Let's talk about the Christchurch rebuild

Garth Falconer calls the Christchurch rebuild the "theatre of the greatest single urban design project in our nation's ...
Peter Meecham

Garth Falconer calls the Christchurch rebuild the "theatre of the greatest single urban design project in our nation's history".


GARTH FALCONER redesigned City Mall before the quakes and literally wrote the book on New Zealand urban design. Here he revisits Christchurch and pleas for more attention from the rest of New Zealand. 

Dear New Zealand,

This article is too long to tweet but you should recall that our second largest city and capital of the South Island is re-building. It's been over four years since the quakes and back in Auckland we are not hearing anything about the Christchurch rebuild. It has been forgotten. We are now too busy with our own city's development, housing shortages, motorway construction, future of the port and all the rest. 

The Buskers Festival enlivens Christchurch's City Mall in 2006.

The Buskers Festival enlivens Christchurch's City Mall in 2006.

Arriving by air, this recent visitor to Christchurch was alarmed to see that the overall form of the city is slackening, morphing out to the east and north and thus losing losing all coherence of shape. In the middle it looks like a bomb site. Admittedly after an absence of three years, I was searching for some reassurance that all is good and there is no need to worry.

Certainly the rebuild of Christchurch is a massive and long-term undertaking. It is after all the theatre of the greatest single urban design project in our nation's history and it would be too easy for an outsider like myself to pontificate on the high risk of failure without appreciating the good work that surely must be happening behind the scenes. 

And the good news is that life is still continuing in Christchurch. The people are resilient, under some duress admittedly, but life is carrying on and that's most important.

Christchurch's City Mall today. Barely recognisable.
Garth Falconer

Christchurch's City Mall today. Barely recognisable.

Equally, life has changed in Christchurch. It's form and identity are different. Now there is no centre to Christchurch. What is left are fragments of buildings and places. It is starkly a big, vacuous hole that ominously appears to suck in all efforts to fill it.

After being dropped off by a taxi, dazed and disoriented I left my isolated hotel and wandered across the rough parking lots that used to be buildings, past bundled-up workers in hoodies and day-glo jackets, busy like worker bees. I barely recognised Cashel and High Sts, where I led a redesign for five years. Every square metre the team had thought about, discussed, conceptualised, met over, detailed and supervised was destroyed in seven seconds.

At my feet, the carefully etched shapes of native flora in the paving were simply trashed. Remarkably some of the plants survive, the odd climber struggling up a trellis and a few trees still growing skywards.

Blue Acres Publishing, 2015, $75

Blue Acres Publishing, 2015, $75

Sure there are developments to be seen. Lots is happening along the Avon River. You can rest your eyes on the curvy glass and louvred Deloitte building, but across the street and opposite Mountfort's historic Provincial Chambers is a big, boxy steel-framed building, squat in proportion. A billboard shows an artists rendering of another thermal glass-clad facade with a layer of framing louvres. 

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Then there are the enormous precinct developments , the massive medical taking shape just out of the publics eye and there is the justice precinct with a controlled bevy of courts police station cells etc.  There is even a new bus exchange, which is open but half finished. Opposite, local moneyed developers are driving steel piles 20m into the sediment with relentless ringing. In what was Hereford St another squat block of a building in steel framing is taking shape. It boasts a key Government tenant.  The floor plates are all big for these new builds and they are massively engineered, some sporting rubber quake isolators in their foundations, and they are squarely designed up to the 28m height limit.

The Anglican cathedral – once the celebrated centre piece of Christchurch – is largely on its own, save for some temporary installations around its security fence, caught like detritus. One side of the building is open to the elements and pigeons roost on the massive timber beams, adding distinctive white stains to what was the most designed of spaces. 

Then the tour starts to peter out, leaving you to reflect that there can be only so many Government departments to fill those big floor plates and the handful of locally sponsored commercial developments catering to premium clients. 

There are going to be some seriously big gaps between these isolated developments and in parts there is virtually nothing.  Even the bulky convention centre proposed to land between Cathedral and Victoria Sqs will be relatively lost in space.

Among these massive goings-on there is little to no public discussion,  save for small forums sustained by a few hardy impassioned locals, the young and some recent arrivals. The big design firms are really busy and they are keeping their heads down, for no-one wants to get offside with the client, council or God forbid the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

Privately many locals respond to my prods with exclamations of dashed expectations, exhaustion, continual frustrations and a long-shot hope that Cera will someday dismantle itself and leave town. There are good people in both council and Cera, but apparently there is no real design leadership at the fore of this rebuild. Christchurch needs an inspiring, integrating, resourceful and challenging focus on design. It should not just replace but be better than before. 

The telltale signs of design failure are also evident in the larger urban form of the city. Outwards the once-tight Christchurch has just become more dispersed, more spatially weak and more reliant on the motor car. New offices have been constructed on edge of the central city, in Addington and Riccarton. They are big and cheap (about $350sqm in rent) and you can park your car in front. Landlords have tied tenants into long term leases. In contrast, rents in the highly spec'ed central city are expected to be upwards of $450sqm, creating added commercial viability issues for the eventual centre.

Residential housing is hemmed in from the east by the sea and to the south by the hills, and so is growing out to the north and southwest. This is exactly not the picture of the 2007 Urban Development Strategy, in which 62 per cent of those consulted wanted a defined and limited city, not sprawl .

Instead, residential development is fast spawning the familiar garden suburb estates model, with characteristic faux walls and grand entrances boasting names like "Halswell on the Park" and "Parklea Ave". There are stacks of big houses on small sections.

Back in what was the central city, the big question is what do you do with all these gaps, how do you make real streets and public places without intensity and continuity? Do you put in five-level residential buildings like Haussmann did in central Paris in the late 19th century with retail on the bottom floors and corners. Another possibility is to install a landscape urbanist thing with swathes of parks and walkways, weaving through the fabric like New York's Highline.

The future of our second biggest city and the one with the greatest design tradition needs to be back on the national radar. A rudderless effort is bound to fail, and horribly so. 

Reeling through my head during my visit was the Chrissie Hynde song from the 80s:

"I went back to [my city] but my city was gone ... there was no downtown ... my city had been pulled down, reduced to parking spaces ... by a government with no pride".

* Garth Falconer is a principal at Auckland-based Reset Urban Design. From 2006, he was the design leader for the $15 million refurbishment of Christchurch City Mall. It won a gold award from the NZ Institute of Landscape Architects Reset is leading the multi-disciplinary team behind SkyPath, a pedestrian and cycle access on Auckland's Harbour Bridge. 

 - Stuff


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