From Re:Start to finish: the Christchurch pop-up mall winds down
It was a risk. Everyone agrees on that. It may be hard to imagine now, when the Re:Start mall has become such a familiar fixture in post-earthquake Christchurch and even a tourist attraction, but it was a risk.
"When we saw it completed, it looked really cool," says Paul Lonsdale, former manager of Re:Start. "But the first six to eight months were pretty stressful. Christchurch people were still frightened of the city. Our tourism was shot to bits."
Remember 2011. It was the bleakest year in Christchurch history. The February earthquake killed 185 people. The city centre was cordoned off. Buildings collapsed, others were demolished. Locals caught nostalgic glimpses of the city they knew through gaps in wire fences and everyone else retreated to the suburban malls. There was genuine concern that central city retail may never recover.
There were even suggestions that "the centre of the city wasn't necessary," as Re:Start the Heart trust chairman John Suckling remembers.
Lonsdale, Suckling and others had a strong interest in proving them wrong. Before the earthquakes, Lonsdale had formed a group to challenge the Christchurch City Council's thinking about carparks and accessibility. Ironically, the council was then flirting with the same urban design plan that has resurfaced to upset Christchurch retailers in 2017. Suckling was a Colombo St retailer with a strong interest in urban regeneration.
A year of getting together to talk about where the council was going wrong meant that by March 2011, they were set up to start thinking about the future. But was there a future? It is interesting to consider the Re:Start that might have been. Before shipping containers, there were ideas about putting shops in temporary fabric buildings, creating a cloud city, or maybe flat-pack modules from Thailand.
And the initial location was out of the centre. In the belief that the 2011 Rugby World Cup might still happen in Christchurch, the group proposed a temporary activity village near the Catholic Basilica, on a scruffy piece of land where buses park. But Lonsdale recalls that "a few of the older and wiser heads" suggested a spot in town next to Ballantyne's, which could be an anchor.
Civil Defence was "sympathetic", as was Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, Suckling says. He remembers the container idea was a brainwave that came during a media tour of the cordoned-off city. A nervous journalist wondered about where to run if another earthquake struck. An engineer pointed to a shipping container, the nearest safe structure.
A village of shipping containers? They came on a slow boat from China. Suckling ventured out to Lyttelton and took a photo of a red wall of containers heading into port. It is one of the first shots in a photo exhibition housed inside an empty container shop to mark the end of Re:Start. The exhibition closes on Sunday, April 30. The Re:Start mall branding ends on the same day but some of the container shops will remain on land bought by developer Richard Peebles and others for a new farmers market.
It will be exactly five and a half years since former Prime Minister John Key cut the ribbon. The mall was expected to be open for just six months initially, or maybe 12 months. "I don't think people believed at the time it would take so long for the rebuild to start," Lonsdale says.
Crowds on the first weekend were estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. For many, it was the first chance to get a decent look at the city again. There were safe ways in and out of a cleared zone amongst the rubble and abandoned buildings. It was like post-apocalyptic shopping, a kind of shantytown.
Interviewed separately, both Suckling and Lonsdale talk about an egoless process. Leighs Construction and architectural firm The Buchan Group worked pro bono until funding came from the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust and the ASB. Suckling remembers "huge leadership" by Anthony Leighs, who figured out how to construct a small settlement from shipping containers in 61 days.
Buchan Group architect Anton Tritt based the bright colour scheme on Mexican villages, according to Lonsdale. The shantytown feeling was apt.
It had to be about more than shopping, Lonsdale realised. He talks of "entertainment with a shopping offer". The mall became a site for buskers, comedians, street theatre, community groups. Gap Filler moved its Dance-o-Mat there and it became world famous when Prince Charles was photographed dancing on it in 2012.
Back in the photo gallery, Suckling explains the rushed timeframe. The photos count down to opening day. Welders were still putting mesh on stairs an hour before Key opened the mall to the public. Landscaping students from Lincoln University worked all through the night to tidy up the site.
There was other tinkering. Lonsdale quickly realised that two cafes would not be enough. In post-quake Christchurch he went looking for food and drink vendors. He found a souvlaki seller operating from a truck in a driveway. A food court of sorts was created.
Lonsdale stepped down in 2013 when he ran for council, where he spent three years. Is he sad to see Re:Start end?
"It's never going to be the right time," he says. "There will be people who mourn when it goes. Some people will be happy when it's gone because they see it as maybe interfering with the future of retail in a permanent building. To me, there is a space in between. You could keep an offering like that going in the city."
To look back at the photos of Re:Start is to see a condensed version of Christchurch's transitional moment, with its strange mix of hope, determination, shock and exhaustion. There were familiar shopping names in a new setting. There were new structures on old streets. There were three public art sculptures by Hannah Kidd depicting the lost normality of life in the quake-affected suburbs – feeding cats, mowing lawns. These will be shifted to the South Frame's laneways and public spaces.
The temporary mall still attracts tourists after all this time, even after many container shops have moved on and others are making plans to leave. Will the new permanence represented by the BNZ Centre, the ANZ Centre and, soon, The Crossing have the same kind of energy? Visiting Christchurch in 2014, urban design expert Reed Kroloff, who has worked in New Orleans and Detroit, called Re:Start "jaunty" and hoped that some of its spirit would last even after the containers had gone.
Suckling prepares to take down the photos and the signage. The transitional phase that Re:Start represents is about to become history.
"I've got mixed feelings," he says. "The fact that we won't be around is sad but on the other hand, I think the trust can be proud that we did something positive when there wasn't a lot that was positive happening in the city. We made a contribution."