One of the most serious issues that can afflict a city is the damage wrought by unprecedented natural disaster. Since a series of powerful earthquakes struck Christchurch in New Zealand residents have been questioning the future of their city.
‘Let’s Build Back Christchurch’ declares the Auckland Chapter of Architecture for Humanity (AFH-AKL) – the humanitarian architecture charity that has been working with the young people, co—educational school group Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti (UPT), and the White Elephant Trust in Christchurch – since the devastating 22nd February 2011 earthquake. Despite residents dealing with the aftermath – 185 dead, major aftershocks, lost homes, livelihoods, land zoning and insurance companies all whilst trying to live a life – AFH-AKL has recently held an exhibition in downtown Christchurch of Campus Unlimited – an international competition that answers the question, what would Christchurch look like if we consider education as the catalyst for rebuilding the city?
The competition attracted a wealth of diverse entries and focussed the eyes of the design world on New Zealand with entries from 16 countries. The judges welcomed the range of ideas with, ‘landmark buildings in the middle of the city…urban design schemes, and…Some dealt with the school’s ecosystem with respect to the city (including its people, the environment, and the cultural context)’.
The thoughtfulness and sensitivity of the entries humbled the judges and have given much food for thought about Christchurch and its long term future. The exhibition – marking the culmination of 15 months of hard work – saw UPT Students vote for the people’s choice award, whilst a judging panel (also of UPT stakeholders) chose an overall winner. Michelle Lo from the University of Auckland with Cycle Christchurch was the winner. Lo intelligently sought to solve the problems caused by liquefaction – a by product of the quakes – with some inventive design solutions. The liquefaction zone now covers half of Christchurch which will increase the threat from that and flooding. To mitigate this Lo proposes that wetlands and green strips are included in the CBD. This is not just a piece of infrastructural landscape but a potential recreation space, a cycle route and a place for biodiversity to thrive the city centre. Something in the best traditions of the garden city. The UPT campus forms a part of this green zone where the green space creates fluid dynamic pockets for development to occur. Such spaces would fit with UPT’s educational ethos and really begins to answer the question of education as a catalyst for change. The city planners would do well to look at an entry like this.
The runner up was Martin West (RHWL Architects) with the Triangle of Life. The scheme used the structurally strong triangle as the foundation for ‘safe walls’. The campus will be based around a central hub with a series of site specific satellite classrooms integrated into the community encouraging the schools ethos of pushing the boundaries of learning, accessible to all. Based on a 5 year development strategy, structures will be established as a first response to recovery that will be adapted over time, “Outreach walls will become catalysts for redevelopment of earthquake-affected areas…they may have additional functions, becoming community performance venues or, in the event of an earthquake, disaster shelters. This blurs the boundary between students and the community; between the school campus and the city itself”, says West
The People’s Choice Award went to Tony Rowell (University of Auckland) with The Three Baskets of Knowledge. “The scheme for the UPT building originated from weaving, its process, its colours via dyeing, and the story of how Tane obtains the three baskets of knowledge, and the great metaphor it offers to UPT and its students in seeking out their own treasures of knowledge. This key idea of weaving and the three baskets of knowledge has originated first and foremost from Aerial views of the outer lying agricultural farms of Christchurch. The woven fabric of these farmlands echoes the Maori history and plentiful resources of the region throughout the decades for both Maori then, and all now”, says Rowell
The background to all this is the stark reality of earthquake recovery. Damage equates to NZ$30 Billion in insurance calculations; 40% of the CBD; including the iconic Cathedral; and 7253 ‘red zone’ houses will need to be demolished. “True difficulties of the recovery process are becoming apparent. The wider world has moved on to its other problems, while locally, self-interest and old divisions are reasserting themselves”, reflects John McCone in his article ‘The Quake’s Long Term Toll’ (5/11/2011, Fairfax NZ News). Bruce Glavovic of Massey Joint Centre for Disaster Research suggests that “Much as everyone wants to pretend Cantabrians are pulling together in hard times; people can see that the local councils, the Government’s Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), and the business community are not working together smoothly at all”. This is the context that for the last 15 months AFH-AKL have been working in.
This began with an initial series of workshops which allowed young people to reflect on their collective experience of the quake. “We did a basic mapping exercise to mark out approximately where they live (and where they have moved from, if applicable), any change to their school location and journey to school as many of the local schools were damaged, and changes in where they spend time with friends”, recounts Bobby Shen, co director of AFH-AKL. Obvious changes were highlighted and the workshop provided an initial opportunity to engage with pressing issues such as those that affected UPT.
UPT lost all three of its buildings within Christchurch CBD, one of which the White Elephant Trust shared. Their aim is to return to the inner city and create a new non traditional learning campus that will not only advance the pupils renowned special character but will act as a catalyst for sustainable re-appropriation of the city. In June 2011 AFH-AKL and students from the University of Auckland assisted UPT with a design charrette where staff and students – 86 in total – could form a view of the campus future. 84% wanted to return to the centre. 62% said that it was important for a transport hub to be nearby whereas 60% said a skate park was not needed. 33% favoured both a single and multisite campus. The results informed Campus Unlimited – an ideas competition.
What is next for UPT and the city of Christchurch? “The judges have always been conscious of the fact that it is still too early to rebuild, or even commit to a design. We discussed for a long time whether or not we should even call this a competition, because we wanted this event to be a stimulant and a catalyst for the Christchurch youth, to think about their future. For that reason, we called the competition ‘design ideas’ rather than ‘design’ competition.” This ideas competition is part of a much bigger citywide process – which is as much to do with healing as it is to do with rebuilding – that they must work with. However the ideas gathered are an invaluable resource that CERA and all the other high level bodies would do well to take account of. Maybe education really could be the catalyst for rebuilding the city? Maybe Lo is right to take just one problem and propose a way to solve it. Only through this method of holistic problem solving will Christchurch move forward in a cohesive way. The last word should go to the AFL-AKL, “we believe in open-source design, and have what is called the creative commons license that allows us to share our ideas openly with others. This has always been the crux of our work with other communities and organisations, and we wanted to share these ideas with the rest of Christchurch through the exhibition”.
Words: Robert Pike