City in a box

"The building aims to create a gateway to the square"

It was meant to be the ‘City in a Park’.

But, according to a Press editorial, a lot of people in Christchurch have taken a look at the future and they don’t like what they see:

The artists’ impressions of buildings planned for Christchurch, published in last weekend’s Press, have produced an overwhelmingly negative response.

Almost nobody writing to the editor likes them. Brutal, unimaginative, banal are words commonly used, and many think the prospect of a beautiful new Christchurch has been shattered.

What they’ve been looking at is this. The site was apparently set up to excite and reassure people that. as the editorial puts it, “we could construct a gleaming future from out of the grey rubble“.

But what most people are seeing in these images is less a ‘City in a Park’ and more a ‘City in a Box’.

And they’re right – but not just in the obvious design sense.

Peter Townsend, Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce chief executive got the message last year at the ‘Share an Idea’ expo in Christchurch:

Officials who were in charge of the earthquake recovery needed to make “radical” decisions as the city rebuilt, Towsend said.

If we just go back to doing what we did before, if we just build tilt-slab carparks, we will be cursed by future generations.

And he also got what might have to be done to make sure that ‘business as usual’ approach didn’t happen;

Another possible scenario, one that Townsend said he would prefer to see, is property owners relinquishing control over land in exchange for a pooled ownership arrangement where they could effectively be shareholders in reconstructed subdivisions.

He said a block-by-block redevelopment (similar to what was employed in Kobe, Japan after a 1995 earthquake) would potentially be more attractive to locals and businesses that wanted to remain viable in the area.

“I think there’s an opportunity there for Christchurch. I think we could do that block by block or maybe the whole of the Red Zone which has been effectively destroyed. We need to look at this from a different perspective.”

“It may be better for property owners to take a share in some sort of entity that will take the city forward rather than to have a 1/4 acre of land with a tilt-slab on it that doesn’t fit into an overall plan that has little value.

The “People’s Plan” – the Central City Plan submitted to Minister Brownlee by the Christchurch City Council after community consultation – quite explicitly held out this promise of a “gleaming future from out of the grey rubble“:

Buildings will be well-designed, creating an attractive, safe and functional environment, with an emphasis on lower rise, resilient and sustainable development.


Buildings will be designed to interact with the surrounding street and neighbourhoods, helping to make the Central City a safe, accessible and welcoming place day and night.

So why are people reacting to the designs so negatively?

There’s a few reasons.

One is that, at first blush at least, the overwhelming majority of the buildings appear to be variations on the tilt-slab, concrete and glass boxes that filled many Christchurch residents’ nightmares when they considered the outcome of any rebuild.

Even with omnipresent long, vertical flutings, “[d]ecorative glass screens“, a complete covering in “stainless steel metal mesh” to provide “solar shading” (along with a seemingly ejectable “yellow box [that] will be a boardroom“) and a keenness “to replicate the laneways found in Melbourne” many people see a design desert of boxy blandness.

That’s not entirely the case, of course. At least one building is “designed to new engineering codes and four-star Greenstar principles“.

Two of the buildings – here’s one – will be “built of Expan, a post-tensioned laminated veneer lumber (LVL) building system that makes lightweight, seismically safe multi-storey timber buildings commercially viable“.

The problem is that – despite their environmental credentials – they still look like featureless, ‘bland’ boxes. Why?

There’s a second, more fundamental, reason underlying people’s reactions.

In several ways, this was not a good time to have an earthquake. The time of day for the February quake was bad enough timing (the middle of a workday). But it was also not a good time in history for this to happen.

As the editorial states:

What we are getting are buildings designed in the style prevailing today in this country – a bit Modernist, Brutalist, not much particular to New Zealand.

But what is ‘pushing’ that design? Mere ‘fashion’?

No. The “style prevailing today in this country” is one primarily based on the cheapest methods of construction. Architects, presumably, are left to work with modern materials and methods that have been filtered and selected by, ultimately, the ‘bottom line’.

Boxes are cheap. They always have been.

In past years, though, those blank sidewalls and backs of boxy buildings would have been built out of individual bricks and weatherboards not seamless concrete. The materials provided – no doubt accidentally – the kind of detail and texture missing in today’s boxes.

And the ‘decorative’ facades, in the past, were not just ‘stuck on’ large, mass-produced flutings or glass sheets. The brick window ledges had to be put in, brick by brick which allowed, at little extra cost, variation and detail since even boringly arranged bricks had to be put in one at a time.

Associated with the cost-driven designs of today is another feature of modern New Zealand society. The ideology of the market is ascendant in commercial and political circles. In particular, the right of individual property owners to do what they so choose with their property is increasingly the default position.

That means that each building or land owner is more or less free to go their own way in making rebuild decisions (insurance issues notwhithstanding).

Once again, the Press editorial makes this clear:

 dispute about the quality of Christchurch’s new buildings is inevitable because architects can produce to the order of their client but not to meet the tastes of all people.

Architects work for individual property owners – not for the community as a whole. Most clients – especially given the insurance expenses and uncertainties – will be looking for cheapness in design (I suppose I should use the euphemism ‘cost effectiveness’).

The Central City Plan was assumed by many to have at least imposed some kind of ‘vision’, guidance and rules to achieve the ‘vision’:

The shared vision was of a green Christchurch central business district built to a human scale and expanding on its old virtues of parks, open spaces and charm, with walking not driving as the means of getting around.

But, while “[t]he people’s vision has not entirely faded”,

it has been eroded as the practical realities of the rebuild came into play. Exemptions for some high-rises were made, more parking provided, light-rail postponed and the city-to-the-sea park put in doubt.

Now the already modified plan is in the hands of the Christchurch Central Development Unit, whose powers to make more modifications are unclear [sic].

One of the “practical realities of the rebuild” is, simply, that property owners are being left to their own devices so far as building design is concerned (as already posted, the design rules are in Volume 2 of the Central City Plan – the volume that Minister Brownlee has put to one side while the 100-day blueprint is produced by the new CCDU.).

And, despite Peter Townsend’s suggestions (quoted above), so far there has been very little coalescence of property titles or cooperative approaches taken to rebuilding.

Interestingly, two rebuild options have involved a more coordinated effort. The first is the container-based ‘pop-up’ Re-Start mall in Cashel Street. The other is the restoration of the New Regent Street development.

The Cashel Street Re-Start mall was a single development and so provided a coordinated ‘mini-precinct’.

I’ve been there and can understand why it is popular with people. Despite being made of modular boxes (containers), the arrangement provides ‘alleys’ and nooks and crannies to explore, the colours are bright and it has an overall coherence and interconnectedness.

It shows that the issue is not about ‘heritage’ styles and modern designs. Modern design is perfectly capable of incorporating the sorts of features that restore and regenerate people and, so, encourage them to linger.

My one criticism is the relentlessly ‘high end’ retailers (mostly fashion boutiques) in the stores. The choice to do this was presumably to maximise rental returns for the land area.

Importantly, the development was a unitary one – it wasn’t composed of many ‘individual’ developments. In fact, the main problem with this example of unitary, ‘planned’ development is that it is also planned to bulldoze it – in favour of this development.

It was a ‘stop-gap’ until a building that, presumably, would be more ‘commercially viable’ was built. (The design of the Re-Start mall’s replacement shows that enticing people into the city and providing them with human scale experiences will not be the primary aim in future – a pity.).

The New Regent Street example is even more revealing: “About 30 landowners on the street have united to restore the street.” Because there was already a coherence to the street it was actually sensible for the owners to cooperate in the restoration.

They knew, presumably, that the ‘whole was greater than the sum of the parts’ and that their distinctive style set them apart as a location and ‘destination’ in the city. Having half of them rebuild with tilt-slabs and the others trying to restore the original facades would have killed the Golden Goose.

The paradox in all of this is fascinating. The two examples of the outcome of a coordinated and coherent approach to development couldn’t be more different in terms of building designs – modern, modular, container-based development; heritage-based development.

That is, the coherence (some would say ‘homogeneity’) at the ‘mini-precinct’ level has produced a remarkable diversity at the Central City level.

Contrast that with the remaining developments that are largely based on the decisions of individual owners – what results is a remarkable homogeneity across the city. All the individual decisions result in a stunning conformity of style. Once again, the reason is obvious: All the decisions are being made on ‘the (bare) financials’.

As the commentary even on the Victoria Street building that will use the innovative, wood-based ‘Expan’ technology emphasised:

Expan buildings can be constructed quickly, at an equivalent cost to steel or concrete

“Commercial property owners – and insurers – are now demanding buildings that are not only safe in a major event, but can be rapidly reoccupied afterwards and therefore minimise business interruption.”

Left to individual property owners, Christchurch will be rebuilt almost entirely in the same, uniform style – “a bit Modernist, Brutalist, not much particular to New Zealand.

This is where the Press editorial gets it wrong. It states that,

The positive side is that Christchurch downtown will be vibrant by way of the diversity of its buildings, every corner offering something new. Like it or loathe it, the experience will be stimulating.

I suppose “diversity” is relative. After all, even the ‘boxes made of ticky tacky‘ came in different colours.

The design of the rebuild of Christchurch’s Central City is being boxed in by the powerful inevitability of cost calculations combining with modern building methods and materials.

That’s why we’ll have an entire ‘City in a Box’.

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5 Responses to City in a box

  1. And so now I am filled with despair, because I know you are almost certain to be correct.
    It’s like the people of Christchurch know what they want, and some of the developers and business-owners (being a subset of the aforementioned people) also know what they want, and the two are of a similar mindset.
    But the government in Wellington want to impose a lowest common denominator solution, and as they are providing a lot of the funding, what they say goes. Or stays.
    I’m left only with expletives.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Armchair Critic,

      One – paradoxical (or is that ‘ironic’?) – endpoint of the approach being taken is that it may well be that developments in the older suburbs (such as this one in Woolston) may come to be the places that generate the ‘character’ of a new city and draw the loyalties of those who had previously at least resisted the allure of suburban shopping malls.

      That would leave the central city in pretty much the same doldrums it was heading towards prior to the earthquakes – an opportunity would have been not just missed but deliberately side-stepped.

      I agree that the main hope probably rests with that sub-set of the business-owners who ‘get it’.

  2. Does a City in a Lake take your fancy?

  3. Amanda says:

    I saw some of these designs and thought yes OK if it had something old as a juxtaposition – all well and good.
    Then I thought ‘How come older buildings, though damaged, have predominately stood firm in the shaking, whilst more modern buildings seem to have sustained damage?’
    I speculate; the burghers of old Christchurch town, looked to the architect, De Mountfort, design me something magnificent, the architect looked to the builder and said build me something that will last…
    More modern property developers looked to the architect and said, “How Much!” And the architect looked at the builder and said, “Hey the Building Guidelines from the Department of Housing and Building states that the minimum lifespan for the structural components of the building needs only to survive for 50 years. Can you do that? ”
    The lowest common denominator – a building minister who is neither architect nor builder.

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