Red Zone: the Regeneration of Christchurch

Simon Sellars Architecture & urbanism, Catastrophe, Film & animation

Christchurch Cathedral.

Originally published in Architectural Review Australia, issue 123. All photography by Simon Sellars.

Expanding on the theme of the 2011 SCAPE Biennial in Christchurch, Simon Sellars reports on the possibilities for regeneration in the city through art and architecture.

‘Only approach when all clear’

To paraphrase Hölderlin, ‘What are architects for in a destitute time?’… Let us recall the immortal American sergeant who said of Hue, ‘It was necessary to destroy the city in order to save it.’ All of which returns us to the original question and perhaps to the only possible response; namely, that the architect must become an urban guerrilla, an inventor of new strategies, or let us say, an aesthete amid the ruins or an agent provocateur.

Kenneth Frampton [01]

When the February 2011 quake hit Christchurch, close to two hundred people lost their lives. The city centre was obliterated: twisted and buckled roads, levelled buildings, Christchurch Cathedral half in ruins. Across the city a colour-coded system of zones was enforced:

Red: extensive damage to property and buildings; at high risk of further destruction from aftershocks; infrastructure to be completely rebuilt.
Orange: further assessment required; state of infrastructure uncertain; buildings to be eventually recoded red or green.
Green: rebuilding unaffected; insurance claims in place.
White: unassessed land.

The CBD was coded ‘red’ – the Red Zone – and closed off to the public. Military personnel were installed in perimeter checkpoints, but the parallels with war were already inescapable. Hugh Nicholson, principal adviser in urban design for the Christchurch City Council, took me through the Red Zone. He said that when he first saw the devastation he thought of his mother’s stories about the Blitz. In wartime Britain, the government issued red posters with the message, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; today, there are replicas in Christchurch windows. Still, many have had enough, packing up and leaving for other cities. At the SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space, sound artist Bruce Russell branded such people ‘quake dodgers’, confirming the semantics of war. For Russell, ‘they haven’t got the right stuff’ but for those that remain, ‘We will be able to say to our grandchildren that it was a good time to be alive because we were tested.’ [02]

Destruction on Worcester Street, CBD Red Zone, Christchurch.

‘Avoid all contact’

The issue of Architectural Design entitled ‘Post- traumatic Urbanism’ was produced before the quake, but it frames Christchurch today. Co-editor Adrian Lahoud, presaging Russell on ‘quake dodgers’, states that trauma and crisis can embody a ‘productive value’ and a ‘creative dimension’, [03] and that we learn much about ourselves when urban systems collapse, leading to new forms of ‘resilience’. ‘Post-traumatic Urbanism’ is concerned with ‘inassimilable events’ that shatter everyday reality, exposing a city’s citizens to a ‘sea of excessive sensation’.

How can urban design respond? By building cities ‘calibrated to crisis, such as adaptation and resilience. A resilient city is one that has evolved in an unstable environment and developed adaptations to deal with uncertainty. Typically these adaptations take the form of slack and redundancy in its networks.’ [04] Lahoud notes the contraction of past and future into the present: ‘the past is tangible in the streetscape. The pedestrian walks through these memories, counting bullet holes and reciting texts nailed by doorways or inscribed in floors.’ The flipside is a ‘voyeuristic consumption of the ruins’. [05]

Yet the appeal of ‘ruins porn’ must be admitted. It seems you can’t Google ‘Detroit’, for example, without coming across a set of photographic images of the city’s ruined and decaying buildings, shot in clichéd HDR format: hyperreal, hypersaturated. That is one extreme of the impulse, but no matter how overplayed it becomes, it highlights our deep desire to stare into the sublime, to swim both within and against the chaos at the heart of the post-traumatic city.

In Australia, Marcus Westbury is known for his Renew Newcastle scheme, which locates abandoned buildings in Newcastle and facilitates their lease to artists and community groups for cheap rent while the structures await development. Westbury admits he ‘has long been obsessed with the problem of Newcastle’s decay and vacant buildings’, [06] and this admittance, allied with his solution, might be considered within the same continuum as ruins porn, but at the opposite pole.

After ‘Imagined Futures’, I was approached by a former Newcastle resident now living in Christchurch. She said that schemes like Renew Newcastle are all very well and good, admirable even, but what use are they when the government refuses to see the worth in them, and provides scant or no funding for them to continue to flourish? Sadly, she concluded, despite Westbury’s efforts this is Newcastle’s fate.

Quake-tilted house in a red zone, just outside the CBD.

‘Drop, cover, hold’

Lara Strongman, chair for ‘Imagined Futures’, told me that locals are labouring under ‘event time’. Corroborating Lahoud, she explained that the shock of the quake makes the past a distant country and the future unknowable, as all energies and intensities are focused on the struggles of the present. In the orange zones, you have no choice but to exist in suspended time, constantly worrying about whether the government will recode your house green or red. Even then, it’s not the full story. If orange zones become green you can live in them, although your house might still require repairing, rebuilding or demolishing. If orange turns to red you have to leave, no matter how bad your house is. Many in the residential red zones have had to uproot their lives, leaving behind houses that are barely damaged or even undamaged.

In September the Christchurch railway station clock tower stopped at 4.36am, the precise moment the quake hit. At SCAPE, an audience member proposed a monument: keep the clock face stopped at ‘quake time’. An eternal marker for the eternal present.

‘Treat all cables as live

In Christchurch, rebuilding has slowed almost to a halt courtesy of the insurance companies, who won’t allow the process to commence until a sufficient period without seismic activity has passed; some say the ruling is ‘no M4 quakes over a period of two months’ but no one seems to know for sure. Meanwhile, demolition is moving at such a rapid rate that there is a real fear there will be nothing of the old city left, not even slate and tiles from the heritage buildings that have been knocked down, which are being broken up and ground down to make landfill.

Why not preserve the more significant ruins? Ruins can create meaning from chaos. Instead of Christchurch Cathedral being rebuilt in a facsimile of its former glory, why not leave it half destroyed, with the new structure beside it? Jenny Harper, director of the Christchurch Art Gallery, is ‘convinced of the transformative power of art’ to enable the city’s future, and also considers the value of the ‘picturesque ruin’, but her example is Christchurch’s shattered Provincial Chambers. Her proposal: stabilise the ruined stone section but leave it empty, with public seating installed and wildflowers allowed to flourish. This would be an ‘experience that could help explain the earthquake to our children and grandchildren for years to come: “This is what happened in 2011.” It could become a memorial place, a site of contemplation which is within and part of the city.’ [07] It would also point to a potential future, of sorts, and what could happen if the city is again unprepared.

In that sense, Harper’s example recalls the Statue of Liberty in the final scene of the original Planet of the Apes. Charlton Heston comes across the statue half buried in the beach, and is in anguish as he realises that he has not travelled to an alien planet but to Earth at some distant point in the future. He inhabits multiple realities at once: both on a distant planet and on Earth, both inside and outside the frame, alienated from reality but all too keenly subscribed to it, simultaneously in the past, present and future. Should Christchurch’s picturesque ruins be contemplated in a similar fashion?

To convey the full magnitude of the quake, the city’s proposed public art memorials should be provocative, dangerous, even dystopian. No fibreglass cows or bronze people sitting on park benches allowed.

NZ police advertisement masquerading as quake art, just outside the CBD.

‘Magnitude 5 or above, evacuate immediately’

Reporting on the first quake, journalist Max Bania wrote: ‘I mean no disrespect to the families of people who lost their lives the day the World Trade Centres came down, but this felt like our 9/11 – a day of mayhem and destruction on an unthinkable scale.’ [08] ‘Imagined Futures’ was held on September 11. Paranoiacs could have a field day with that numerical coincidence.

It is a strange time for the city. Just as 9/11 generated all manner of conspiracy theories as to its origin, people in Christchurch are looking for answers where there are none. Recently, locals were appalled by a spate of pamphlets left in letterboxes claiming to predict when the next earthquake would hit and in which suburbs. Others claim the quakes were side effects from the USA’s above-top-secret HAARP atmospheric testing. But no one – not conspiracy theorists, or even scientists – can predict earthquakes. Nonetheless, in Italy, a group of scientists are currently on trial for playing down the magnitude of the L’Aquila quake that killed over 300 people in April 2009. New Zealand colleagues are lending support to their defence. After all, when the first quake destroyed Christchurch, it was thought the worst was over. In fact, the second event was more devastating.

But the real struggle is not to predict the future or to cling to the past, but to process what has happened, which remains a daily struggle. Strongman related an incident from February when she was looking out across a park and suddenly saw the solid ground ripple and sway like a wave breaking in the ocean. Then it settled down and became flat before buckling and cracking with huge force. An engineer later told her that the ground beneath Christchurch rose up 40cm then moved 20cm sideways before dropping back.

Back in Melbourne, I downloaded my Christchurch photos and discovered the horizon was slanted in almost all. I was unsure whether the camera’s sensor had given up the ghost, or if, like the denouement in the New Zealand film, The Quiet Earth, the city had been knocked completely off its axis.

‘Dust masks recommended’

In the moment of trauma you are exiled from your own psychic landscape, a foreign intruder in an unfamiliar land.  Adrian Lahoud [09]

Inside the Red Zone. A toxic clean-up team has swept through the CBD, spray-painting messages on facades and windows: ‘bio haz’; ‘all clear’; ‘do not enter’. The smell from rotting food in markets, restaurants and food courts was said to be horrendous. Fish remains in chillers and order dockets on benches. Books, laptops and half-full coffee cups sit on desks, left by those fleeing the scene.

Curtains flap in the breeze, through broken glass. Signs of human occupancy are everywhere but there are no humans. Gap sites are everywhere, too. The CTV building, where most people died, is now a vacant lot.

Nicholson says he has not been inside the zone for three months and cannot believe how quickly the centre is being demolished. It is hard for him to get his bearings as familiar landmarks are simply not there any more. Torsion from the quake has bent street signs into twisted metal. Mannequins and giant, green teddy bears litter the streets, rescued from a ‘gentlemen’s club’. There is none of the usual ambient noise and background static accompanying city life, so our voices echo back from concrete, tarmac and facades. The disjunct between visual cues – you see a place that you know should be full of life – with absolute silence is disorientating, a queasy jolt.

We walk around the deserted city like the last men on Earth. Bania, remembering his own tour, compared the isolation to another scene fromThe Quiet Earth, but take your pick: The Omega ManPlanet of the Apes,The Road, 28 Days LaterA Boy and His Dog. If comparisons with war are inevitable, then so are parallels with cinema’s post-apocalyptic imagination. Somehow, such visions are able to voice what is ontologically unvoicable: our isolation from ourselves.

The stillness is ruptured by massive trucks laden with mountainous rubble. They don’t bother to sound their horns; the onus is on us to scramble out of the way. Shirtless men tear down walls, powering through debris. Concrete dust and ground dirt is everywhere. It is a frontier atmosphere, a ride-with-the-devil, cowboy mentality.

When I first arrived in Christchurch, I overheard a conversation: one man had apparently made a fortune buying up an old refuse dump on the outskirts of town, charging the council to store CBD rubble there. The world’s largest crane is being flown in from England to rip down the tallest buildings. There’s no time for heritage considerations; tear the bloody thing down before it falls on top of you.

We stop to speak to a property baron, overseeing a new roof being fitted onto one of his ruined buildings. He is dynamic, ebullient. His teeth are pearly white, blinding in the sun. His wattage is high because he knows where the power lies: developers are in charge of the city at last. Still, there is temperance. ‘It’ll take forever to rebuild this place,’ he laments. ‘Twenty, 30, 40 years at least.’

Red Zone warnings left by the toxic clean-up team.

‘Caution when handling, especially over rubble’

“I lived through the full power of technology: Blitzkrieg… For a kid, a city is like the Alps, it’s eternal, like the mountains. One single bombardment and all is razed. These are the traumatising events which shaped my thinking.” Paul Virilio [10]

War ruptures reality and births new vocabularies, language smelted down and reshaped to try to capture odd dualities that never existed before. In the Gulf War, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘friendly fire’ described the unavoidable causalities from the most concentrated deployment of warfare ever. In Christchurch there is ‘event time’ and ‘quake dodgers’, also ‘rubble neckers’, which describes tourists and locals who hire helicopters to fly over the CBD in order to see the damage for themselves.

The Red Zone is off limits to ordinary Christchurchians and they are not happy about it. A rapper was allowed in to film a song and even the English rugby team have visited – even me – but not the general public. Many people want to return to the place where they worked and lived, a place of deep emotion to them, but they are denied, reduced to wandering the perimeter, peering through the barbed wire and cyclone fencing, waiting for the dust clouds from the demolition to subside before squinting down a distant main street to try to see the damage. People desperately want to visit the sites where loved ones lost their lives. The cordon is ringed with memorials, cards, flowers, toys and graffiti – respect paid, at a distance, to the dead and damaged.

At SCAPE, architect William Field suggested that the earthquake had made residents into amnesiacs, no longer able to recall how the city used to be, so confronting is the damage. Russell retorted that he didn’t have amnesia but the opposite. He recalled the old Christchurch all too well, but the problem was his memories of the city had to be superimposed onto the bomb site that it now resembled, as did everyone else’s. How could the future city rebuilt ever live up to these multiple, overlapping layers of expectation?

Perhaps a collage aesthetic is needed, borrowing elements from the past, present and future to form meaning from a moment of erasure. Aaron Betsky essays a similar idea in a discussion of Zagreb’s architecture after Yugoslavia’s ‘violent war of liberation’. Betsky admires how the practice njiric+njiric addresses ‘the unresolved present, whose character is one of collaged instability. Rearranging the remnants of the past under present conditions to produce possible, but still highly uncertain forms for the future is the mission.’

For Betsky, njiric+njiric are ‘the keepers of the collage city’, proposing structures that ‘transform collage itself into a more abstract, more stable and more open-ended form of making the city’. [11]

‘Approved handlers only’

There has been much talk about Christchurch’s proposal to enhance its ‘garden city’ character as a way of sensitively rebuilding the city. According to the revised Central City Plan, the post-quake ambition is to develop ‘New eco streets [that] will improve the water and environmental quality of the Central City through the planting of trees and the installation of permeable surfaces and rain gardens to reinforce our garden city identity.’ [12]

However, Harper notes that cities are places of intense experience – they are not gardens: ‘Calls for more (much more) green spaces are misguided in my view. We need to see the [rebuilt] city as a city experience, an interesting and vibrant built environment with potential for various stimulating interactions punctuated by the river and the squares. The garden city moniker has never gelled with me; my ultimate aim is for Christchurch to be perceived by us and others as more than a garden city.’ She points to cities with successful, integrated public space such as London, Chicago and Paris, with intertwined programs of art and design that become essential to individual experience of the city.

For Harper, the way to managing the regeneration of Christchurch is clear. It must be enabled by ‘Encouraging architects and designers to work with artists right from the outset… Not thinking of art as an add-on.’ [13]

‘No lights in building’

By contrast, SCAPE artist Ash Keating is openly pessimistic: ‘Everything planned or proposed will be under the microscope because it’s a city on its knees, and anything that’s done needs to be useful and responding to that environment. I just don’t think the creatives can win the argument.’ [14]

He is probably right. When SCAPE finally went ahead, after being postponed twice due to the September and February quakes, it was in a truncated format. In such a climate, to be seen to be spending large amounts of money on art was considered in poor taste. Indeed, the cultural and economic politics of the post-quake era are overwhelming. Buildings are being torn down against all external advice, including that from Japanese earthquake specialists, who, having had their own fair share of disaster in recent times, are well versed on what is required.

A Christchurch source told me that government buyouts of red zone homes are often insufficient for dispossessed people to afford new homes. Hustling developers turn every trick to develop new subdivisions on old swampland, and valuable geotechnical information is suppressed so that people are powerless to challenge zoning decisions. According to my source, ‘the effects of the natural disaster are being exacerbated by the politics of its aftermath’.

In light of that, and the global turn to denuded funding for art and design-led architecture, the concerns of SCAPE, and the artists, writers, historians and architects it represents, seem, despite best intentions, rather utopian in the pejorative sense: unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky.

Welcome, then, to the Pre-, Present- and Post- Traumatic Planet.

The subtitles for this article were taken from a CBD sign advising on ‘General hazards associated with red zone’ and how workers can counter them.

[01] Kenneth Frampton, ‘Late Modern Lares: Randic-Turato’ in A Peripheral Moment: Experiments in Architectural Agency, Croatia 1999–2010, ed. Ivan Rupnik (Barcelona & New York: Actar, 2011), 20.
[02] Philip Matthew’s ‘Wellsprings of Memory’ is an excellent recap of the two SCAPE panels.
[03] See http://post-traumaticurbanism. com/?p=457.
[04] Adrian Lahoud, ‘Introduction’ in Post-Traumatic Urbanism:Architectural Design, eds Adrian Lahoud, Charles and Anthony Burke, vol. 80, no. 5, September 2010, 17, 19.
[05] Lahoud, ‘Introduction’, 23.
[06] See
[07] Harper quoted in Richard McGowan, ‘Jenny Harper In Conversation with Richard McGowan’, 10×10: A Future for Christchurch (Christchurch: Warren and Mahoney, 2011), www. Thoughts_Chch_9.pdf, 9.
[08] Max Bania, ‘It was as if I was the last man alive’, TVNZ, 9 September, 2010.
[09] Lahoud, ‘Introduction’, 17.
[10] Virilio quoted in James Der Derian, ‘“Is the author dead?” An Interview with Paul Virilio’, The Virilio Reader, ed. James Der Derian (Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 16.
[11] Aaron Betsky, ‘Meta-Balkan: the work of njiric+njiric’ in A Peripheral Moment, 22-23.
[12] Christchurch City Council draft Central City Plan, 11 August 2011,www.ccc.
[13] Harper quoted in ‘Jenny Harper In Conversation’, 9.
[14] See page 61 of our Ash Keating/Dorian Farr interview in AR 123.