied to a design – somebody who wants to do something well.

What would I do if I was there and trying to advocate a policy? I think I would say – let's look at where we were before. What in the past did we love about this city? Which buildings did we really appreciate (or we didn't appreciate them at the time but now that they're gone, suddenly they're like lost loved ones)?

And if this street has now been destroyed how could we improve this street – could we siphon off some traffic here; could we reduce the congestion there? If we're going to get a new building, what are our needs as a community – would it be an opera house or a new gallery? Would it be a community centre? Would it be a school to encourage skills we feel need to be nurtured?

If there was a popular move that those buildings that disappeared into an awful mound of bricks were so important to the heritage, I would recreate those buildings brick by brick and ensure that they were improved against seismic forces – which is not very difficult to do.

The importance of a city is less about its individual buildings – it's much more about its public spaces, its routes, its main street, how you move from one place to another, the infrastructure. The buildings are secondary. But if there's a loved building, why not reconstruct it?

It's very simple. Christchurch was a great place. Terrible disaster. Looking back [in] 50 years, what did they do? They turned this horrific event to a great opportunity and wow! Thank God, they got it! Or is it going to be the verdict in 50 years that a terrible thing happened and they all fluffed around and looked at each other's navels and got buried in committees and engaged in political infighting? Sad.


Last week Hank Dittmar, chief executive of Prince Charles's conservation-minded Foundation for the Built Environment warned that "in the aftermath of a disaster, there can be a natural tendency to move forward quickly, and a danger that the character of a place can be lost in the ensuing reconstruction". Dittmar said the foundation had worked in post-Katrina New Orleans, and post-earthquake Haiti, and "if asked to assist, we are certainly willing to help ensure that heritage preservation, earthquake safety and economic recovery go hand in hand in the recovery process in Christchurch".


In a column in the Guardian, the UK journalist wrote that Christchurch Cathedral's belltower needed to be restored exactly as it was, because "I believe that the evil of a disaster, whatever its cause, is best conquered by reinstating the good that was before". He said unsympathetic post-war reconstruction in the heart of Luftwaffe-ravaged Bristol and Southampton saw those English cities turned into "banal modernist memorials to bomber and bulldozer alike".


Great Fire of London, 1666

Four-fifths of the city burnt down, including 13,000 houses, but only 16 people died. The rebuild, masterminded by architect Christopher Wren, focused on fire safety, replacing timber with brick, and widening streets. St Paul's Cathedral was completely rebuilt. In the haste to rebuild, Wren's grand vision for a grid city was abandoned, mainly because the city authority couldn't afford it.

Lisbon earthquake, Portugal, 1755

A quake, tsunamis and fires killed 100,000. The swift rebuild featured big squares, wider streets and long avenues, as well as earthquake-resistant wooden structures.

Great Fire of Chicago, 1871

Ten square kilometres of city centre were destroyed, and around 300 people died. The rebuild shunned wood, and built high to best use the limited space. Thus the steel-framed skyscraper was invented, changing the face of cities the world over.

San Francisco earthquake, 1906

A huge quake and resulting fires devastated the city, killing as many as 3000 people. In the haste to rebuild and ensure swift inward investment, building standards were in fact lowered and the death toll was grossly understated by officials. It wasn't until the 1950s that building standards in the city were finally improved, leaving a legacy to this day of buildings ill-prepared for another quake of that size.

Hiroshima bombing, 1945

Almost 70% of the city's buildings were destroyed when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and 80,000 died. At the heart of the rebuilt city was the 30-acre Peace Memorial Park, which officially opened in 1954.

Short-term work such as temporary housing and bridge-building was separated from the longer-term architectural reinvention of the city.

L'Aquila earthquake, 2009

The medieval Italian city was trashed and 308 people died. Two years on, reconstruction still hasn't been started because of a standoff between residents who want to rebuild the 1000-year-old centre as it was and officials who are demanding that new buildings should comply with seismic standards.

Haiti earthquake, 2010

In an earthquake on January 12 last year, a third of the capital Port-au-Prince was flattened, and 230,000 died. In March, the president unveiled a $5.3 billion plan to replace infrastructure and relocate residential quarters.

- Sunday Star Times

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