Four years ago I travelled to Christchurch with Noel, a fast walking, fast talking Irishman from Cavan, and Ian, a lanky, slow-ambling Californian.
I had met them working on the Thornton overpass in Wellington. We had been working there for months, high up and exposed to the elements, demolishing and removing rusty old crash barriers and replacing them with shiny new ones. I, for one, was tired of it and yearned for a change.
The first of the two major earthquakes struck Christchurch on 4th
September, 2010. Scarcely a week had passed when we three carpet-
baggers conspired to travel south to the devastation and make a small fortune working amidst the chaos. Our reasoning was this: there were a lot of damaged and destroyed buildings, the damaged buildings would have to be fixed, the destroyed buildings rebuilt. As a result there would be huge demand for labour. Market forces dictate that where there is increased demand and the same supply, prices go up: consequently we could command high prices for our services.
We clapped one another on the back and marvelled at our sagacity.
We were wrong, of course. The first problem was that large earthquakes are followed by smaller earthquakes known as aftershocks. No one was willing to rebuild when all their hard work could come to nought in a minute. The second problem was insurance. Naturally insurance companies were inundated with a barrage of claims. These had to be investigated and processed before any remedial work could commence. The third problem was that before you can rebuild you must raze and clear the debris. In retrospect, our naiveté was astonishing.
It wasn’t all bad, though. The first job we had was at a meat storage facility. Meat of every description had been packed to the roof in huge freezers three stories high. The quake had shaken the metal shelving so violently it had buckled, leaving mountains of frozen meat on the floor. Our foreman explained that the electricity had gone out and then came back on again, but because of the interval all meat had to be thrown out. Our job, along with a couple of dozen other frozen souls, was to pack the meat in baskets, place them on a pallet, and watch in dismay as thousands of dollars of first grade meat was driven out on electric pallet trucks and thrown in skips outside.
We worked at this for a few hours, our hands numbing with cold, until the foreman learned we all had our forklift licenses and hence were able to operate the electric pallet trucks. It was as well he didn’t ask for evidence of this for he would have found it wanting.
We spent the next three days whizzing around the factory on our trucks having a merry old time. We also got a pay rise due to our new-found skills and, best of all, from our exalted position we were able to smuggle meat out daily (steak only, for safety reasons), until the fridge and freezer at our lodgings could hold no more. We all ate like kings for the next month and not a button of harm did it do us.
The University, where I next found employment, had suffered no structural damage but was missing windows and the library was chaos. Almost every book had found its way to the floor and the shelving themselves hung limp and broken like so many skeletal scarecrows. Thankfully my job was to fix the shelving and brace it against future assaults, not sort the books. Lovely middle-aged women with permanent frowns etched on their brows were employed in that activity. I often wonder if the next earthquake rendered all their mind numbing efforts futile. And mine too, come to think about it.
Christchurch was badly damaged in places but the city centre itself seemed to have been relatively unscathed. The cathedral had suffered some to the roof damage but it looked easily reparable to my untrained eye. The main shopping districts were mostly fine. A lot of cracked windows and plaster and a few older buildings looking the worst for wear. I imagine, for the most part, the Christchurch I saw was the Christchurch locals had known and loved for years. Some of the suburbs had suffered more, but the damage was sporadic. Whole houses lay in rubble while its neighbour looked on impassively, wondering what all the fuss was about. I was slightly underwhelmed, being led to believe that the earthquake had caused more damage than it had actually done.
I found the aftershocks more exciting than terrifying for the simple reason I had never been in a major earthquake. Not so the locals. I remember being in a homeware store, again erecting shelving, when a particularly strong aftershock struck. It was strong enough and long enough to shake items off the shelves. When it was over I looked toward my boss, laughing. But he wasn’t where I thought he was. Instead there was a woman clutching her child with a look of abject terror on her face. It dawned on me then that this earthquake business wasn’t really a laughing matter. And so it proved a few months after we left Christchurch.
At 12.51pm, February 22nd, 2011, the second major earthquake struck Christchurch killing 185 and injuring many more. We watched the news in disbelief in Wellington.
I arrived in Christchurch a few days ago for the first time in four years, amidst a minor storm of wind, rain and controversy. The wind and rain is self explanatory. The controversy surrounded the temperature of the bus, which was such that at the end of the nine hour journey every passenger was shaking with cold, or possibly anger. The poor bus driver had to suffer a barrage of complaints. But that is by the bye.
The inclement weather lasted for a few days, but it finally subsided and I eagerly grabbed a map and went for a wander around the city centre. Or what is left of it. Usually I really enjoy revisiting places I haven’t seen for some time. As soon you spot a familiar street or landmark, a flood of memories come rushing back. Of course nostalgia is a bittersweet thing, often tinged with sadness at times gone by never again to be revisited. And memories of friends who are far away.
Curiously, I felt none of these things as I walked around Christchurch. I found the most prominent landmark, the old neo-Gothic Cathedral, easily enough. But nothing around it was right. All around there were empty gravelled lots where once there had been proud buildings. The Cathedral itself is in a sorry state. I stood and stared at it for a long time trying to figure out what the iron girders were for and what the engineers’ plans were to restore it. I realised later that there had been a tower there.
I walked on, trying and failing to get my bearings. The city is a hive of industry, cranes stretching into the sky, workers in hi-viz everywhere. The buildings that are being worked on are in the early stages of construction with Iron frames not yet completed. Many other buildings are buttressed with girders but no remedial work has commenced; others are boarded up, windows still shattered, plaster still cracked, but not condemned, presumably. Curious, after four years.
For some time I tried in vain to find Cashel Street (though I couldn’t remember the name), one of the main shopping streets of the city. I had walked past it several times unaware it was right there. I finally noticed a large scaffold at the far end of a street which I correctly guessed was hiding the Remembrance Bridge (an impressive memorial commemorating the war dead), indicating I had found the place. There was one shop which had either survived or been rebuilt sooner than the others. On the right, there was the usual Iron frames.
On the left, further down the street, I was surprised to see an ingenious solution to the lack of buildings for shops to occupy: containers were welded together to form a kind of bizarre little shopping mall. It is really quite cool. The shops are small, of course, but it works really well and looks good too. It’s called re:START Mall.
Buildings that have been razed have exposed huge blank canvasses on the flanks of the remaining edifices which graffiti artists have been quick to take advantage of. Some of these artworks are beautiful. You can check out more of the graffiti art here.
Despite these gems, I was finding my dander around Christchurch depressing and a little emotional too. I’m not the sentimental sort normally, but I was really fond of Christchurch and felt sad that the city I knew is gone forever. A new one is being rebuilt and perhaps it will be even better, but it’s difficult to imagine in its current condition.
I decided I would visit the Cardboard Cathedral to cheer myself up. The Cardboard Cathedral, officially known as the Transitional Cathedral, was designed by Japanese ‘emergency architect’ Shigeru Ban. He had designed a similar structure after the Kobe earthquake. The structure is made from wood, steel and cardboard, but mainly cardboard.
According to an excerpt from the information leaflet written by the Very Revd Lynda Patterson, Dean of Christchurch:
“The design is quite simple, with waves of cardboard tube drawing the eye and the attention towards the cross and the alter. At full capacity, it seats nearly 700 hundred people, yet it has a remarkable feeling of both space and intimacy.
Cathedrals are by nature multidimensional. They are places of spiritual exuberance and quiet beauty, expressions of visions that transcend human knowing, meeting places for the spirit, libraries of stories, cornucopias of artistic achievement…”
“Expressions of visions that transcend human knowing.” I like that. Although the Very Revd and I may have a slight disagreement about the issue of intimacy. Of all the many words I could use to describe a Cathedral, intimate is not one of them. High ceilings and open space don’t really lend themselves to the idea of intimacy. But I’ll concede that of all the Cathedrals I’ve visited, the Transitional Cathedral is the least in-intimate.
It’s interesting that the Cardboard Cathedral is called the Transitional Cathedral when it is designed to last for over fifty years. It will still be standing when I, and possibly you, will be decidedly horizontal.
I went there to cheer myself up but it wasn’t to be. Of all things, there was an exhibition about the holocaust by photographer Perry Trotter. The exhibition, called Shadows of Shoah, depicted elderly men and women on black and white television screens. Sparse piano music played as short sentences describing the personal experiences of the survivors as children appeared on the screens. The stories were brief but horrific. Each one described an act of almost unimaginable human cruelty perpetrated on these innocent people and their loved ones. I’m paraphrasing because I can’t remember the exact quote, but the artist said he ‘wanted to create a minimalist space where one can contemplate the unthinkable and have the observer put faces to the horrors of the holocaust, rather than just numbers.’
He succeeded. I contemplated. I left the Cathedral more depressed than I arrived and headed back to the hostel.