Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Are You Being Served? An Architectural History.

You don’t have to drive far in the older suburbs of Christchurch to see some of the tiny old shops that spot the residential streets with an almost forgotten history. I’m intrigued by them. There’s something infinitely appealing about their doll’s house-like construction, their closed-up windows and their sense of gathered time.
Often solidly built in brick or concrete with fancy tiled faces, they make an enduring architectural statement that belies the temporary nature of the businesses that have inhabited them. Others are seemingly insubstantial – little more than tiny timber boxes, often attached, or adjacent to the original owner’s home.
In the eastern suburbs particularly, I often come upon a single store surrounded by houses and I’m given to wondering how they might have started life – as a tailor’s store? A tiny food store? A bicycle shop? A butcher? A boot-maker? There are few clues. Most of them are tight-lipped with their histories.
And then there are the corner stores – many of them an extension to a corner house with verandahs overhanging the retail wing. I suppose many of them started life as the ubiquitous New Zealand corner dairy. A lot still function in that role. Others have closed their tills and shuttered their windows. More still have been re-colonised, frequently by suburban hairdressers looking for cheap rentals, by second-hand clothing stores, real estate offices and sometimes a new café. It’s a shame I think, that those still functioning don’t have records of ‘the life of the store,’ a photographic parade of its various lives even, that customers can look at and wonder about. I suppose, like a lot of our social history, much of that has been lost – thrown out, discarded as being inconsequential.
Maybe I’m just getting sentimental and nostalgic in my old age; but how long will it be before progress and/or disinterest see yet another slice of our everyday history wiped away and completely forgotten. It’s true that life goes on, that things progress, that things change and that we often want to trade the old for the new but I’m a great believer in the notion that history is not always about the big events, the big statements, the big buildings – it is about the everyday weaving of lives, the tinkering and breathing of everyday communities. In the words of John Jay Chapman, from ‘Memories and Milestones’- “One of the deepest impulses in man is the impulse to record – to scratch a drawing on a tusk or keep a diary, to collect sagas and heap cairns. This instinct as to the enduring value of the past is, one might say, the very basis of civilisation.’

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