On Tuesday February 22nd 2011 I left Christchurch airport on the 1100 flight to Auckland. Less than two hours later the most destructive of a succession of earthquakes hit the city [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMAT7jaEYEg and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BynOX9fj07o].
I was tremendously lucky. Apart from avoiding the danger, the trauma and the disruption, I had the good fortune to experience Christchurch, which had already endured two major tremors almost without casualties, immediately before it was wrecked.
New Zealanders kept reminding me that Christchurch is their most English city, and asking if I agreed. Up to a point, I said: its nineteenth-century architecture grew directly from Victorian architecture in England. The gridiron street-pattern, however, reminded me inevitably of America – and of Adelaide.
In the days before February 22nd, local people told me how lucky they’d been that the previous, more powerful earthquake, on September 4th 2010 at 4.35 am, had caused so few casualties, but that they were unsettled by the succession of aftershocks and the continuing disruption caused by damage to buildings.
The February 22nd disaster was altogether more destructive of life and property. New Zealand has a population of a little under 4½ million, a quarter of whom live in the South Island, where Christchurch is the biggest city (pre-earthquake population just over 390,000). Consequently, every New Zealander was affected by the tragedy, either directly, through acquaintances or by association with the city.
Most of the 181 fatalities on February 22nd occurred in buildings designed in the 1960s and 1970s, but many of the city’s heritage buildings will not survive. Traditionally-built masonry structures with load-bearing walls react badly to being violently shaken.
Astonishingly, no-one was taking a tower tour at the moment when the Christchurch Cathedral tower collapsed. The spire had been damaged in three previous earthquakes, 1881, 1888 and 1901, after which the tip was replaced by a hardwood structure covered in copper. This time the entire spire and the belfry came down.
Further damage in subsequent aftershocks, including the collapse of the west rose window, has led to speculation that the entire cathedral will have to be demolished and reconstructed, possibly on another safer site. If so, it is unlikely to be a slavish reproduction of George Gilbert Scott’s 1864 design: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6S4EZPCIfg,
According to a recent press report, http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/christchurch-earthquake-2011/5150179/Cathedral-future-now-uncertain, the decision hinges on the wider question of whether the entire city-centre needs to be shifted.
It’s almost impossible to imagine, in general or in detail, what the inhabitants of Christchurch have to put up with as the slow process of recovery gathers momentum. The journalist Pam Vickers has contributed a series of dispatches to the BBC News website: see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13141491, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12805131, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12664290 and
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13452122. BBC news provided a nine-month update at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-15786697.
Christchurch will never be the same. A huge debate about its future is under way among the citizens of Christchurch and with the national government: well-wishers from outside can only hope that the resurgent city gains new beauty to replace what is lost.
Update: Despite some popular outcry, it seems inevitable that the ruins of Scott’s Cathedral must be demolished. Its planned temporary substitute, on a nearby site, is innovative: http://www.ecumenicalnews.com/article/new-zealand-cardboard-cathedral-approved-1334.
Further update: The new cardboard Christchurch Cathedral opened in August 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23698795.
Another update: Eventually, the decision was taken to rebuild Christchurch Cathedral as it was before the earthquake. This drone footage shows the start of its restoration: New Zealand: Fixing the ruined Christchurch Cathedral that’s frozen in time – BBC News.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Antipodean Gothic: English architecture “down under”, please click here.