Who is really rebuilding Christchurch?

22:15, Apr 15 2013
Kaila Colbin of the Ministry of Awesome.

There is just one problem in deciding to call your organisation the Ministry of Awesome, apart from people scoffing at the name. The challenge for the founders of the Christchurch-based trust was defining exactly what awesome is.

Kaila Colbin takes up the story as we sit outside C1 Espresso, a central Christchurch cafe, which for years until the 2010 and 2011 quakes was an institution on the corner of Tuam and High Sts.

It reopened late last year at the same junction, but these days its surroundings exemplify the physical sense of post-quake Christchurch. In other words, everywhere you look is wasteland and ruined buildings. You get used to it after a while.

Colbin is one of four founders of the Ministry of Awesome, along with former Christchurch mayor Vicki Buck; Sam Johnson, founder of the Student Volunteer Army; and Sacha McMeeking, a whip-smart lawyer who used to work as general manager of strategy and influence for Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and now calls herself an emerging social entrepreneur.

The four discovered they had many things in common, not least a shared ambition for dreaming up projects and making them reality. “We had a handful of projects we wanted to do because we thought they were cool and we needed a bucket to put them in,” says Colbin. 

“So we created the Ministry of Awesome and ran into a problem, which is, ‘how do we communicate what it is and what it does?’.


“We came to what I thought was a pretty awesome realisation, that our whole laundry list of things we wanted to do, they were just noise, they were just symptoms. None of them were important. If we didn’t accomplish any of them, we would still have work to do.”

Long story short, the Ministry of Awesome founders eventually realised that what they wanted was to create a facilitation process and an environment in Christchurch that encouraged innovative thinking.

They nailed their beliefs to the mast, or website: ‘That we want Christchurch to be awesome. That people rock, and that anyone can be awesome.

That surprise and joy are essential ingredients in an awesome city. That awesome is all around us, and sometimes needs nurturing. That an awesome city is by definition a compelling place to invest, create businesses, seek employment; as well as a place of love, laughter, and delight.’

Like others, they have seized on the Christchurch earthquakes and their aftermath as an opportunity to welcome innovation.

That was also the essence of Yike Bike entrepreneur Grant Ryan’s talk at TedXEQChCh last year on the economic cost of being boring. 

Essentially, Ryan’s theme is that interesting cities are drawcards for innovative, creative people. “If you have innovative, creative people in your city, you will thrive. If you don’t, you won’t. It really is as simple as that.”

Post-quake Christchurch provides that opportunity, usually on a small scale.

The new Christchurch is a transition space. While the big players, with their deep pockets, cultivate concepts to fit the blueprint developed by the Christchurch Central Development Unit, others simply get on with innovative projects.

Probably the best known example of post-quake pop-up culture in Christchurch is Cashel Mall — otherwise known as Re:start — the collection of brightly coloured containers fitted out as shops on the edge of the Red Zone. It opened in October 2011 and has grown to around 40 retailers, including Johnsons Grocery Store — which has existed in Christchurch since 1945 — and a food alley.

On Victoria St, the Revival Container Bar blends shipping containers with recycled materials, and chairs and couches made out of suitcases.

Volstead Trading Company on Riccarton Rd is one of the city’s coolest bars, transformed from an old garage using an eclectic array of furniture. Johnny Moore, son of former mayor Gary, is famous for his Smash Palace Bar, which uses a bus as a bar and a caravan as a kitchen. 

When Adele Wheeley lost her Beckenham and Lichfield St stores to the earthquakes, she got husband Andrew to convert the garage at their home into a new store and cultivated a much larger online presence.

When Prince Charles came to town last November, he and Camilla took a twirl on Gap Filler’s Dance-O-Mat. What is it? Take 40 sheets of plywood and make a temporary dance floor. Hook up some speakers, lights and convert a Laundromat washing machine that takes $2 coins to allow visitors to plug in their digital music player of choice, pay $2 and dance to their music. Only in Christchurch, you think.

Gap Filler is a trust that pursues projects to make use of empty urban space, in an amazingly innovative way. Life in Vacant Spaces is a new programme based on Gap Filler, funded by the Christchurch City Council, to connect community groups with land owners and temporarily transform waste spaces.

Greening the Rubble pursues the same idea, with different methods, creating temporary public parks and gardens on the sites of demolished buildings.  

The Artbox module is a steel framed unit designed around the standard length of plywood that will encompass 18 boxes, made into four pavilions to form an arts and music precinct.

So many smart ways to promote urban renewal without the need for central government interference or long-winded strategies that try to anticipate 20 years of growth.

The real show in Christchurch is driven by smart professionals, usually young, not afraid to try new ideas, who don’t need big budgets to make things happen.Even the larger projects, like the Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre (Epic), have been done on a relative shoestring. In this case a large hub for 18 technology companies in the city centre was built for $4.5 million.

It is big, black and boxy, uses corrugated iron as cladding and has sparked a debate on its aesthetic merits, partly because many people are worried what shape the eventual city rebuild will take.

The pop-up innovation and energy apparent in post-quake Christchurch is as much about necessity as anything else, says Jessica Halliday, a Christchurch architectural historian with a keen professional interest in the city’s rebuild.

Halliday was director of the Festival for Transitional Architecture — or Festa — which ran for 10 days in October last year. It began with LuxCity, a festival of light in the city centre, filling with light sculptures the spaces where buildings used to stand. 

LuxCity drew more than 350 architecture and design students from across the country to design 16 installations that used light to transform spaces in the central city and drew a crowd of more than 20,000. 

The festival will become an annual affair, says Halliday, but its format may change as the city changes. “LuxCity, for example, was about what the central city was like this year. Next year will be different.”

That pretty much sums up Christchurch at the moment. As Halliday points out, predicting the future is a tricky business.

“I would say the future is still unknown at this point. I guess that is one of the attractive things about this transitional approach. You can use what you do now to inform the future. This attitude of experimentation and research involves all kinds of people. That is a key to the transition. It is our common ground. Everybody is engaged in it from the government down to small community groups. The blueprint was designed to give us certainty, apparently, but I don’t think it has and I don’t think it is capable of that. 

“A whole lot is still unknown. I don’t think we thought this is the future we would be facing, with 80% of the inner city demolished. None of us foresaw that. And I think that is what we are trying to focus attention on in this transition period because it is possible, we can do it now and hopefully use what we learn to inform longer term decisions.”

Colbin takes the same approach. It is all about making things happen, getting feedback and tweaking, she says. Pretty much the way entrepreneurs and startups should operate.

“Your starting premise as an entrepreneur is that you have no idea how what you are doing will be received and what the best possible version is. You need to put your baby in the hands of the market as soon as possible and that is the iterative development path we have been following with the Ministry of Awesome.

“One thing we recognise is that we have the extraordinary good fortune to be exposed to good ideas and entrepreneurialism and insane enthusiasm. That is the Christchurch we know. There are other layers — the power struggle, the old networks — but we want to show the side of Christchurch that we see. One thing that the earthquakes did is strip away a lot of the old rules.

“There is a lot of inertia in the status quo, but all this enthusiasm and innovation has been revealed. You can’t put the jack back in the box.”

Breaking down the walls

A bus as a bar has to be the ultimate in transitional architecture. Four wheels? Check. Moveability? Maybe. But Johnny Moore (pictured below) ran headlong into a brick wall of bureaucracy when attempting to set up Smash Palace, his cool pop-up bar on the corner of Victoria St and Bealey Ave, on the edge of what used to be Christchurch’s CBD.

Moore, son of former Christchurch mayor Gary, ran a family-owned bar called Goodbye Blue Monday in the CBD, which was wrecked in the Christchurch earthquakes.

Collecting the insurance meant he was required to replace the bar. Unfortunately there weren’t many available buildings.

“I was desperately trying to find a venue, but rents were doubling and tripling or landlords were talking about 12-year leases for buildings which were out in Addington. There were plenty of lots full of rubble available if I could come up with a model.” 

Moore’s architects, from Auckland-based Common Ground, were just back from Portland, Oregon and impressed by the cart culture sweeping that city.

Plenty of container-based venues were popping up around Christchurch, but he wanted something different.

By chance, a family member saw a bus for sale on Trade Me. Moore bought it, did it up and found a site, but says he ran into planners spooked by aftershocks. They insisted he found a way to securely anchor the bus, which they wanted to treat as a building, and the arguments went on for months before Moore got permission to open, he says.

“They wore me down and by the end of it I was really grumpy. If you’d asked me the day it opened, ‘would I do it again?’ I would have said ‘no’.”

That was in May 2012. Moore and Smash Palace have since survived a cold winter and the place really rocks in summer.

It taps into the new spirit of Christchurch, says Moore. “If I had done this before the earthquakes, it wouldn’t have worked. It’s only worked because people have bought into the spirit of innovation rising out of disaster.

“I’ve been blown away by the response from people all over the world. People say they’ve never seen anything like it in the world. They pat me on the back and say it gives them hope in the human spirit. Shit, I just set out to provide a job for me and an income for my family.”