Anchored to empty shells

Last updated 09:42 11/07/2012

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It is interesting to see what cities prioritise in the aftermath of devastation, writes Fiona Farrell.

Christchurch is to have a new convention centre. It will be, to quote Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, "an anchor project", acting "as a catalyst for the surrounding area".

It will be, of course, "world class" with "state of the art facilities". He makes special mention of multiple breakout rooms.

It will also create "opportunities for the health sector and tertiary education". (What can he mean? Will the delegates suffer heart attacks? Will law students be recruited to wait tables at the convention dinners?)

Already we have a rugby stadium, temporary, but possessing those requisite "state of the art" broadcasting facilities, corporate boxes and accommodation for the 20,000 expected a few times a year for major games. As an aside, it could also accommodate 35,000 for a concert.

Twenty-five million dollars has been spent on this, much of it donated. (And my daughter in Wellington thought her donation was to buy heaters and hotwater bottles for children in damaged homes.) Now, there is a suggestion that even more might be directed toward a bigger venue.

It is interesting to see what cities prioritise in the aftermath of devastation. Dresden painstakingly restored its cathedral. Hiroshima created a peace park around the molten shell of the former Industrial Promotional Hall. London created the State-funded national theatres and concert halls of the South Bank.

In Berlin, the massive mound of rubble from the city's bombed buildings was forested to form the 115-metre-high Teufelsberg, popular with mountain bikers and paragliders. New York has come back with a tower even more dramatic, more astonishing, than its predecessors.

Reconstruction reveals something of a nation's character.

A roofed stadium. A convention centre. In 2012, New Zealand seems to be in the grip of a bizarre mania for big hollow structures, empty for much of the time. In Dunedin, a massive white bubble has risen on the waterfront, dwarfing the university, the hospital and the city's mercantile buildings.

Dunedin's ratepayers have seen their rates increase significantly to pay for this empty shell, that they will continue to pay for it for another 40 years and that other projects have been forced on hold indefinitely: a library for South Dunedin, a harbourside walking and cycling track to Portobello like the one that has revitalised New Plymouth's waterfront.

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And for what? A few minor matches during the Rugby World Cup and an Elton John concert. And ratepayers are footing the bill.

An anchor suggests something that will hold us steady in troubled waters. Stadiums are not an "anchor". Nor is a convention centre.

Out of curiosity I have googled "world-class convention centres" just to check out our competition.

Paris comes top of the list. And Singapore. Barcelona. Vienna.

And what do they promise? Hotels, yes. But more than that, they mention theatre, galleries, shopping, national cuisine, the charms of distinctive architecture. Interestingly, "breakout rooms" do not warrant a mention. Instead, these "world-class venues" promise the vibrancy of a city designed for the wellbeing of its own citizens first.

No tourist rides, no attractions, simply a city getting on with the business of being itself.

A block away from the old convention centre in Christchurch stands the central library, patiently awaiting its $8 million makeover. Hundreds of thousands entered its doors, a million items were issued in a single year, pre-quake. Even a suburban library at New Brighton attracted 380,000 visits per year. We are a reading nation every bit as much as we are a rugby nation.

Suburban swimming pools are always busy: right now too many children want to swim, while that big rugby stadium stands empty. We are a kids-in-togs nation every bit as much as we are a rugby- and-conventioneers nation. Priorities are man-made things.

In New Orleans, another kind of reconstruction is taking place.

In a democratic vote, the citizens elected Frederic Schwartz to direct the reconstruction of the region worst affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Schwartz is an architect with an explicit social conscience. When elected he issued a press statement defining his priorities.

The redesign of the city was an opportunity to "reassert values of environmental care and social justice, of community building and helping the poor with programmes for quality, affordable, and sustainable housing".

A different city, with a very different social makeup, and a different kind of disaster. But New Orleans also possesses a different kind of leader, with a very different set of priorities.

Someone who speaks to inspire, rather than delivering a series of putdowns ("Good luck to 'em!") and fatuous denials like the ones reported from Brownlee in last Saturday's Press.

Reconstruction also reveals the style of its administrators.

In Christchurch it appears that we are anchored to a variety of big empty monoliths.

Fiona Farrell is a novelist and poet. In 2007 she won the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. She was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to literature in this year's Queen's Birthday honours list.

- The Press

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