I have a real soft spot for Christchurch, as I think a lot of my readers might know. It broke my heart to hear about the damage and loss of life caused by the earthquakes there in 2010 and 2011. I’m happy to say now though, that to me, the city centre looks like it’s slowly coming back to life again. Like a wounded bird taking its first tentative steps towards recovery, Christchurch unfolded its wings a little when it reopened Cathedral Square in July this year.
I had been to Christchurch in 2009 before the earthquakes and saw what a vibrant city it was. I spent a few days there exploring the city, browsed through the arts and crafts stalls at the weekend market and was privileged to take one of the best ghost tours I’ve ever been on at The Arts Centre, which was run by the Court Theatre. I really liked the feel and buzz of the city.
The next time I went back was in January 2012. Nearly all the roads leading into the city square were blocked off from the Avon River. You could only see the demolished gable of the Anglican Cathedral through chicken wire fences, from two or three streets away. The main streets like Hereford and Colombo streets were like a war zone, with half demolished buildings falling down and a lot of rubble everywhere.
About a month ago, I got the chance to spend a full day in Christchurch, on my way back from Lake Tekapo and I’m so glad that I did. It was a glorious, sunny day, with bright blue skies. A friend of mine who has been living there for over thirty years, told me a few months previously, that Cathedral Square had been reopened and I really wanted to see it. There were quite a few people there looking around and taking photos. Even though the damaged cathedral is still plain to see, the bright sunshine, vibrant colours and fresh designs on the panels of the fence installed around the cathedral lifted everyone’s mood.
In conjunction with the reopening of the square, Christchurch city council launched the Transitional Square project. It’s expected to transform the central city area into a welcoming public space with art installations, performances, new seating, facilities and landscaping. It will also showcase a varied collection of artworks and installations including a series of large panels on fences that explore early Maori heritage. The panels that I saw around the cathedral were created by artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes. They were invited to create artworks that recognise both the past and future of the high-profile area. On some of the other fences around the square were artworks made out of multi-coloured tiles that had a sort of Aztec design to them.
New Regent Street, a great collection of brightly coloured shops in the Spanish Mission style dating back to the 1930’s, reopened in April this year. It has a good mixture of busy cafés and open pedestrian areas. There was also a small market in full swing near the Bridge of Remembrance. The new “Cardboard Cathedral”, which temporarily replaces the Anglican Cathedral, on Latimer Square, is an interesting A-shaped architectural building, supported by a series of cardboard pillars and a lovely Rose window.
The music scene is also slowly reviving. There was a free music concert behind Cathedral Square, organised by Scape 7 Public Art, the night I was there. This is a biennial event in Christchurch with free public art by local, national and international artists in central Christchurch. It hosts six weeks of new art, talks, walking tours, public programmes and children’s activities. I got talking to a young Irish couple from Waterford, who said that this was the first live music gig they’d seen in the last nine months they had been there.
It is still very sad to see the badly damaged Anglican Cathedral and it will always be a reminder to people of what happened in 2011. But I do see a good improvement in the place. There are damaged buildings that have been left in the same state as they were in 2013.The Catholic Cathedral, for example, on Barbadoes Street, still has shipping containers holding up one side of the building but a lot of the rubble in the city centre has been cleared away and it looks a lot fresher than it was last year. Every time I go back there I see positive changes and I think that’s great. I’ll be keeping an eye on its progress. If they don’t get any more big earthquakes, then I can certainly see the city coming back to its former glory, only a different version of it.