Walking around Christchurch at night is an eerie experience. In February 2011, a devastating earthquake killed 185 people and this beautiful and bustling city was reduced to empty streets, broken buildings and demolition sites. But there is hope among the ruins: the vibrant Christchurch street art.
One of the first things I noticed was the street art. Amongst the damaged structures and building sites pop up colourful artworks on walls: cartoon strips, portraits, slogans and montages. A spark of courage, defiance and creative expression amid the tragedy and destruction that this city, for now, represents. Despite the lack of cars and people on its streets, there is life here. The graffiti spells out messages, such as ‘Hope’, ‘Peace’ and ‘We Got the Sunshine’. Its iconography includes Nelson Mandela and an enormous reclining female nude holding a paintbrush, perhaps symbolising the imminent creation of a reborn city.
The day I arrived, a fresh installation was unveiled in the city’s heart, Cathedral Square. Created by local artist Sarah Hughes, the colourful wall of flags is an optimistic and symbolic work, commissioned by the Council as part of their transitional project.
“The scale of the work draws attention to the buildings that are not there,” says Hughes. ” The colours of the flags I selected were in contrast to the grey and dusty environment I experienced on site visits to the red zone before the Square was opened last year. It is my wish that it brings aspiration and hope for people visiting the Square and for what the Square and city of Christchurch will become.”
There are signs across the city, erected by the Council, explaining how each area will be redesigned and rebuilt. Meanwhile the former Council office stands in a bad state of disrepair in the wake of the earthquake.
The most moving part of Christchurch is its memorial, ‘185 Chairs’. Using the chair to symbolise an everyday spot where someone once sat, worked, dreamed or played, this installation remembers those who lost their lives in the earthquake. 185 unique chairs, from a wooden kitchen stool to a wheelchair, a comfy sofa and a baby’s high-chair, each one represents an individual who died that day. This very simple and very human exhibition leaves a lump in your throat.
One of Christchurch’s most iconic buildings was its eponymous 19th century cathedral. Sadly it suffered a great deal of damage in the earthquake and became one of its most prominent victims, its image used in news reports around the world. While it is still standing, the spire was destroyed and the remaining building incurred severe structural damage. The last of what was once a beautiful rose window on the front of the cathedral fell to the ground during further shocks in December that same year.
This is not the first time the cathedral has been damaged by severe earthquakes. A newspaper report from September 1888, displayed near the site, records the first time the top of the spire collapsed during tremors. Hauntingly, it recalls, “the Cathedral bells were set toiling and continued to ring for several minutes.” What I liked, when looking at what remains of this beautiful cathedral, is that it still harbours life. A flock of birds sit wing-to-wing along the roof and every so often they rise up and swirl in formation, swooping around the sky.
The citizens of Christchurch are in dispute over whether the cathedral should be demolished and replaced by a new, modern construction, or whether it should be rebuilt exactly as it was. In the mean time, the congregation are now able to worship every week in a transitional cathedral – also known as the Cardboard Cathedral – just a few blocks up the road. Opened in August 2013, it was constructed using materials including timber, steel, shipping containers and cardboard tubes. Instead of a replacement rose window, it has highly colourful triangles of stained glass.
Along with the council’s auspicious noticeboards, the affirming street art and the flocks of happy birds, the Cardboard Cathedral is a sign that all is not lost. There is hope and life and colour. Christchurch will rise again.
To read more about my journey around New Zealand’s South island, click here.