Christchurch rising

Retail outlets housed in Re:START mall’s shipping containers

As the city continues its long journey to regeneration, a few locals are pumping life back into its streets.They’re transforming spaces left vacant by demolished buildings into hubs of activity, creating a sense of community again.

Most of the city was destroyed, but people are pulling up their socks and getting on with it.

Johnny Moore's Smash Palace a bar in a converted bus, attracts local and international patrons.

Johnny Moore’s Smash Palace a bar in a converted bus, attracts local and
international patrons.

Johnny Moore, owner, Smash Palace
Johnny Moore was finally getting ahead in a tough industry. His popular Christchurch bar, Goodbye Blue Monday, had survived the city’s September 2010 earthquake. But in February tragedy struck again when the city’s second major earthquake in six months left most of the CBD in ruins. Moore’s bar, which had just celebrated its second birthday, was destroyed when three stories of the building next door crashed on top of it.

“At the same time I was out of my house for three or four months due to damage from the quake,” Moore says. “A lot of people left Christchurch, but some of us decided to stay and have a crack at making the town good again.” For Moore, that only meant one thing: opening a new bar. But real estate was in short supply and rents were skyrocketing, so he needed to think outside the box.

“There were a lot of vacant lots available in town. A lot of people were using [shipping] containers, but I wanted to try something different. We decided on a bus and called it Smash Palace.” It’s a place where drinkers sip craft beers served from the converted bus and sit at tables made from repurposed doors. A haphazard web of overhead coloured lights and funky tunes create a hip yet relaxed vibe. To cure hunger pangs, burgers are served from a nearby building.The bar has attracted tourists from as far away as South Africa, but Moore is more interested in providing a vibrant local watering hole that fills a vital space in the social life of the community.

“All those social spaces that we lost haven’t yet been replaced and if we don’t fill them all the young, interesting people will move out of town,” he says. “Sure, most of the city was destroyed, but the people of Christchurch are pulling up their socks and getting on with it. The spirit of the city is alive and well.”

For Coralie Winn, projects such as the Dance-O-Mat, are a way to experiment with possible permanent public-space concepts.

For Coralie Winn, projects such as the Dance-O-Mat, are a way to experiment with possible permanent public-space concepts.

Coralie Winn, co-founder and creative director, Gap Filler
Following the September 2010 earthquake, Coralie Winn lost her job. Then, when the second major quake struck just months later, she lost her house. For Winn, life would never be the same again. She had long been interested in vacant-space projects from around the world and had daydreamt about bringing the concept to her hometown, but previously lacked the time to pursue it. Now, with time on her hands, Winn realised it was the ideal opportunity to bring life back to her damaged city. The result was Gap Filler — an urban-regeneration initiative that coordinates temporary creative projects on vacant sites throughout Christchurch.

“After the first quake you’d look around and see building, building, gap. It was very much about looking at these spaces and thinking there must be interesting ways to use them,” says Winn. “Gap Filler is about bringing life to the city.”

Early projects were self-funded, but money from the council and Gap Filler’s current status as a charitable trust helped the organisation gather momentum. Now, up to half a dozen Gap Filler projects can be found throughout the city at any one time.

Projects have included a successful bicycle-powered cinema, a book exchange set within a disused fridge, a summer entertainment pavilion constructed from nearly 3000 wooden pallets and a temporary outdoor dance studio known as the Dance-O-Mat.

Ideas for Gap Filler projects come both from within the organisation and from the community at large. Winn sees the projects as not only a way to experiment with public-space concepts that might find a place in the city’s permanent rebuild, but also as a beacon of positivity during the transitional period.

“It’s very difficult to put yourself in the shoes of people here, but people are very disillusioned,” she says. “There is a lot of inaction — people waiting for insurance companies, land assessment or consent to build. So, that’s quite frustrating.

“These projects are the opposite. They’re action; they’re people saying ‘Look, let’s just have a go and get on with it’. I think it’s quite reassuring for people to see that something is happening. The city is really gathering momentum. This is our time and place.”

A huge part of curating this show has been the energy and emotions of the people joining in. It’s pretty special.

A huge part of curating this show has been the energy and emotions of the people joining in. It’s pretty special.

Bryan L’Estrange, co-founder, Container Art project
The earthquakes did not only affect Christchurch’s CBD. The peaceful seaside village of Sumner also felt the brunt of the disaster. For local artist and owner of L’Estrange art gallery, Bryan L’Estrange, when the quake struck, his first thought was for the safety of his family.“I thought my wife and [then] threeyear-old were gone,” he explains. “They were at the supermarket and I knew if they were in the aisles they were in trouble. It was terrifying.”

“I thought my wife and [then] threeyear-old were gone,” he explains. “They were at the supermarket and I knew if they were in the aisles they were in trouble. It was terrifying.” Fortunately, L’Estrange’s family was unharmed, as was the 100-year old timber building that houses his gallery.

Others in the town were not as fortunate, and as houses fell from the surrounding cliffs, shipping containers were brought in and stacked high to stabilise the rock face. The imposing containers have since loomed large in the consciousness of Sumner residents as they attempt to move on with their lives. L’Estrange says that, with no current long-term plan to stabilise the cliff face in place, the containers could remain where they are for as long as 10 years.

“When the ugly row of containers went up everyone was thinking what we could do with it and, of course, art came to my mind.”

Together with local graphic artist Dinesh Patel, L’Estrange started the Container Art project. From the beach, residents and visitors can take in the expansive artworks that now adorn many of the shipping containers. Each image measures up to 12 metres wide by two storeys high, and has been selected for its uplifting message.

Almost 20 works by leading New Zealand artists are now on show, but L’Estrange hopes, with the help of corporate sponsorship, to cover the complete row of 64 containers in what he calls an evolving exhibition.

“A huge part of curating this show has been the energy and emotions of the people joining in,” he says. “It’s pretty special after such a devastating time.It has been a privilege to live through it.”

Mayoress Joanna is ambassador for Greening the Rubble, creating temporary urban oases on vacant lots across Christchurch.

Mayoress Joanna is ambassador for Greening the Rubble, creating
temporary urban oases on vacant lots across Christchurch.

Joanna Nicholls-Parker, ambassador, 
Joanna Nicholls-Parker, wife of mayor of Christchurch Bob Parker, remembers riding out the city’s September 2010 earthquake crouched under a table on the floor of her inner-city home. She also can’t forget the uncertainty that followed in the days following. “You don’t actually know that the first [quake] is the biggest. It might be preparing us for something greater to come. That’s the unknown.”

Community projects such as Greening the Rubble are doing a lot to return a sense of community to the city. The non-profit organisation builds temporary public gardens on vacant lots left by demolished buildings that remain until landowners are ready to redevelop. A team of dedicated volunteers design and construct these gardens, while local residents are invited to help maintain them.

About a dozen gardens are spread throughout the city at any one time, with more on the drawing board. Projects encompass everything from community vegetable gardens and student-designed public spaces, to high-street mini parks and colourful urban gazebos.

Michael Hammond, a resident of innercity suburb Sydenham, says Greening the Rubble’s Coffee Zone kiosk and garden has become a valued meeting place among locals and helped to rebuild a sense of community. “The site has brightened a patch of Sydenham amid all the empty sites and rubble remains of buildings,” he says. “It’s light, bright and cheery, giving people a friendly place to eat outdoors, meet friends for coffee or just sit in the sun on a lovely hot day. On the weekends so many more people can be seen there relaxing, chatting or playing petanque.

“People want to get into those spaces to get away from the sights and sounds of demolition that ricochet through the city at the moment,” says Parker. “When the council responded and went global to make a city plan for our future, what they didn’t realise is that the most important space to fill is exactly the space that Greening the Rubble is filling, which is the transition phase. It’s really important for the morale of the people.”

Paul Lonsdale outside the innovative Re:START mall, made of shipping containers.

Paul Lonsdale outside the innovative Re:START mall, made of shipping containers.

Paul Lonsdale, manager, Re:START the Heart Trust
City Mall in the heart of Christchurch CBD was once a hive of activity. Then, within minutes of the February 2011 earthquake, the city’s busiest retail precinct quite literally came crashing down.

“If you look at City Mall now, there’s  four buildings left in the street,” Paul Lonsdale, manager of Re:START the Heart Trust. “About 90 per cent of the buildings in the CBD will disappear by the end of [the demolitions].”

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In a little over six months from floating the original idea, Lonsdale was cutting the ribbon on a new beginning for City Mall. Christened Re:START, the new mall is essentially a collection of refitted shipping containers, which are the temporary homes of more than 30 retailers including New Zealand’s premier department store, Ballantynes.

But there was a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation to come before the concept became a reality. Lonsdale had to get the idea past a council in disaster control, secure loan approval for funding as well as convince rather sceptical retailers that a temporary solution would be embraced by customers. He also had to come up with a design that would not only be quick to construct and easy to adjust and relocate as the permanent rebuild progresses, but one that was also aesthetically pleasing.

“We knew that when people came back into the city for the first time they would be staggered at how much had actually gone,” says Lonsdale. “So the project needed to deliver some sort of ‘wow’ factor — something that would lift people’s spirit just through its design.”

The colourful rows of stacked converted containers certainly achieve a cheerful aesthetic, but there was no guarantee that even the most innovative design would attract shoppers back. “We had heard a lot of people saying they’ll never go back to the city centre because they were all too scared,” explains Lonsdale. “But on opening day about 15,000 people arrived.It was just amazing.

“Looking back at it now, I realise that it is as much a community project as it is a commercial operation. Even though we lost our city centre, the Re:START project has brought some of that heart back.”

All photography by Simon Baker
This article was originally published in Voyeur for Virgin Australia group airlines and Pacific.