In September 2010 and again in February and June 2011 New Zealand suffered its most catastrophic natural disaster. Christchurch was shattered by three powerful earthquakes. The second was shallow and right under the city and not only caused the whole city to jump into the air but caused the soil to liquefy as the city was built on flat marshy land.
As if that were not bad enough, a man-made disaster followed. Initially well-planned rescues from the ruins and repairs of the massively damaged roads, bridges and underground facilities were carried out. Then came the second disaster. The New Zealand government initially gave a cabinet minister dictatorial authority to police the city and start the demolitions etc. A few months later they set up CERA, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority. There was an obvious need for a new authority with extraordinary powers to coordinate and direct the recovery.
Unfortunately like the minister before them, who over-rode the rather supine Christchurch City Council, CERA continued to ignore all protests that they were often unnecessarily clearing sites and destroying heritage buildings which could have left until cooler heads prevailed. Apart from serving the agriculture hinterland the major source of income for the city is tourism. Christchurch is fundamentally a unique and attractive Gothic Revival city, founded by visionary Anglican pilgrims in the mid Nineteenth Century to preserve their distinct and charming English way of life.
Most of the buildings that educated tourists came to see and which gave the city its “soul” were built in stone or brick and suffered badly. Instead of carefully rendering the ruins of the buildings safe and fencing off the sites to decide what to do later the government encouraged the demolition companies to knock over many beautiful heritage buildings and to completely clear the sites. Tourists might want to come and see interesting fenced-off ruins but no-one wants to look at empty “bomb sites”. Often independent engineers’ reports obtained by owners of significant buildings stating that they could be saved and strengthened were simply ignored and the buildings were razed to the ground.
The Christchurch Civic Trust has for half a century had been doing their best to prevent the City Council from allowing the completely unnecessary destruction of many important historic structures. In spite of their efforts many particularly offensive high buildings had been constructed in places where they ruined the central city’s visual beauty. The Earthquake has meant that many of these must be demolished. It’s an ill wind..!
CER and the Minister for Earthquake Recovery have completely ignored the increasingly desperate calls from public bodies like the trust and many private individuals to stop the whole-scale destruction of the historic buildings which have formed our character and which threaten the future of much of our tourist income.
Only a month after the earthquake I wrote a manifesto I called an SOS (“Save Our Soul”) and put it on the internet. In this document I prophesied (correctly) what would happen to Christchurch under the present monopoly of power and communication by short-sighted businessmen and developers and their stooges, local and national authorities and modern professional architects. Unfortunately people who are deeply shocked by tragedy are often unable to fight back when bullied. I think this is what happened in Christchurch.
Click here for SOS manifesto.
Maybe now, when people are beginning to come out of their suburban “dug outs” and go back into the parts of the city that are opening up, there will be a popular movement to stand up to the bullies and save what little is left.