The scars of the 2011 earthquake remain apparent, but Christchurch’s heart is beating strongly once more thanks to innovative projects. By Cindy MacDonald.

Christchurch: a city that’s been shaken but also stirred

There’s a common theme to the phrases used by Christchurch locals. “We used to have…” “There used to be…” “Before, there would’ve been…” “This was once…”

Every visitor to New Zealand’s second-largest city is fully aware of what this is code for: the time before 12.51pm, February 22, 2011, or, as locals refer to it, the Second Earthquake.

For monumental world events you remember the precise moment you heard the news. In my case, being woken by a predawn phone call to be told the twin towers had fallen before the eyes of a disbelieving world; hearing incredulously that my mother’s tiny home town of Dunblane, Scotland, had lost its innocence to a lunatic wielding a gun just a few weeks before, in my own home state, Martin Bryant opened fire on all in sight at Port Arthur.

And so it is that I vividly remember the television news flash announcing Christchurch, too, was being terrorised – not by fanatics but by an unstoppable force of nature. The earthquake, which came fewer than six months after an equally forceful but far less devastating shake, measured 6.3 magnitude on the Richter scale and eventually claimed 185 lives.

Distressing scenes of rescue efforts and collapsing buildings dominated small screens around the world as the city scrambled to come to terms with the tragedy.

But as so often happens, from the pits of despair hope ascends like a phoenix. A few months after the bushfire that wreaks havoc on a tinder-dry forest, leaving nothing but scorched earth and charred remains, regeneration begins as new growth bursts forth to usher in promise amid the desolate and destroyed.

It’s this feeling first and foremost that grips visitors to the Canterbury region, with Christchurch its major centre. Here, while often speaking in the past tense, the locals have their eyes firmly focused on the future.

“New and exciting…” “Quirky and creative…” “Opportunity for change…” “Innovative and unique…” These are the phrases that follow the reminiscences of pre-2011 as Cantabrians continue to work towards restoring their territory.

A tour of Christchurch’s centre is as much inspiring as it is heartbreaking. The iconic neo-Gothic cathedral, my most enduring memory of the city I’d first visited two decades before the 2011 quake, stands conquered but not conclusively crushed. The stricken state of a building that had survived largely unscathed in the Shaky Isles since its construction in the late 1800s epitomises the severity of the damage to the city. Its long-term fate still hangs in the balance but the completion of an innovative transitional “cardboard cathedral” in August 2013 is symbolic of the city’s ambitions to move forward cleverly and creatively.

The A-frame structure, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban using polyurethane-coated cardboard tubes with a design life of 50 years, provides an uplifting epicentre of optimism. It overlooks memorials including the site of the six-storey CTV building, whose collapse cut short 115 lives. Wreaths commemorate the loss here, while across the road a moving art installation, 185 Empty Chairs, is arresting in its starkness. A painted white chair symbolises each of the region’s fallen, a baby capsule and child’s chair a poignant reminder of the quake’s indiscrimination. Situated on 185 square metres of lawn representing fresh growth, the remembrance space will eventually be dismantled. In the words of the artist, Pete Majendie, “This installation is temporary – as is life.”

Another endeavour to lift the spirits of the locals is this summer’s Christchurch Stands Tall public arts project. A vibrant sculpture trail of 99 giraffes – 49 of them 2.5 metres tall, the rest smaller calves assigned to local schools – dots the city. Sponsored by individuals, businesses, education facilities and charities, the fibreglass sculptures have been decorated by artists young and old, known and as-yet-undiscovered talents. In February the “parent” giraffes will be auctioned, with the proceeds divided among various regional charities.

Following the ravages of 2011 and its subsequent aftershocks, the city centre was off limits – or “red zoned” – to the public for many months. The Re:START project is a perfect example of ingenuity coming to the fore in order to keep Christchurch operational. The government and Canterbury authorities worked with a local construction company to create a temporary, relocatable retail space in the CBD built from shipping containers. The colourful precinct, which opened after a whirlwind eight-week construction period in the quake’s aftermath, enabled people to return to the once-abandoned red zone. This series of laneways and elevated retail outlets, cafes and bars provided a vital infusion into the city by allowing businesses to keep trading. The pop-up mall, designed to be moved and reconfigured as blocks of the city centre undergo permanent reconstruction, has thrived ever since.

Similarly the extended closure of the Christchurch Art Gallery has seen art take to the streets. Brick and concrete walls backing on to vacant lots around the central business district have been festooned with murals and artworks that give a sense of the city’s revitalisation.

The Dance-O-Mat is another “Gap Filler”, a series of projects giving purpose to vacant blocks. Now in its fourth location, the al fresco space allows people of all ages to dance the night – or day – away. Just plug a portable music device into a converted washing machine, insert a few coins and bust some moves as your chosen tunes pump through the surrounding speakers. As I watch a small child doing just that in the middle of the day, the view of nearby fenced-off construction sites and abandoned piles of rubble and twisted wire cables softens with expectations of energetic rehabilitation.

Not that Christchurch is short of buzz these days. The bars and restaurants of Victoria Street and Stranges Lane thrum with locals and visitors alike. And many of the eateries have craftily utilised items salvaged from the city’s ruins. Admire a tabletop and you’ll be told it was actually made from the floorboards of the cafe’s previous – and now demolished – building across the road. Look up at the lights and find they were retrieved from the Great Hall in the Arts Centre, a building badly damaged in both the first and second quakes. Later it’s revealed that the leadlight windows in a funky eatery came from a building down the street, the pressed-metal front of its bar was once the ceiling of a stately home.

One part of Christchurch whose beauty appears to have been unscathed by the quake is the sprawling Botanic Gardens, and curling its way through them and adjoining Hagley Park, the meandering Avon River.

The gardens cover 21 hectares and are home to thousands of plants – and an astonishingly beautiful rose garden – collected from across the country and around the globe since the first English oak was planted on the land in 1863. A punt on the river through the gardens is a must. Sinking into a comfy velvet-cushioned seat as our flannel-trousered, boater-hatted guide does all the work, I have a floating vantage point from where it is almost impossible to believe this city has suffered tragedy and loss since my previous visit. On the peaceful Avon everything seems put to rights.

As the gateway to New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch and the Canterbury Plains, flanked on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the west by the dramatic snow-capped Southern Alps, is described by its inhabitants as “New Zealand in a nutshell”.

Within easy reach are stunning lakes, wondrous mountains, Maori history, adventure tourism, the French flavour of picturesque Akaroa village and eye-wateringly majestic scenery at almost every turn.

At the region’s heart lies a city that was taken to its knees by Mother Nature but, in refinding its feet, inspires all who bear witness to its recovery.

The writer travelled as a guest of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism and Air New Zealand.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 20, 2014 as "Shaken and stirred".

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Cindy MacDonald is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.

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