Apr 09, 2014

    Christchurch's rebirth from quake rubble

    ON THE afternoon of Feb 22, 2011, as the C1 Espresso cafe in Christchurch was in the midst of a busy lunch rush, the walls and tables suddenly began shaking, windows started popping out of their frames and the lights flickered out.

    The region had been experiencing aftershocks from a large earthquake that had struck six months earlier, but this one was different.

    In a span of minutes, the entire city centre was devastated, including the cafe, which was eventually demolished. Nearly 200 people across the city died.

    Less than two years later, C1 reopened in an Art Deco space, once a post office, across the street from the old location.

    The rebuilding process was not easy for the owner, Mr Sam Crofskey. He was deeply in debt, paying off one credit card with the next, and had a new baby to support. "It was absolutely terrifying," he said. "I didn't sleep for a very long time."

    But leaving Christchurch was never an option. Like many entrepreneurs, artists, designers and other hardy residents who have chosen to stay in the city, he was determined to see Christchurch rebound - and become a better city than it was before.

    New Zealand is accustomed to earthquakes, but few have been as destructive as the 6.3-magnitude tremor that hit Christchurch, the South Island's largest city, in 2011.

    The central business district, which was cordoned off from the public for more than two years, still looks like a war zone. Fences that stretch for blocks enclose vacant lots piled high with rubble.

    Yet amid such scenes of desolation are flashes of artistic whimsy. On one block, an installation called the Sound Garden has been set up, with chimes fashioned from hollowed-out fire extinguishers and a rain stick made from a pipe filled with wooden beads and rubber balls.

    Across the street is something called a Dance-O-Mat - an open-air dance floor with speakers and a disco ball where passers-by are invited to drop a coin into a washing machine, plug in their smartphones and dance in front of construction workers for a half-hour.

    Slowly, life is returning to Christchurch, in part thanks to creative endeavours like these.

    "The city is irreversibly different and irreversibly changed. It's mostly gone," said Ms Coralie Winn, a co-founder of Gap Filler, a collaborative group formed after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 to develop innovative ways to make temporary use of empty city spaces, including the Sound Garden and Dance-O-Mat.

    "So we have to do something new and different, because what choice do you have?"

    Gap Filler's projects were instantly popular among young people who lost their cinemas, theatres, clubs and bars and were in need of entertainment.

    An open-air performance space made from shipping pallets, known as the Pallet Pavilion, proved so successful that the programme raised more than NZ$80,000 (S$87,000) in a month-long, crowd-sourced drive to keep it running for an extra year.

    The Christchurch Art Gallery, the city's pre-eminent art institution, was driven to the streets out of necessity. For six months after the quake, it was taken over by the recovery authorities, and then it was shut down for its own repairs. Without a home, the gallery began commissioning murals on walls across town.

    Ms Jenny Harper, the gallery director, said the goal was not only to keep the staff engaged, but also to provide work for artists who lost studios in the city.

    There was some creative flight after the quake, but many artists remained.

    "Part of our motivation was to make sure we kept the creative community here as far as we could because we just couldn't imagine Christchurch without a lot of these people," she said.

    There are so many murals and public art works now - some commissioned by the gallery, others by the long-running SCAPE Public Art group - the entire city centre feels like a giant exhibition space.

    Competition for wall space is fierce - one of the gallery's murals was even tagged by a graffiti artist who not so politely requested the gallery keep its art indoors.

    Ms Harper tried to take a hospitable attitude: "We thought, well, it's engagement."

    Architects and entrepreneurs, too, have found creative opportunities. Perhaps the most ambitious and well-known building to rise amid the rubble is the Cardboard Cathedral, an ingenious design by Mr Shigeru Ban, who received the Pritzker Architecture Prize last month for the transitional emergency shelters he's built for disaster victims.

    The cathedral was intended to be a temporary replacement for the city's 19th-century Christchurch Cathedral, which was damaged in the quake and is now at the centre of a pitched legal battle between preservationists, who want to restore it, and the Anglican Church, which wants to "deconstruct" it and build a new one.

    In the meantime, Mr Ban's cathedral, with its soaring A-frame roof built with beams encased by cardboard tubes, serves as a stand-in for the old church's congregation, as well as a new tourist draw.

    Mr Sam Heaps and Mr Brett Giddens took a risk on a new business for a very different reason - they saw a city in need of an infusion of night life.

    Only months after the quake, they set up a pop-up bar in a shipping container optimistically named Revival, and, within days of opening, they had a queue down the block. The duo have since added a Latin tapas restaurant, Tequila Mockingbird, next door.

    Mr Crofskey, the owner of C1, believes pre-quake Christchurch was a staid place in steady decline, but there is now opportunity for not just revival, but also innovation.

    That is immediately evident at his cafe, which features a system of pneumatic tubes along the ceiling that delivers sliders from the kitchen to each table, and a miniature organic vineyard on the roof. It is also completely self-sufficient - waste heat is pumped into the restaurant from the kitchen and coffee roaster, and solar panels provide electricity.

    "I want people to say, the best cafe in the world is in this city called Christchurch," Mr Crofskey said. "They were destroyed, they were on their knees and they got back up and they did it again."