Our city must not settle for mediocrity
OPINION: Seven years ago the philosopher Alain de Botton stood at a podium in Christchurch.
He stood before more than 300 Cantabrians in a ground floor conference room at the Grand Chancellor Hotel.
He made a plea.
"Buildings and objects should reflect the best of society," he said.
"Buildings must be constructed to suit their time and place."
He decried the horrors of pastiche - that very human inclination to recreate a facsimile of the past. He flashed up images of housing estates in mock Tudor, mock Georgian and - avert your eyes Christchurch - neo-Gothic.
He spoke in the abstract. The audience laughed and nodded in a smug intellectual agreement.
De Botton was standing in that drab conference room - ringed with polyester curtains - to spruik his book, The Architecture of Happiness.
No one could have known that he was speaking of our future. His messages were several years too early. Our city was yet to fall, our built heritage yet to crumble.
We were yet to be forced to make real and wholesale decisions about our city, its architecture and its happiness.
Most people who were at that event, which was hosted by The Press, will have forgotten the messages de Botton gave us that night.
We need them now.
De Botton was giving us an outsider's guide to happiness.
He challenged the future us to consider the environments we build.
Writing in the book of greenfields developments, he said: "We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness."
These are challenges that our city must face today. We must aim not only for pragmatism, but also happiness and beauty. We owe it not to de Botton's worms, but to the people who have gone before us and those who will follow.
We must build something better. Something stronger.
We must not settle for mediocrity. We must not attempt to recreate the past.
The media, and specifically The Press, has a critical role to play in this.
We are the fourth estate - and we are committed to driving the other three estates toward robust decisions that aim to ensure this city not only recovers, but soars.
Our first and second estates - the clergy and government (local and central) - have demonstrated leadership, they have also demonstrated failings.
A sophisticated media takes time to celebrate the triumphs. Every day, we dedicate thousands of words to acknowledging successes both small and large.
Here are just a few:
Infrastructure progress made by Scirt, Orion, the Christchurch City Council, CCDU and Cera is visible everywhere across the city. At lunchtimes I jog around the boundary of the CBD redzone. I am very grateful to Roger Sutton and Gerry Brownlee every time they make that area smaller.
Also getting on with it, with a quiet self-assurance, are the Arts Centre management.
Developers are pushing ahead with a flamboyance and ballsiness that is to be admired. Our city is booming. As Peter Townsend, told The Press in October: "You can smell the money."
The transitional cathedral is growing like a tiny rare flower. It is easily overlooked by weary Cantabrians, but Shigeru Ban's temple is creating a focal point for international attention.
As the influential editor of US magazine Architectural Record noted last month: "In Christchurch, imagination is fuelling the potential for a lively urban future - with Ban's cathedral an emblem of the possibilities." On a visit to Christchurch, she gently reminded us that without this structure, the Christchurch story could easily be forgotten.
And creative excellence can be found elsewhere too, The Christchurch City Art Gallery's gutsy Outer Spaces programme is delivering art without a gallery, Canterbury Museum's Quake City managed to sympathetically tell a story that is still so raw for many.
The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, The Loons, and The Court Theatre are among our artists delivering to their audiences without the certainty of a permanent base.
Communities have also found strength and volunteering has hit the mainstream. Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble, Festa, Student Volunteer Army, the Ministry of Awesome would have once been viewed as fringe. Now they are literally and metaphorically filling gaps.
Business excellence is flourishing, Epic made innovation real, small to medium enterprises are getting back on their feet, new businesses are flourishing in the rebuild climate, old businesses adapting to a new way of life. Enveloping it all is the warm embrace of Ngai Tahu.
There is much to celebrate and we, in the media, enjoy recognising this because to do so creates a climate of possibility.
But a sophisticated media must also identify when our first and second estates - the church and state - have failed, because the victims of those failings is our third estate, the people. No one is responsible for the quakes, but all of us are responsible for our actions since.
When businesses fail, when the pace of the rebuild falters, when housing inflation rockets, it is the people who suffer.
When politicians and officials squabble, when planning focuses only on process and loses sight of innovation, when public money is wasted, it is the people who suffer.
When school communities are threatened, when teachers are not paid, it is the people who suffer.
When corruption sneaks in, when incompetence prevails, when information is withheld, when decisions are opaque, it is the people who suffer.
Education, housing, the rebuild, planning, government, council, public spending, the Christ Church Cathedral, EQC settlements, the insurance industry, The Press has been robust in covering these issues. And you should demand no less of us.
You should expect us to not only showcase success but root out unfairness, you should expect us to call it when organisations and people fail. You should also expect us to investigate on your behalf.
Bad news and robust coverage do not always make us popular: "Shame on you," a reader wrote in an email to me last week. She went on: "Comments about Ellerslie were a very low blow to all the hundreds of people who had put in long hours to make the show a success."
That reader was right, a negative review about the Ellerslie Flower Show would have been a blow to the organisers, even when balanced against the more-than-a-dozen positive stories on the event.
But was it low?
Should we settle for mediocrity when millions of dollars of public money have been invested?
Do we want to gloss over failings to avoid hurting feelings?
Do we want to deliver poor experiences to the people who choose to live and visit our city?
The Press is read by more than 215,000 people on average every day. More than 30,000 log on to press.co.nz to get updates throughout the day. Our readers trust us.
This gives our journalists a responsibility that none of us takes for granted.
We are not builders, planners, architects, or administrators, but we, with our colleagues from other media organisations, can work with each of you to be leaders.
The fourth estate leads a discussion and shapes public discourse about the city we live in now and the city that people want for the future.
We have more than 100 editorial staff based at Press House in Gloucester St. We were one of the first businesses back in the central city, and we are waiting patiently for others to join us. We are standing, ready and willing to support all of you actively involved in the rebuild.
Our stories, analysis, and critical judgment, both positive and negative, will make the future of our city stronger.
We will not celebrate attempts to recreate the past, we will not celebrate needless battles, we will be quick to identify failings.
We will not settle for mediocrity. We believe this is a city that can be better than before.
And we will continue to challenge every person and organisation involved in this rebuild to innovate, to aim for excellence and to move quickly to create better lives for us all.
I invite all of you to work with The Press to engage with the people of this city, and to build an urban environment of which we can all be proud.
Our happiness depends on it.
Joanna Norris is the Editor of The Press. This article has been edited from a speech she gave yesterday to the Seismics and the City event in Christchurch.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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