Christchurch - After The Earthquake. Why visit? What is there to see?

This is a personal blog, because I lived in Christchurch from 1973 to 1990. It's where I had my home and helped raise my beautiful family. Then on February 21, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city, killing 185 people and injuring thousands. The city I knew and loved disappeared forever. But over time I have fallen in love with Christchurch again, and here are some of the reasons why.

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STOP PRESS - I'm writing this entry on February 21, the 8th anniversary of the day that the earthquake struck the city. With today comes some great news, because from this week it will be possible for the people of Christchurch to have a first look at the restoration of their soon to be completed and much loved Christchurch Town Hall.

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City Councilor Deon Swiggs writes "It's just awesome being back into this building, the heritage has been retained but it has also been modernized. Have a look through with this video to the music of American Pie by Don McLean which was the last song to play here 8 years ago. For a while the music died, but it's now alive again. Make sure you get down over the weekend for the free public tours".

On a personal basis I have my own wonderful memories of the Christchurch Town Hall. It's where my musician daughter Emma played her first concert as a violinist with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. She now plays with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and has played here many times when the orchestra was on tour. She's just one of many who have been waiting with huge excitement for this day. 

Now back to our original story about the post-earthquake years and why I've found so much to like about the new Christchurch. 

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An example of how it all started - the Catholic Cathedral that suffered major damage during the earthquake.

Everyone in Christchurch has a personal story of what happened on that terrible day. In my case it was being in California and receiving texts about the cliff behind my grandchild's school collapsing into the school grounds, of daughters fleeing from a room that was about to collapse, a son in-law in a music shop in the center of the city with the building around him collapsing. But we were lucky, they came through shaken but unscathed and we were so grateful for that.

What follows is a tremendous account of what's been happening since that day in 2011. It's written by Steve Meacham in the Australian publication Financial Review -

"Six years on, a startlingly different Christchurch is rising from the rubble. If a single piece of architecture is emblematic of the new glass-and-steel Christchurch rising from the ruins of the earthquake that devastated the formerly quaint and conservative city, it's the Deloitte Building.

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Designed by architects Jasmax, the award-winning, seven-storey structure opened in 2015 and occupies a prominent corner position on the banks of the Avon River. It's distinctively wavy, optimistically blue profile deliberately echoes the famously meandering river that runs through the city.

"It took the earthquake to get Christchurch focused back on the Avon," says Stephen Collins, who built and owns the building.

It isn't the only significant piece of architecture to be added, or returned, to the city landscape in the past two years – with more to be completed this year.

Rarely, outside of war, has the centre of a First World city presented such a case study for almost total reconstruction as Christchurch.

Other earthquakes have resulted in far bigger death tolls, not least the Japanese earthquake and tsunami just 20 days later. But the 2011 Christchurch quake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, delivered its own world records. Some 95 per cent of all the buildings in the central business district were destroyed, declared unsafe or subsequently demolished.

It's a "textbook disaster city", says Professor Misko Cubrinovski, a world-class authority in geotechnical earthquake engineering at the University of Canterbury.

Much of the city remains a wasteland, to the impatience of residents, with crumbling facades propped up by shipping containers. Yet, finally, the new city centre is taking shape. And while international attention has focused mainly on the fate of the severely damaged Anglican Christchurch Cathedral, the symbol of the old city, a startlingly different place is rising from the rubble.

Renewed commitment

Some buildings show a boldness the old, notoriously staid city might not have entertained.

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Chief among them is the $NZ54 million ($51 million) Bus Interchange. A key piece of post-earthquake infrastructure, integral to the city's public transport vision. Designed by Architectus, another firm based in Australia and New Zealand, it manages to combine the futuristic and the functional, making it a really pleasant place to catch a bus.

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Then there's The Piano on Armagh Street. The $NZ16.8 million performing music/arts centre, designed by Alec Bruce of local firm Wilkie + Bruce, opened in September last year. Apart from the acoustically splendid concert hall, which can seat 327 people, it contains a chamber music hall and a 30-seater theatre/rehearsal space.

Deloittes developer Collins owned properties in the CBD that were either destroyed by the quake or demolished (in what he calls the knee-jerk political reaction to knock down everything that wasn't obviously recoverable).

"It was tempting to go to another city, or another country," says the Christchurch-born property investor. "But I thought that would be churlish. I've been in investment in Christchurch most of my life. If I'd taken the insurance money and run, I would have felt I had let my city down."

Having decided to build a landmark, Collins had two criteria: "That it would be the safest building in Christchurch. And that when I drove past it in 10 years' time I'd still feel proud of it."

The triangular block he selected was the site of the Bishop's Residence before it was destroyed.

After consulting earthquake experts in Japan and California, Collins settled on what he calls "the gold standard" base isolation technique. Essentially the Deloitte building doesn't touch the ground but rests on 19 giant ball bearings mounted on huge poles. Should an earthquake hit, the building rocks with the shock, before returning to the perpendicular.

Impressive reinventions

Not all of Christchurch's most impressive post-earthquake achievements are new. The Presbyterian Knox Church, on the corner of Victoria Street and Bealey Avenue, dates back to 1902. When the 2011 earthquake hit, the masonry collapsed. But the beautiful original wooden interior, being more flexible, survived.

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The $NZ5.5 million rebuild of Knox Church, designed by the late Alun Wilkie (also of Wilkie + Bruce), was rededicated in 2015, and provides a modern, earthquake-proof shell for the historic interior. Its sympathetic reinvention is impressive from the outside, but you really need to go inside to witness how well it embraces the historic interior.

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The same is true of the heritage-listed Isaac Theatre Royal, one of the most beautiful Edwardian-era theatres in the world. When you walk into it, you're instantly impressed with how magnificently preserved the interior is. Yet only the theatre's ornate facade remained salvageable after the earthquake. The rest has been rebuilt (with improvements) at a cost of $NZ40 million.

Under the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan – a blueprint that will shape Christchurch for decades – about 1200 buildings have been demolished in the CBD, plus 8000 residential properties in the suburbs.

The blueprint identifies 14 anchor projects, including the bus station and the creation of a South Frame and an East Frame – two massive rectangular parklands containing apartments. The new centre, contained by these parklands and the Avon River, is subdivided into several precincts: retail, performing arts, innovation and "justice and emergency services" (courts, police, fire brigade et al).

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Apart from hotels, which can grow higher for commercial reason, building heights are now restricted to seven storeys.

"This is such a different city, an instant city," Bruce explains. "We're not getting a hand-made city like the old Christchurch. We're getting a machine-made city because that is where construction technology has taken us."

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"Look around you," Bruce says. "Most of this new Christchurch is built of glass and steel. And a lot of that steel is prefabricated in Thailand or Australia and shipped in. Thanks to 3D computer modelling, you can now draw anywhere, construct anywhere and expect it all to fit together on site."

Is the blueprint working? "Yes," says Bruce. "The government had to make a plan. And the concepts were very good. Perhaps too much was demolished too quickly. But that was led politically, because there was a real sense of having to do something, to achieve progress in a time of crisis."

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A city isn't built in a day

Pre-earthquake, there were only about 7000 people living in what is now the CBD, but the blueprint called for 20,000, says Peter Marshall, Christchurch managing director of Warren and Mahoney, the architects behind the Isaac Theatre Royal and several new constructions including the PWC Building.

"That was always going to be a big ask. You can't do everything at once. It took 150 years to build the old Christchurch, but for some reason people thought we could rebuild it in six years.

"It is going to take 20 years before all the infilling is finished. But I think Christchurch is going to be a very successful city because we have had an opportunity to do a lot of thinking about contemporary urban design – how to make buildings safe and relevant."

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The new Christchurch is a city of laneways and interior courtyards, he points out.

"It is one of the outcomes of the earthquake that will work in Christchurch's favour. When you add up everything that is happening – the precincts, the laneways, the green spaces, the reclamation of the Avon – Christchurch is going to be a great city to live in."

Lianne Dalziel, Christchurch's mayor since 2013, insists the city's transformation shouldn't just be seen through the lens of bricks-and-mortar construction.

"The psychology of the city has changed fundamentally," she says. "Anyone who went through the experience we had – and makes the decision to stay – has got to have a different attitude to life than they had before the earthquake.

"That has been really powerful for the city. A lot of people have been attracted to Christchurch since the earthquake, and they have brought with them a sense of excitement about the incredible opportunities that exist when you are rebuilding.

"People think of us as the garden city and the most British city outside Britain, but now we've become a city of opportunity, with a sense that anything is possible. Christchurch has a new sense of openness to new people, to new ideas, to a new way of doing things."

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Buildings symbolising the new Christchurch

  • Deloitte building Commercial offices/retail. Architects: Jasmax
  • The Piano Performing arts/music centre. Architects: Wilkie + Bruce
  • The Bus Exchange Futuristic bus terminal. Architects: Architectus
  • Isaac Theatre Royal Sensitive rebuild/restoration. Architects: Warren and Mahoney
  • Strange's Building Commercial offices/retail. Architects: Sheppard and Rout
  • PWC Building Commercial offices. Architects: Warren and Mahoney
  • Knox Church Rebuilt exterior incorporating heritage interior. 

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Just this week this story reported another chapter in the rebuilding of Christchurch, the re-opening of the much loved Mona Vale Cafe for 'high teas and coffee' - Christchurch City Council spent close to US$2.2 million on restoring heritage building to its former glory.

Yes, there's much to love about the New Christchurch and our customers who have stayed there as part of their vacation say the same thing.

Ask New Zealand Vacations about including Christchurch on your vacation itinerary.

Ph 888-277-2293 or [email protected] 

Lindsay Barron

Lindsay Barron • Feb 13, 2019