October 23, 2011

The Changing Face of Christchurch

In the first picture, this was the view down High St... towards the hills, and just out of sight to the far left, is my office.  This street is full of little fashion shops and cafes, places we would head for, to do lunch, window shop, and have a bevy or two at the end of the day.   On the right is the Excelsior Hotel.  It sits on the corner of High St, made recently famous for the extensive damage done to it on the day of the quake. (see video below)

Here is the video - the hotel is behind all the colourful orange flowers of its garden - but it gives you an idea of the damage to the area.

Recently we have been treated to the publicity photos of all the containers used in the city to protect buildings, and workers! 
Photos are from

Then today - I saw this photo in the news today and for the first time I realised that the destruction included this hotel and it was not going to be saved.  

So I did some reading at ...

Heritage advocates have rescued the earthquake-hit Excelsior Hotel and will spend $8 million restoring the site to its former glory.
Christchurch Heritage Trust chairman Derek Anderson said the 128-year-old building was bought on Friday, returning to the trust company four years after it was sold to a property firm.
The central-city hotel had taken a battering in the quakes.
Anderson said only the Manchester St wall would be retained, with the north-facing wall and interior to be rebuilt almost from scratch.
“It was unthinkable that it should come down,” he said.
The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority had planned to demolish the building but the trust had successfully argued parts of the facade could be saved, he said.

This is just one example of one building, one loss, and we have numerous examples of this across the city.  Try having a look at Ross Beckers album of the photos according to street - crisscrossing all over the inner city recording the destruction.

But the next article does capture some of the emotion.  The loss of our memories, and I will take a quote from it - but do click on the link and read it all.
Fabric of Memory Falling to Pieces

Buses are being re-routed through the city, with a temporary exchange in Tuam St. Cera is planning bus tours of the red zone. The Re:Start project reopens Cashel St between the Bridge of Remembrance and Colombo St as a retail zone from October 29.
Besides shoppers, expect rubberneckers - or rubbleneckers. Most of us will be both. We will be nervous, shocked and curious. We have seen the videos and photos in The Press of desert-like landscapes that would be unrecognisable were it not for the shape of the Bridge of Remembrance or perhaps Alice in Videoland in the background. 
If it is a shock to see pictures of those spaces, how will it feel to stand in them?
Earlier this month, The Press ran a perspective piece by Islay McLeod, headlined "Be ready, citizens, for stark reality". After going on a tour of the red zone with a film crew, McLeod warned: "The wasteland that Christchurch central city has already become is a sight so shocking, so disorienting. It's an emotional reaction to loss so profound but without precedent. Sooner or later, we all have to see it and go through our own extraordinary grief reaction." 
McLeod drew on a Mainlander story I wrote last month, on the Scape festival's The City as Memory panel. I was pleased to see that some comments made by Lyttelton sound artist and academic Bruce Russell were getting a wider airing, as they seemed to summarise a feeling that many had but few articulated, especially at an official level.
"I'm really interested in what's going to happen when we do get back into what used to be the CBD of Christchurch," Russell said.
"I think there's going to be a huge shock. I think a lot of people are going to be psychically damaged by the experience.
"I'm really worried about antisepsis. One thing that's happening very quickly is that everything's getting cleaned up. We don't know what the memorials will be, but I'm sure at least one of them will be a ruin. If we've got no ruins left, we've got no memory.
The impossible ideal would have been to have lived with the ruins for a while, to have got used to them, before each was replaced - one at a time - by something new.
In recent months, I've been collecting comments like Russell's and Edmond's and watching how they take on a communal life.
These emotional responses are earthquake descriptions that fall outside the fields of seismology, architecture or engineering, that are about the tricks of time and memory in the post-quake city. 
This week I came across another very good summary of the strangeness of life here, in a blog by Christchurch writer and photographer Adrienne Rewi.
Rewi went to Australia for two months and then came back home a couple of weeks ago. She toured the perimeter of the cordon with her camera. She stopped at the point where Re:Start will soon re- open the city. She wrote, "When I saw the teetering form of the Grand Chancellor Hotel glimpsed through the Bridge of Remembrance, I was overwhelmed by the irony of the situation. Almost the entire lower section of Cashel Mall just beyond the bridge has been demolished. It's all gone and as I stood there, I couldn't remember what had even been there. And soon - well, in a few months - the Grand Chancellor will also be gone," Rewi wrote.
"It's that relentless erasing of my memories that strikes me the most about Christchurch in the aftermath of the September earthquake. Whole parts of my own, 20-year memory of Christchurch have slipped away. We get on with our daily business here because we have to and it's easy to lose touch with 'that other reality'.
"It's not until you wander around the inner-city cordons, or drive through the worst-hit suburbs, that you realise it's not just a city being demolished, it's the fabric of your own history."
So true Adrienne... The Hotel Excelsior is just one tiny part of this fabric, and the rebuild might replace the structure, give us somewhere else to drink in the evenings, but the memories will not be the same. The history of our memories will be gone.

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