Arriving in Christchurch after midnight was like arriving in a ghost town. We drove quietly from the airport along deserted roads before finding the edge of the town centre. On our left appeared a temporary orange plastic fence behind which something was being cleared or constructed – it wasn’t apparent which. The road narrowed and deteriorated and we angled around a number of diversions. My navigation became less and less confident. Fortunately Angela knew the way to our hotel and we found our way to our hotel middle of the maze.
Angela, Adrian and I stepped out of the car – the darkness illuminated with the soft glow of the hotel lights and the moon. Against the charcoal background, we registered the other taller hotels of Christchurch. Each one was looming up like gravestones in the darkness. Ours was the only hotel in town with rooms – not because the others were full. On the contrary, they were empty – empty and desolate, empty and abandoned. Large cranes circled around them like vultures in the sky.
Christchurch is the largest city on the south island of New Zealand. It takes its name from the eponymous college in Oxford. It is famously English in foundation, history and character.
One day (it was February 2011) an intense earthquake 5000 meters underground caused massive destruction above the ground. Hundreds of buildings collapsed and the infrastructure of the city was destroyed. One hundred and eighty-five people lost their lives. This erstwhile picturesque, peaceful and prosperous town was assaulted and devastated physically, financially and emotionally.
Many of the buildings which remain standing are condemned and uninhabitable. Visitors and tourists no longer stay over, as they once did. Some locals refuse to come into the city for fear of a repeat attack. We met a woman who stays occasionally – but keeps her suitcase packed by the door of her hotel room. Earthquakes as a fact of life here – and it would only take another one of similar intensity to complete the mindless vandalism.
We were booked into the one functioning hotel in the city centre. The Novotel did not survive the earthquake – it was built from new afterwards to the latest survival specification. Unlike the surrounding broken buildings, this one is stocky and solid. You get the impression the walls are several meters thick. Angela assured us it was perfectly safe. Even so, Adrian and I could not help but speculate whether we would prefer a room on a lower floor or a higher floor. To fall or be fallen onto?
As it turned out, I was given room 1008. I didn’t argue either way. It was well after midnight when I rolled my faithful suitcase into its latest hotel room. As I always do, the first thing I did was to pull back the curtains and check out the view.
We were in Cathedral Square – and there directly below I saw the headless body of the Cathedral. The nave looked relatively intact, but where the tower and spire should have been was just a pile of bricks. plus an ugly lattice of rusty iron supports keeping the remaining sad structure from collapsing out. I was looking down on a decapitated dinosaur – the grey scales of the roof covering its body, but with the neck and head completely missing.
It was like a building on a life-support system. A few hundred meters across the city, they have built a transitional church, like a massive ridge tent. They call it the cardboard cathedral. This is where people worship in the indeterminate limbo. The debate in the town is what to do with the original cathedral. The church want to switch off the life-support and put it out of its misery. Others want to attempt a rebuild of the original. Nobody can agree, and it has become quite acrimonious. Meanwhile, the structure remains broken and paralysed – and a constant reminder of the tragedy. I closed the curtains and hoped for a sound and secure sleep.
Understandably the cathedral has become a symbol of the earthquake and a site of pilgrimage and tourism. The next day as I walked around, I joined the gatherings of people taking photos – with that uncomfortable mix of fascination and guilt which wrestle in our conscience when we observe human tragedy. As I stood at the head of the cathedral carcass, taking photographs into the exposed cavity of its chest – I wondered how many had been killed by the falling tower. How would they feel about the crowds collecting cheap souvenir images on their iPhones?
Christchurch cathedral had been the very foundation and centre of the city – literally and figuratively. It was a beacon standing proudly above the city, visible from miles away. Without a spire, it is as if the cathedral has lost its potency and the city has lost its heart.
Whilst we could understand the difficulty of making a decision about Christchurch’s most iconic building – we could not understand why so many other condemned buildings had been standing. Some were pretty ugly concrete hotels. Why not remove them? And yet, at every turn there we found desolate buildings surrounded by temporary fencing with foreboding KEEP OUT or DANGER signs. Some have no sides or no roof. Others looked intact but are merely cadavers – completely dead inside.
Why had they not been removed? Are they not potentially dangerous? How likely are they to collapse with another earth tremor? We were tempted to cross the road when we walked past them, just in case. Surely the city needs to rebuild and redevelop in order to resurrect itself to something close to what it was? To rise from its own ashes? Its been over five years.
But more than all of this – surely the people of Christchurch want to remove these daily reminders of that nightmare day of death and destruction? And yet the memorials loom above them on every corner, the skyline dominated by condemned towers.
We asked a resident these questions and we realised our naivety. They had not been idle. They had spent five years clearing all of the rubble and removing hundreds of other unsafe buildings – the ones we could no longer see. We can only see the ones which were left. The City Mall, for example, has been removed and been replaced by ReSTART, a collection of shops trading out of steel shipping containers.
Christchurch is a city which understandably struggles to move on and rebuild. Earthquakes are, and always have been, a way of life here. The city was founded on a massive fault line. There are over a thousand earthquakes every year of different magnitudes. Angela’s “earthquake app” recorded several of them, even in the two days when we were there.
How do you find the strength – never mind the cash – to rebuild when the prospect of another major destruction is always ever minutes away? Residents move away, tourists tour elsewhere. But over 375,000 people still live here. But rather than worrying about empty hotel towers, many of these will be more concerned about rebuilding their lives after the death of a partner, parent, child or friend. Grief lasts for much longer than five years, and loss lasts forever.
For the first five years, the city gathered each year to remember the earthquake and to remember the dead. 2016 was the last time they chose to do this. Whilst there are reminders everywhere – we found no physical memorial for those who died. The only physical memorial – the Bridge of Remembrance – is a war memorial which rather miraculously survived the earthquake.
Maybe memorials are for history – so that we who have no memory can be reminded of past tragedies, acts of heroism and wars “lest we forget”.
Walking around Christchurch, there is no need for memorials. The earthquake is everywhere – in the landscapes, in the personal and corporate hearts and minds of all who live here. Some things cannot and will not ever be forgotten.