“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
~Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
There’s no getting around it. Christchurch, New Zealand, is an emotional city to visit. The damage from two major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 is as fresh and raw as if it had happened last week. From the ruins at Cathedral Square to the haunting 185 Empty Chairs memorial, the city tugs at your heartstrings, offering powerful reminders that Christchurch has faced the worst of times.
But despite its recent history, New Zealand’s “Garden City” is also a place of incredible resilience and hope. Rebuilding seems to be going on at lightning speed. Vacant lots stand beside newly completed structures. Shiny playgrounds look as if they were just completed. Street art is thriving. And people are friendly and welcoming and eager to talk about what their city has been through.
The Seabourn Encore was docked at the port of Lyttelton, about 20 minutes south of Christchurch. Herb and I took the shuttle into the city, and as soon as we left the parking area, our driver welcomed us and began talking. His commentary was unexpected – this was merely transportation, not a tour – and he seemed delighted to tell us about his city. He told us how he and his wife had to rebuild their home after the second earthquake; he pointed out sights he thought we might like to visit; and he explained how the city’s constant state of construction requires almost daily detours. “They keep on changing the cones!” he laughed as he maneuvered around a street in the midst of being repaired.
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
The shuttle dropped us off at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, a modern angled glass structure that seemed to be a nod to Frank Gehry’s masterpiece, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. As we walked closer, I couldn’t help but smile: Perched on the rooftop was a giant hand-face looking out over the city. And along one of the building’s walkways, a bull stood on top of a grand piano. This was clearly a city with a sense of humor!
Punting on the Avon
We walked a few blocks south in search of the Antigua Boat Sheds and an interesting-sounding experience called Punting on the Avon. Green and white striped boathouses lined a spot along the Avon River, and a small fleet of bright yellow shallow-bottomed boats called punts sat at the water’s edge. A carryover from Christchurch’s English heritage, punting is similar in concept to Venice’s gondola rides, but instead of being propelled through the water with a rowing oar, the punt is moved with a long pole.
We climbed aboard our punt and joined another couple for the half-hour ride down the Avon. Our punter stood on the back and provided a brief commentary about the area. The route ran along the edge of Christchurch Botanic Gardens, under bridges and around tree-draped river banks. Ducks paddled by, diving for food in the shallow waters. With the chirping sounds of cicadas, the lazy lull of the river and the warmth of the mid-morning sun, it was a quintessential summer moment that I carried with me long after the ride had ended.
The City Center and Cathedral Square
Back on the street, we headed along the edge of the Botanic Gardens toward the center of the city. We passed the i-SITE Visitor Information Centre and several tram stops before reaching a construction zone near Cathedral Square. Despite the road closures and construction areas, we found Christchurch extremely walkable and easy to navigate.
I knew Christchurch Cathedral had been severely damaged in the earthquake, but I wasn’t prepared for what that damage would look like. The cathedral stands in ruins, as if it were remains from an ancient city. Metal fencing surrounds the entire area, with a makeshift viewing spot offering a glimpse into the destruction. It’s an eerie sight, a monument unto itself and a powerful reminder of what happened here.
My plan for lunch near Cathedral Square didn’t quite work out, but we had passed a restaurant near the Art Gallery called Fiddlesticks that looked like a good option and headed there. It’s always a treat when you happen upon a great café in a new city, and Fiddlesticks did not disappoint. Our food was delicious, service was friendly and it proved to be a perfect respite before an afternoon of touring.
Re:Start Container Mall
Our next stop was the Re:Start Container Mall, a temporary food and retail community created from shipping containers after the 2011 earthquake. On the way there, we stopped to buy a few jars of New Zealand Manuka honey to bring home. When we mentioned visiting the Container Mall to the cashier, she looked surprised. “The mall is closing today!” she said. “You’ll probably be able to see a little of it, but most of the shops have closed.”
When we reached the mall, signs announcing final day sales told the story. After six years, the containers were closing shop. It felt important somehow to witness Re:Start’s last day, a positive sign that Christchurch was moving forward, away from something temporary. It had been an innovative solution and a way to cope with the damage from the earthquake. Now it was time to move on.
The city’s other post-earthquake innovation is the Cardboard Cathedral, officially known as Christchurch Transitional Cathedral. Opened in 2013, the cathedral was built from cardboard tubes, timber, steel, glass and shipping containers. The A-frame structure was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and seats 700 people.
Inside the space feels airy and contemporary. We spoke with one of the volunteers, who explained how the building was constructed and encouraged us to walk around and take photos. Her pride in the city’s efforts to rebuild was evident, but when she told us she had left Christchurch after the earthquake and had only recently returned, her voice grew quiet. You could feel her profound sadness as she spoke, as if she were telling her story for the first time.
“Sometimes when I talk about it, I still start to cry.”
~Cardboard Cathedral Volunteer
185 Empty Chairs
The people who were killed in the Christchurch earthquake are honored in a poignant memorial a block from the Cardboard Cathedral. 185 Empty Chairs, painted white and placed in rows in a vacant lot represent the lives lost that day. It’s an incredibly moving tribute, juxtaposed against the surrounding buildings and passing cars, as if these lives were as unfinished as the empty lot in which they sit. The chairs are all personal – from a wheelchair, to a wicker porch chair, to a recliner, to a baby’s high chair. There is no one guarding the site, only a small sign that explains the significance:
“Here, opposite the site of the CTV building, 185 chairs of all shapes and sizes symbolize those who lost their lives as a result of the Canterbury earthquake on 22 February 2011. The individuality of each chair pays tribute to the uniqueness of each person represented.”
Christchurch Street Art
Throughout our day in Christchurch, we passed vacant lots and surviving buildings that had been painted by street artists. The murals seemed to be such a strong part of the fabric of this city that I felt it was important to include some of them here.
A City of Hope
It was late afternoon when we headed to the Christchurch Art Gallery to catch the shuttle back to Lyttleton. On our way we passed the Gallery’s back side, and as I looked upward, I was stopped in my tracks by six words emblazoned in colorful lights. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to describe the attitude of this city that has been through so much. And even more symbolically, that message of hope is being shouted from the rooftop:
“Everything Is Going To Be Alright.”