So, goodbye Christchurch. The pretty little pseudo-English city in the southland is gone, never to return. Last week’s 6.3 quake is officially classed as an aftershock to last year’s quake — but this one hit the very centre of town.

Judging by the photos, it has torn the very heart out of it, taking down whole terraces and leaving the entire city centre in need of full demolition. The New Zealand Prime Minister John Key called it “New Zealand’s darkest day”, which, with the death toll heading towards 300, is undoubtedly true — although NZ has been here before. In 1931, the North Island city of Napier was destroyed in a quake of similar destructiveness.

And therein lies an interesting possibility for Christchurch. For Napier is now quite simply one of the most beautiful and extraordinary cities in the world. Why? Because a group of architects persuaded the city government to rebuild the centre of town collectively, in a single style, art deco. The result is a city of great variety, but within a defined style, as close to perfect as any small city could achieve — and a tourist attraction to boot.

Napier’s reconstruction thus was achieved in the face of heavy opposition against “bohemians” and “longhairs” — but it also attracted a lot of support from people who were inspired to more imaginative leaps than they otherwise would have made, realising that the tragedy of destruction was also a great opportunity to make something special.

We could have done the same thing in Victoria after Black Saturday, and designed the new cores of destroyed towns in distinctive styles, but given the destroyed, exhausted, mediocre Brumby government, it wasn’t worth suggesting.

Will Christchurch take up the challenge as Napier did? Quite probably not. Real estate was a commodity in the 1930s, but it wasn’t quite the infinitely retradeable store of value and “development” that it has subsequently become. The idea that one could get a bunch of property shysters to work together for a common purpose — and one that would also place some limits on rebuilding — is probably a pipe-dream.

Perhaps there are other ways — the government could, for example, commission a dozen architects — Gehry, Hadad, Ashton Raggatt, Corrigan, Murcutt, Richard Rogers, SANAA, and half a dozen Kiwis* off the top of me head — to do an anchor building each, and subsidise private engagement of the cheaper ones, i.e. the Kiwis, to do some commercial infill. Impose a uniform height limit on commercial space between the anchor buildings, and people could build whatever they like without wrecking the joint.

Quite aside from creating an inspiring and original city, the annual tourist intake would be doubled from architecture students alone. Maybe something like that will happen. Maybe it won’t. Many will say that given the loss of life, now is not the time to even think about such things. Quite the contrary. It is only through a renewed sense of possibility that tragedy acquires meaning. Otherwise it’s just loss and infill.

* I gotta say, judging from, most seem to do little more ambitious than bathroom extensions. Denton Corker Marshall should be invited to redo New Zealand’s Antarctic base, and be left there.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey