Inspirations: from the ruins, hope rising

I am standing in the centre of Christchurch, New Zealand. It is my first visit since a series of devastating quakes shook the city to pieces. The most violent, in February 2011, killed 185 people, two-thirds of them in the collapse of a single building. And I am stunned at the destruction, even two years on.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.
The Christ Church Cathedral – icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;’etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.
I took this holding the camera above my head to avoid a fence, pointing and guessing...This is the third attempt.
I took this holding the camera above my head to avoid a fence, pointing and guessing…This is the third attempt.
Demolition under way.
Demolition under way.

The Christchurch I knew is gone. The centre city is a wasteland of shingled and empty lots, ruined buildings and demolition trucks. Surviving tower blocks lean with tired abandon, like rows of crooked teeth. Most are due to come down.

Tumbling rocks devastated houses beneath - and above.
Tumbling rocks devastated houses beneath – and above.

Beyond, houses lie empty. Just two years ago they were proud symbols of domestic prosperity. Today they are abandoned, their walls cracked, shingled roofs askew, grass growing tall through cracks in the driveway. Grey silt, the dried remnants of liquefaction, lies unexpectedly here and there. Cars bibble over rippled tarmac; bridges that were once smooth are arched.In the seaside suburbs, houses teeter on the edges of new cliffs, rubble still piled below. Walls of shipping containers shield roads and houses from fresh falls.It is a city devastated.

And yet it is also a city with hope. Everywhere, Council trucks and diggers are working to renew sewerage, water, gas and electricity lines. Some buildings are swathed in scaffolding. The Arts Centre – the former Canterbury University buildings, where Ernest Rutherford worked – is being repaired. Near the old Cashel Mall – where masonry tumbled into the streets, crushing people – there is a mall of shipping containers. It is abuzz with sound; singers perform on a stage, people sit drinking coffee and enjoying the sun.

Sunlight and shadow made this very difficult to take. I had to adjust the tonal curves post-camera. This is a detail.
Sunlight and shadow made life very difficult for the camera, the modern CCD is not as good with tonal variations as film, and the exposure was on the concrete. I had to adjust the shadow balances post-production.  This is a detail of the original image.
Christchurch's shipping container mall - 2013.
That’s more like it. This is straight out of the camera, unedited apart from  the copyright notice and re-sizing to fit the blog. Christchurch’s shipping container mall – 2013.

There is a spirit here which speaks of hope, of life, of a brighter future. It is inspiring.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


11 thoughts on “Inspirations: from the ruins, hope rising

  1. Oh my God, I had no idea that the Christchurch Cathedral was to be demolished! I was stunned by your post today. The photos tell it all–but your words were lovely, poetic. Christchurch with no Christchurch? I’m still stunned. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I didn’t think it had been so badly damaged in the quake.

    1. It survived the first quake in 2010 without apparent damage, was inspected and found to be OK. They kept using it. There was another major quake that Boxing Day which it also survived. Then in February 2011 the third big one in the series dealt to it. The spire crashed into Cathedral Square and the building cracked and broke- I suspect it had already been weakened anyway. One of the more poignant images of that day is of a woman with blood across her face, appearing at one of the windows. Rescuing her was a problem. Nobody could get into the cathedral for fear of it falling altogether.

      There has been a significant and very angst-ridden debate over what to do about it. Some engineers thought the building is salvageable – and that the effort should be made, given that it is, after all the key icon of the city. Others thought not, and those voices have won. It will be demolished later this year along with most of the rest of central Christchurch. A temporary ‘cardboard’ cathedral is under construction nearby to replace it – I took a photo of the V-frame going up, which I didn’t post here. A permanent replacement will be made in due course.

      I have to say I was astonished by the damage still evident around the place 2 years on. We drove into Christchurch from the south – an area not too badly hit. Nothing too evident. But the northern and eastern suburbs are devastated. Even the roads aren’t flat any more. And Lyttleton, which was always one of my favourite places, is no more; all the wonderful buildings are gone. The spirit’s there, though – and I guess that will shine through.

  2. Gosh–what a eye-(re)opener. I’m ashamed to admit that I had not realized the devastation was so bad in Christchurch. The thing about our quicksilver media age is that we seem to move from one disaster to the next and never go back. Thanks for bringing us back.

    1. My pleasure. Yes, the reality for the people of Christchurch is that the disaster is ongoing – and will be for a while. They are still getting earthquakes, some of them quite large, as the fault complex that triggered with the first quake variously settles and ‘unnzips’. But I think they’ll bounce back from it.

  3. Memories. Went to boarding school in Chch. Selwyn House in Papanui Rd.

    I was so sad whrn the earthquake hit. Like part of my childhood had been wiped out.

    I am glad to hear it is a city of hope. The shots are wonderful, if sad.

    1. For us the visit brought mixed emotion; it was our first visit to the city since the quakes and it felt very much like attending a family funeral. We both had great memories of times spent there in places now gone. Plus side was that spirit of hope, which was evident even on a brief visit.

  4. Great tribute to a fallen city. It is certainly sad to see so much heritage crumble like that. During the peak of the shakes (I was there for the big Boxing Day one) and throughout the immediate aftermath it was incredible to see what I can only describe as a 21st century equivilant of “Blitz Spirit”. I say that as the community really did rally together, despite continual shakes and new damage, to help each other through the worst of it.

    Two years on and the impact is still absolutely visible. Blocks along Columbo St resemble Berlin 1945 and the one thing there is no shortage of in the new Christchuch is parking space!

    I have mixed feelings about the Cashel St shipping container project. The concept is fantastic but as an old Cashel St regular I really miss all the quirky independently owned businesses that used to be found there. They seem to have all vanished and preference instead given to all the kinds of franchise stores one can find in a regular mall. That to me is very sad, as it is those small independent stores that I feel used to give the CBD real colour and a much needed difference from Zombie-land. Two years on and some of them are still operating from spare rooms in resedential addresses.

    Lyttelton is a real tragedy as well, although it is recovering well and a lot of the old spirit is still be found. I was up there just last weekend (missed the aftershock as I was out on the docks!) and was impressed at how the community is bouncing back. The likes of the Timeball station will always be missed though.

    1. For me the Timeball station was a marvellous structure, very much the essence of Lyttleton – along with the historic prison beneath it. And the buildings down London street. Now consigned to memory.But definitely a spirit of rebuild, and that’s wonderful.

  5. Great post, and beautiful photos! I was also stunned at the destruction when I arrived in Christchurch. I’d been there on holidays right before the last earthquake so I could still picture the areas that have been destroyed. I wasn’t expecting to find the city in that bad a condition. But as you described here, the atmosphere is full of hope: I like the Re:Start area for example and we have nice projects to look forward to, like River Park. It’s quite exciting to feel part of it 🙂

    1. There seemed to be a good deal of energy about the city the day we were there. My wife and I hadn’t been there since before the earthquakes. The spirit we felt there is fantastic.

  6. My brother and sister-in-law visited NZ shortly after the 2011 quake. Their stories and pics were shocking. Two years later and the clean-up continues. Sometimes, mother nature does not have a sense of humor.

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