Fitting quake memorial may be hard to decide on

19:18, Aug 03 2012
Martin van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

A walk past the former CTV building site in Madras St, central Christchurch, is always a depressing experience.

In part this is due to the bleakness of a bare site and its surrounding wire fences. The area, surprisingly small given the connotations, is, as you will need no reminding, the site where most of the February earthquake fatalities occurred. The odd bedraggled bouquet hanging from the fence is the only sign an unknowing visitor has that something grave and terrible happened here.

People who believe in the supernatural might feel the lingering spirits of the dead but most of us will need to make a mental step to call to mind those, many from other countries, who perished on the footprint of this nondescript building. We should not be sentimental. After all, Canterbury is studded with sites that have hosted horrendous death tolls.

For instance, I live near Ripapa Island, close to Lyttelton, which was the scene of a massacre not that long ago. Nothing in stone commemorates the fight or the deaths.

However, as the city starts to think about a fitting and significant memorial to the victims of the earthquake - the fatalities, the injured, the disturbed, the disrupted, the destroyed - I want to suggest the CTV site as the most appropriate for the main monument commemorating the ravages of the Canterbury earthquake.

As a Cantabrian, having a look around New York and Washington, I am constantly reminded of the memorial question. A tourist inevitably visits a city's most significant sites and often they are buildings or monuments to great people, events and sometimes great tragedies.


These are testament to the human need to remember and mark significant events with some permanent and impressive reminder. The need to memorialise is a unifying human trait although cultures will express it differently. The bigger the calamity, the more moving the memorial needs to be.

Despite the American tendency to politely but ruthlessly do everything bigger and grander than everyone else, the country does memorials particularly well. Washington is a city of monuments and memorials visited by what must be millions every year.

The Washington monument, an obelisk recalling America's first president George Washington, is a 164-metre structure of marble and granite spearing the air in a giant tribute. Ironically, it is currently closed and fenced off because of repairs to damage caused by a 5.8 magnitude shake in August last year centred in Virginia.

In a spooky coincidence, while I was there last Saturday, the Washington Post had a story about the dedication of a monument in Whitesville, West Virginia, to the 29 miners killed in an explosion in April, 2010. It is a 16m-long granite slab with 29 life-scale images of miners.

The walk from Washington's Union Station to the Potomac River takes in an immense monument to World War II, and the much described Freedom Wall, which holds 4048 gold stars, each one representing 100 American service personnel who died or went missing in World War II.

The Vietnam War memorial is understated but evocative. A descending path leads along a granite wall on which the names of the dead are inscribed. The descent ends at the year of the most fatalities and then the path starts climbing again.

The Lincoln memorial is one of those pillared excesses which nonetheless manages to be a memorable feature, if only because of the tourist circus it has become. Lincoln would not approve, you suspect.

In New York, one of the must-see sights is the 9/11 memorial. Despite its status as an extremely popular tourist destination, this is one of those memorials which has exactly the right tone and is dignified, aesthetically appealing, impressive and respectful. Some feat, given the site is overshadowed by colossal buildings under construction.

The memorial consists of two huge deep granite-lined pools with water cascading on all sides. The water flows into a seemingly bottomless well in the middle. Around the edge of each pool is a broad steel rim with the names of all the fatalities of that day. The generous and green area around the pools provides enough space and shade to stop the monument feeling like a day at the races.

I can already see the rancour arising over the Christchurch memorial. There will be arguments about its scale, location and form. But it shouldn't be that difficult if we trust a few good people to come up with a plan. Some fundamentals must be observed.

It needs to be earthquake proof. It should not be too weird. It should be distinctive and original and yet nod to the past. It needs to have water, a sculpture and some rock, maybe pounamu for instance. It should have a superb garden and be a place where people feel not just moved by what happened but also a little hopeful about human resilience and fortitude. Perhaps it will be harder than I thought.

The Press