OPINION: Australian writer PETER ROBB visited Christchurch recently and left feeling pessimistic about its future. This is an edited version of his article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Everything looks normal. Driving in from the not-distant airport to the centre of Christchurch along a sparsely trafficked road in late summer, you see trim houses and a sluggish little river winding through a lot of grass and big green trees.
Then the normal movement stops. We enter a zone of emptiness and immobility. The few cars on the road all stop. We wait at endless red lights for no traffic to pass. The driver looks unsurprised.
Something else happens. As we move ever more slowly from green periphery to business centre, the landscape opens out. Behind high cyclone wire fences, all you see is rubble-strewn open space. There are a few medium-high office blocks standing arbitrarily in this empty flatness and, like the teeth in a centenarian's mouth, they mainly emphasise what's missing.
We pull up in what is nominally Cathedral Square, the city's geographical and historical centre. On its short run, the taxi has racked up an astronomical fare. My hotel is a neat and anonymous pale block, recent, undamaged and evidently well built. We're in the middle of nowhere.
I chose this place because it stands on the patch of ground once occupied by Warners Hotel, where I stayed at the age of 12 on my only previous visit to the city. Warners was a grand 19th-century establishment.
Warners stood almost directly opposite Christ Church Cathedral, a mock-Gothic building in blue stone, massive but not enormous, the material and spiritual epicentre of this mock-English colonial city. Warners and the cathedral were what Christchurch was about. A wing of Warners lasted until the earthquake three years ago, adjoining today's Novotel as its heritage extension. Then it became rubble.
Flatness is everywhere
The cathedral is still there, behind a safety fence. The great steeple is down and one end has collapsed and it looks like a dead blue whale disintegrating on a beach. You can see why the Anglican Church and its bishop Victoria Matthews want it quietly gone. They are opposed by die-hard heritagists who insist it can be saved.
Everything came down in 20 seconds, under the force of one of the most violent vertical shocks recorded in a city. A lot of what didn't fall that February 22 in 2011 was brought down later, damaged beyond repair.
Fluorescent and hard-hatted, on my second day I followed architect Peter Marshall into the city's Town Hall. It's a big, strong building from 1972 that survived the earthquake intact. But its ground floor is now buckled and sloping.
The land below its foundations fell away massively toward the river it stands by. It has been decided to remove and replace the foundations below it, bit by bit.
Town hall rebuild 'impossible'
When you look at the size of the building and see the mass of its supporting pillars of reinforced concrete, it looks an impossible job. The Town Hall is not high, but it covers a considerable area, sitting on the ground like a huge, white, stalkless mushroom. But Warren and Mahoney, the Christchurch architectural firm that designed it more than 40 years ago, are confident it can reposition the intact mass on a new foundation.
Other work I saw was weirder to behold. I heard a lot about getting the new Christchurch - and especially its business centre - "up and running". What I saw was the 1908 Theatre Royal being entirely rebuilt in reinforced concrete.
Over at the old neo-Gothic complex of the original University of Canterbury, relays of the world's remaining master artisans in medieval stonemasonry were restoring the buildings of what was and will be the Arts Centre. Stone by stone.
Future city still on computers
Three years after the earthquake, these were the only things I saw happening on the ground. The rest was still on the computers.
There was a lot of it, and a lot of it was being done by Warren and Mahoney (who hosted me and a photographer) in several studios around New Zealand, and in the one they recently opened in Sydney's Surry Hills.
All I saw of the future city was a rapid slide show of artists' impressions of a series of low-slung cuboids.
The maximum height allowed for new buildings is 28 metres, seven or eight storeys. Sensible and appealing enough for a modest city of under half a million people, though the rationale of lasting trauma in the city didn't entirely convince as an argument against height.
Warren and Mahoney have long had the biggest architectural practice in Christchurch and they have secured most of the big design jobs in the city's rebuilding. A lot of the office buildings still standing uncertainly in the centre - upended cuboids, not all of them quite vertical now - are their earlier work.
Brutalism, brown cladding and faux balconies
In their abandonment, these do not look like great designs. They display the motifs of jobbing commercial architecture over the decades. Some 1960s brutalism, a lot of the brown aggregate cladding popular in the early 70s. An amusingly redundant faux balcony superstructure from the postmodernist 80s. And so on. You wonder whether the new Christchurch is going to be imprisoned in the stylistic moment of its rebuilding.
Certain moments in style hold great promise. In New Zealand's North Island, the town of Napier that emerged after it was levelled in a 1931 earthquake wasn't much liked at the time, but is recognised now as one of the world's art deco jewels. The present, architecturally speaking, offers mixed possibilities. All I could guess at from the slide show of the new Christchurch was a general modesty of aim.
Tent-like cathedral 'promising but an anomaly'
One new building is finished: The tent-like and much visited transitional cathedral, designed by a Japanese architect with local collaboration. Shigeru Ban, from another earthquake-racked country on the Pacific fault line, specialises in the design of temporary emergency structures in lightweight materials, and his structural use of cardboard tubes in the relief cathedral is highly visible. It's a very pleasing building with a light-filled and flexible interior - high technology meeting ancient Japanese building craft - let down only by the gaudy panels of mock stained glass that fill the triangular front wall. As a first new building, it's pretty promising. But its Japanese designer is an anomaly among the architects working to rebuild the city.
Talking to the architects at Warren and Mahoney felt more like talking to engineers than to other architects I have known. These men - Warren and Mahoney is an overwhelmingly male practice - were happiest describing the layer of rubber they were inserting into the foundation of their new structures, allowing buildings to move with an underground shock and remain stable.
Warren and Mahoney were part of the consortium that drew up the city central reconstruction plan called the Blueprint. It was prepared in a hundred days for the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and presented in the middle of 2012. The plan identified 16 "anchor projects" - precincts of civic importance like health, justice, transport, retailing, sport and performing arts.
How would people live in the new Christchurch?
The original settler city began as a vision and a statement, one articulated in Victorian England by a sickly young Tory named John Robert Godley. He was alarmed by his church's decline and England's dangerous slide toward social equality.
Godley joined forces with E G Wakefield, an imperial politician who had already left his peculiar stamp on the colony of South Australia and the settlement of Canada. Godley and Wakefield started the Canterbury Association to found a colony and transplant to New Zealand's South Island a cross-section of their ideal English society, including aristocrats and a designated peasantry selected by the Church of England. The first ships arrived in 1850. The settlers' historic task was to regenerate traditional English religion and social hierarchy in the south seas.
The realities of building a city and farming uncultivated terrain soon broke down the old world order. Wakefield followed the settlers to Canterbury three years after the first ships, expecting to be greeted as their visionary leader. The settlers quickly put him right. After a few weeks he decamped to Wellington and never returned.
Keeping outward forms of Englishness if not the social realities, the city was enclosed by four wide avenues in a grid. Cricket was played. Punts were poled along the river.
The neo-Gothic stone cathedral took more than 40 years to build. Christ's College, a grandiose, mock-English stone public school, had opened by 1851. The neo- Gothic stone university complex was begun in 1876. Plainer and more handsome civic buildings went up around the grid (the delicate-looking wooden ones turned out to be the toughest).
Such was the torpid and slightly creepy faux-English provincial town I flitted through as a 12-year-old, a century after it began. A statue of Godley, founder of the city he named after his old Oxford college, fell down in the earthquake.
Half a century after I knew it, Christchurch was in serious decline. It was a city adrift, an economy in decline. The near total destruction of central Christchurch represented an amazing opportunity for renewal.
Nonplussed about Cera's view on the future
I wanted, on the afternoon of my third and last day in Christchurch, to hear from Cera what its vision was of a Christchurch renewed.
How would the city be, a century and a half after its beginnings as a colony of Victorian Britain? How did the planners see the city and the region now? How did the city see itself? What did the government want to tell New Zealanders about their $40 billion new city, about their country in the 21st century? How did New Zealand want to be seen by the world?
Don Miskell, a retired Christchurch landscape designer who is now Cera's head of design, seemed nonplussed by my questions. He rattled off a summary of replies received in the city council's "Share An Idea" survey. They showed that people wanted a compact, low-rise and green city - trees and grass, rather than renewable energy - with good public transport, bike paths, arts and sports facilities. He said he'd bought a bike himself a week earlier, and had really enjoyed riding home in the rain the night before.
But what was the New Zealand government saying with its $40 billion? Don Miskell said the government was itself only investing a quarter of this amount. The rest was coming from international insurance interests. He mentioned American investor Warren Buffett. It was my turn to be nonplussed.
People had also said they wanted "high-quality inner-city housing... a city for all people and cultures... an urban environment for future generations".
No inner city housing
I'd tried in vain to get the architects to talk about housing. Ten thousand homes had been destroyed by the earthquake, and the ground under a large suburban area had liquefied and become uninhabitable. All the architects of Warren and Mahoney had wanted to talk about were their public buildings. But apart from an unbuilt experimental housing precinct on the edge - one of the anchor projects - I saw no inner city housing marked on the plan. Don Miskell told me that Cera had acquired four large blocks running together down the eastern edge of the city centre, intended for mixed housing and parkland.
The artist's impression showed a long strip of grass and pavement running between two uniform rows of young professional townhouses.
The strip between the lines of houses was 40 metres wide - because, Miskell told me, at 20 metres you could still see the look on a person's face. The townhouse occupants would police the strip through their front windows on either side, ensuring it did not become a new terrain for dealers in substances and their clients.
This strategic beautification was a response to the fact that a nearby park had become the domain for illicit trafficking.
It recognised that all was not entirely well among the people for whom the new city was being built.
Christchurch has its dark side
Over breakfast each morning, I read progress reports of a case in which a young woman had been tortured to death and thrown into the river by gang members after a dispute over drug payments.
Self-policing townhouses didn't seem much of an answer to social malaise.
A larger social imagination was hard to find in play over my three days in Christchurch.
I had the feeling that the new city would be much like the old, only with lower buildings that were less likely to fall down.
Given the city's origin in a bold if wacky social experiment, and New Zealand's outstanding history of advanced social practice in the last century, the future looked like being a letdown.
- The Press