Christchurch should be transition capital

GEORGE PARKER
Last updated 12:32 18/10/2012

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OPINION: The inaugural Festival of Transitional Architecture starting in Christchurch this weekend suggests we should embrace impermanence. George Parker explains.

This weekend, 350 architectural students from around the country will descend on inner-city Christchurch. They will occupy empty lots in and around Gloucester St, between Colombo and Manchester, and together create a 'city made of light' for one night only.

This is the opening to the inaugural Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA), a nine-day event that promotes the potential of this extraordinary experimental and creative period in Christchurch's existence - the transitional city.

Already in Christchurch we have seen the emergence of surprising transitional projects such as Re:Start, the temporary AMI Stadium, EPIC, Gap Filler, Smash Palace and ArtBox. FESTA will allow the community to engage with these projects via tours hosted by the creators.

The creators will discuss their experiences, the highs and lows of responding creatively to the new challenges of Christchurch post- earthquakes, the lessons learnt and the opportunities discovered.

In this way, FESTA aims to promote Christchurch's unique opportunity to be a global epicentre for creative urban renewal through experimental architecture, art and performance. The aim is to build on the creative ethos of collaboration that has emerged post-earthquakes between architects, artists, business, developers and the wider community.

The opening event, LUXCITY, will also point the way to new inter-city collaboration between students, architects, artists and business with their local counterparts in other cities.

For more than four months, students from Auckland University, Unitec, AUT, Victoria University and CPIT have been working with local groups, organisations and businesses at the vanguard of Christchurch's revitalisation, including: Black Betty, The Darkroom, C4, Cassels, Volstead, Fledge, P.O.D., The Beach Bar, White Elephant, Gap Filler, Free Theatre, Infinite Definite, Pure Pulp and The Twisted Hop.

On Saturday night, a vibrant and exciting urban environment in Christchurch will be created.

There are multiple potential benefits to projects such as this that engage with the transitional city.

First and foremost, these projects are aimed at building community.

They can provide another important step back into the city for a community that is craving a creative re-engagement with their place.

They are a way of dealing with the ongoing trauma of loss on an enormous scale and, at the same time, embracing the creative possibilities that come through the new light that falls on the still- present buildings, streets and intersections within the inner city.

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Projects such as FESTA allow students the opportunity to actively engage with the process of community building within cities. For this project students are collaborating with people whose business it is to seek out and create a sense of place and excitement about the city we now inhabit - salvaging what was great before, and combining it with a search for a stimulating sense of place now.

This pilot event will be the first of an annual series of events that allow us to maximise the potential of the transitional city for the betterment of Christchurch. Transitional projects have continued to position Christchurch as an exciting destination in publications such as Lonely Planet and as one of the top 16 "century-shaping cities" in influential US journal Foreign Policy.

To maintain this attention and encourage investment in Christchurch, it makes sense to be innovative and creative during this transitional period - to see it not just as gap filler on the way to a 'permanent' city, but as the origins for the emergence of a unique place that people want to be in, stay in, visit and help build.

FESTA can have benefits for wider New Zealand. It allows inter- city collaboration through creative projects that open up dialogue and exchange. This rarely happens in this country, beyond sport.

By seeing New Zealand more in terms of interconnected creative centres, we have the opportunity to share and develop together rather than in competition. The ultimate outcome of making this a more connected nation that encourages innovation and inter- disciplinary collaboration will be the improved wellbeing of its citizens, and an added bonus will be the attraction of this place as a destination for business and tourism.

On a small scale, events such as this one can provide benefits for the wider global community. FESTA will look to help maintain and develop an international network for temporary urban projects through international engagement and residency programs. The FESTA team plans to bring to Christchurch experts in experimental architecture and artists in fields such as scenography, where the visual arts, performance and architecture meet. FESTA can develop projects that are informed by the very latest international conversation, and in turn inform that discussion.

This is all very ambitious. But why shouldn't we be?

Given the unprecedented opportunity we have to create an engaging, and engaged, city of this century, we should look to address some of the most significant challenges facing global communities.

The fact is that one of the most important conversations in contemporary urban design and architecture relates to the temporary. Here the onus is on developing pragmatic and flexible interventions to adapt to the significant environmental and economic challenges ahead, moving beyond the models of the past to find new ways to live together.

A recent New York Times article by Allison Arieff on the temporary argued that: "Architectural billings are at an all-time low. Major commissions are few and far between. The architecture that's been making news is fast and fleeting: pop-up shops, food carts, marketplaces, performance spaces. And while many manifestations of the genre have jumped the shark there is undeniable opportunity in the temporary: it is an apt response to a civilisation in flux".

While discussions, negotiations and debate circle around the long- term plans for Christchurch, relatively inexpensive and innovative solutions should be encouraged to not only allow life and vitality to return to the city in the short-term, but they can respond positively to the inevitable changes that will affect what the city becomes.

The reality is that a city is always 'in transition', a work-in- progress that is always changing - in many ways, there is only a 'transitional city'. But this principle needs to be embraced if we are to excite the community, developers and investors about the future of Christchurch.

There is every possibility that Christchurch can become known as a creative and intellectual capital of the transitional. It could even become a permanent way of operating.

Not just an empty marketing gimmick but a very pragmatic and progressive response to global challenges as well as the particular immediate challenges faced by a city where the ground continues to move.

The diverse group of collaborators behind FESTA believes there is the possibility of creating something together that is unique and exciting.

The aim should be to maintain the collaborative ethos and imagination that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, and embrace the transitional for the extraordinary opportunity it provides.

Dr George Parker is a long-time member of Free Theatre Christchurch and the manager of Te Puna Toi (Performance Research Project) at the University of Canterbury's Theatre and Film Studies Department. For more info about FESTA and programme details, go to: festa.org.nz.

- The Press

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