I looked around me, a twinge of guilt in my gut, before lifting my camera, snapping a shot and stuffing the offending lens back into my bag as quickly as I could, fumbling with the zipper and painfully aware of my surroundings.
I was in downtown Christchurch, New Zealand—a city ravaged by two devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, and still in recovery mode now three years later. And I couldn’t decide whether to document the sites before me, or to take it in only in my mind. I’ve never been comfortable with disaster porn. Rubbernecking nauseates me. And why did I even want physical memories of the scene, anyway?
I don’t know what I expected to find when I headed to the South Island’s biggest city. Maybe a few remnants of the damage, a couple of reminders of the 7.1 and subsequent 6.3-magnitude earthquakes, including the “cardboard cathedral” I had heard so much about. I didn’t expect to find barren streets blocked off from pedestrians, and condemned buildings in the process of being torn down. Parts of the city still look like a war zone, and it’s impossible to walk the streets without the eeriness of it all seeping into your bones.
I wasn’t in Christchurch long enough to claim to understand the full extent of the devastation, or to explore all of the city’s much-lauded revival. A few days ago The New York Times published a great piece about Christchurch’s “creative rebirth,” profiling the many community groups that are trying to turn the rubble into art. My own blog post has actually been sitting in the drafts folder for months (I was in Christchurch in October). I didn’t know how to write about it without either sensationalizing the damage or failing to give justice to the survivors—and to those who were lost. But the NYT article encouraged me to pull out the unsettling photos I took, and to try again to find the right words.
Wandering Christchurch’s downtown felt surreal. Having never been to the city before the quakes, I had nothing to compare it to, and so I admit I can’t say how it must feel to the city’s residents to see their own walls crumbled. But even so, I saw the emptiness. And what’s worse, I felt it.
There was a heaviness in the air, despite the sunny sky. And maybe it was all in my head, me just looking for something to feel or to understand. People talk about “feeling death” in places where tragedy occurred. I don’t know if it was death I sensed. The air felt silent. I was silent. And I can’t deny that even now, five months later, looking at the photos makes me feel just as uncomfortable as when I snapped them.
And yet, despite the damage, despite the emptiness, there are also spots of incredible beauty and admirable resiliency, like the now-famous cardboard cathedral that was built as a temporary replacement for the destroyed 19th-century ChristChurch Cathedral. Designed by award-winning humanitarian architect Shigeru Ban, the building is “the world’s only cathedral made substantially of cardboard.” It was built to be a transitional space for the church’s congregation; however, with the cathedral’s crane-your-neck ceiling of cardboard tubes, a rainbow of stained glass, and pure, simplistic grace, it seems debatable whether it really will be temporary.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Cashel Street, the Re:START Mall is an innovative strip of shipping containers converted into shops and cafés. The site was formerly the pedestrian-friendly City Mall, which had battled damage in the September 2010 earthquake and aftershocks, and then faced further destruction and five deaths in the February 2011 earthquake. The mall continues to be in flux, with new development planned and the containers on the move as City Mall rebuilds (this is an ongoing theme in the Christchurch revival, with pop-up art—everything from gardens to dance pads—filling spaces until reconstruction begins). But in the meantime, it’s a colourful, beautiful reminder of what can be created even when you think there’s nothing left.
Earlier this year, The New York Times released its annual pick for must-visit destinations. The ever-growing list has ballooned to 52 picks this year, with Christchurch among them, selected for its “rebirth with creativity and wit.” It’s a remarkable comeback story, and the groups who are making it happen—by turning barren spaces into temporary art installations—are equal parts creative and inspirational. So much so that it’s easy to get caught up in the revival of Christchurch, to soak up the energy and think that the worst is over. In some ways, it is, although New Zealand’s precarious position on the infamous Ring of Fire means earthquakes will always be a part of life on the islands. But more immediately, and more heartbreakingly, is the realization that for those who call Christchurch home, the memory remains.
Near the Cardboard Cathedral, 185 empty white chairs fill a patch of grass. The memorial, created by artist Pete Majendie, was put together on the first anniversary of the February quake. It honours those who died in the destruction, each chair as different as the individual people they’re meant to represent. I snapped the above photo, finding comfort in my own discomfort behind a lens. And then I cried as I stood in front of the display. Cried for people whom I had never met, but whose memories haunt a city that’s still saying goodbye.
I travelled to New Zealand courtesy of G Adventures, on a prize I won through the company’s Facebook page; however, all views expressed are entirely my own.