A contained life

Stark and sturdy shipping containers - dressed as offices, shops or staff quarters - are making an impression on Christchurch.

A contained life by Kim Newth

On the road to Sumner, I am feeling a little sad as I remember some lines from a Denis Glover poem that so poignantly captures the spirit of the seaside suburb.

Rita Angus paintings feature in an artist's impression of Sumner's containers.
Rita Angus paintings feature in an artist's impression of Sumner's containers.

Cave Rock is made of toffee

And the sea of lemonade

And the little waitress wavelets

Are always on parade

When cars roll down to Sumner

On a Sunday.

Rounding the corner into Sumner these days means passing a wall of shipping containers dominated by the white seven-pointed star of Maersk. These are there for a very good reason: to protect passers-by from the crumbling cliffs above.

... And Scarborough Head looms solid

As a tearoom tuppenny bun

When mum and dad look glum or glad

At Sumner on a Sunday.

Earthquakes have cruelly damaged this sunny and affluent settlement. That line of stark shipping containers, at the corner known locally as Peacocks Gallop, seems only to reinforce a sense of unease that has somewhat replaced Sumner's old holiday feel.

However, at L'Estrange Art Gallery, the fightback has begun. There, planning is under way to transform Sumner's containers into a massive outdoor art exhibition. Even by global standards, it is a potential record breaker.

Painter and printmaker Bryan L'Estrange, who is curating this planned mega-exhibition, hopes it will eventually cover all of the 160 containers at Peacocks Gallop. He is working on the project with Sumner graphic designer Dinesh Patel.

"Rather than seeing the containers as a horrible negative, I saw their potential for displaying artwork," says Dinesh. "It was an idea that was crying out to happen. These containers will be here for years. Adding art to them brings colour and interest back to Sumner and we hope will encourage visitors and tourists back, too."

Reproduced on hard-wearing PVC stretched canvas, some of the individual artworks will cover up to four containers. Joining leading local artists such as Tony Cribb, Jason Kelly, Kees Bruin, Tony de Lautour, Ben Reid and Bryan himself, will be iconic works by New Zealand artists such as Rita Angus, whose trust has agreed to support the project. Contemporary New Zealand artist Simon Kaan is also confirmed.

Images started to appear late in August and more will be added as sponsorship and funding allows. The two works leading off the exhibition are Bryan L'Estrange's First Light - The Second Phase and Tony Cribb's Sanctuary, which protrays the idea that Sumner residents are tenaciously clinging on to their lifestyle, despite everythign that has happened. The local fire brigade is assisting with installation.

Eventually, the team wants to extend the concept to containers along Sumner's Wakefield Ave, bringing a community focus to the images displayed there.

Near L'Estrange Gallery, Debbie and Wayne Hardaker are also making positive use of a shipping container as a base for their liquor business, The Village Grape. Unable to trade from their quake-damaged premises since February, a standard-size hired container is now their business lifeline. At $85 a week plus GST, it's an affordable and safe option.

As containers go, this is a goody; it has a timber-laminate floor, windows and tidy white walls. Debbie has added a cut-glass red chandelier to add that "bling wow factor".

They've rigged up a courtyard next to the container, complete with outdoor furniture and gas heater, where they sit for six days a week - Mondays excluded - until evening close of business.

"Over winter we've been rugged up out here in the elements. People say 'how can you stand it out here?' They think we're mad or brave, but we can't walk away - it's our livelihood. You have to do what you can to survive," says Debbie, who adds that any rebuild could be 12 to 18 months away. In the interim, they're planning to expand their container business into a "40-footer".

Across town, on Colombo St, Hitesh and Ila Ravji, are running their dairy out of another hired container, after February's earthquake badly damaged their Sydenham dairy. Triton Dairy has been in the family for about 40 years and the couple intend to rebuild this year.

For now, though, the container dairy's colourful icecream signs and displays of taro and bananas provide a cheerful sense of normality in an area where muddy puddles reflect the sky in the gaps where buildings used to be. "I feel very safe here," Ila says, athough she admits it's been a cold workplace during winter. And on busy Saturdays, the narrow container is rather tight.

Earthquake-displaced business owner James Bagrie, who is operating The Caffeine Laboratory from a shipping container on the corner of Montreal and Walker streets, has made the most of limited space by hanging a bench, putting up an awning and adding a deck, chairs and a gas heater. Blackboard paint on the inside doors serves as the menu board. He's been trading from here since June and is pleased to report "a really good reception". The next goal is to get hold of another container that could house a kitchen. "So far, it's working well for us and gets back to our original goal, which was simplicity," James says.

Containers are about to come into their own for the Restart the Heart initiative to bring business back to City Mall by the end of the month. The project, being funded by a $3.36-million interest-free loan from the Government's Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, marks a new beginning for the central city.

Retailers will be operating out of container units, effectively two refurbished and relocatable "40-footers" joined together. The idea is to utilise 32 of these combined units.

Critics were quick to pounce on the plan when it was launched in August, suggesting it would resemble a third-world shopping centre and that no-one was really interested in reviving the CBD.

However, Restart chairman John Suckling, who has volunteered his time to the project, believes the wider public will be pleasantly surprised by what they see at City Mall, once the development opens late this month.

"This is not a patch-up job where we just drop a few containers into the city centre. We've engaged Christchurch architects from the large Australasian Buchan Group, which has wide experience in retail development in many countries. Right from the beginning, we have been determined that it will be a coherent development, located either side of City Mall, adjacent to Ballantynes.

"The way we're achieving that is primarily with shipping containers configured to give an interesting and attractive shopping area, plus utilising a larger temporary structure. These containers are properly lined, glazed, spacious and very safe. We've got tenants coming in from across the city and elsewhere who are going to provide plenty of interest, including a very significant café tenant."

As a longstanding CBD retailer himself, John feels very strongly that if the city centre is allowed to languish, the whole city will suffer, along with its tourism industry. "Restart the Heart is about trying to breathe life back into our city centre," he says.

Anyone who might doubt the appeal of a couple of shipping containers joined together should take a look at the city's first purpose-built container bar in Addington. The Cargo Bar, along with its café twin, Bean Scene, has to be one of the hippest places around. The feel is stylishly industrial, cocktails are served from Cargo's trademark jam jars, and there's also a wood-fire pizza oven.

Taking full advantage of the bar's relocatable nature, the containers are being moved back 10 metres for the Rugby World Cup and have a marquee clipped on to create The Mainfreight Lounge, with corporate entertainment in mind. Next month, the bar will shift back to make room for a regular farmers' market.

The bar's co-owners are Angelique Valentine and Henare Akuhata-Brown, who is best known as 'H'. "We've had an unbelievable response," he says. "It's something new and innovative. Addington is going ahead in leaps and bounds."

Upmarket women's fashion store Quinns has also made a splash, this time with glass-fronted shipping containers. Part of its Merivale premises housed in an old brick building crumbled in the February earthquake. The store continued trading, but demolition left a gap that containers have filled admirably.

Royal Wolf, the biggest South Island supplier of containers, had unprecedented demand from Christchurch following the February quake - and this is showing no sign of abating. "We've got another 1200 containers coming in over the next two or three months, in addition to the 1000 or so units we supplied after the February quake," South Island sales manager Rick Mills says.

With so many people relocating from red-zone areas or needing temporary storage while their homes are repaired, it is no wonder demand for containers remains strong.

Containers are being used to prop up buildings, such as the Catholic cathedral, and for offices and lunchrooms.

City firefighters are using containers as replacements for damaged station buildings. Woolston has a mix of containers and portable buildings, while Lyttelton is a complete container village, protecting those within from falling masonry while providing spaces for an office, lockers, storage, a kitchen and mess, and the watch room.

Specially fitted-out "miners' units" imported from Australia by Royal Wolf are in use at the Woolston and New Brighton stations.

"These have been fantastic," says Suzanne Price, the New Zealand Fire Service's project manager for property construction in the South Island. "They have an ensuite, toilet and shower, a fridge, heat pump, and built-in furniture, including a bed. It's a self-contained room, but you shut the doors and it looks just like a regular shipping container."

As I drive home after a day of container cruising, and steer a course around potholes and humps and dips in the road, Denis Glover once again comes to mind:

Over the ages did [the sea] lick

Its way in, some stealthy trick

To nibble out soft bays

In timeless devious ways?

Or did the land itself

Jump from the continental shelf

Merely to find

Bits of itself left behind?

(From What Began It All?)