Saturday, October 29, 2011

Postcards From Memory - Christchurch As it Used to Be

Every one is talking about the opening of Re-Start in Christchurch's Cashel Mall today. I haven't been in. Crowds were expected and as silly as it still seems, I didn't fancy being stuck in Cashell Mall with thousands of others. Not there's much to fear there in an earthquake now, because so many of the mall's buildings have been demolished. So instead of checking out 27 shops in containers that I never visited when they were in conventional 'shops,' here I am, wistfully perusing my photo files, remembering central Christchurch the way it used to be, before it was shattered by earthquakes. I suspect there'll be quite a few people doing that today, as they stand looking at a series of coloured shipping containers that have been erected in record time to - theoretically at least - give us heart, to encourage us to think things are improving here in Christchurch.  I'm sure I'll like the shipping container shops once I actually see them.....from behind my camera.... but it will take more than 27 shops to make me feel like solid progress is being made.
In the meantime, here's a few shots from inner city Christchurch the way it used to be, before September 4, 2010. Most of the buildings shown here, have since been demolished, or unrecognisably damaged and may yet come up against the wreckers' ball.
It's as sunny today as it was then and my head is filled with memories of busy streets with pedestrians pushing their way across intersections and cars tooting. I think of the hassles of trying to find a car park on the city streets - now I just wish I had the chance to try. I remember Japanese brides being photographed in the square and tourists posing proudly in front of the cathedral for that image to send home to a faraway mantlepiece. I think of Neil Dawson's Chalice sending a tapestry of shadows across the Square and the crazy Wizard standing on his ladder berating all before him. I have images of city workers sprawled out in the sun on the banks of the Avon during their lunch break and full tables at restaurants and bars along The Strip. I remember the secondhand bookshops I loved to squander time in - sometimes seeking a treasure for a particular collection, other times just nosing my way through battered and bruised books harbouring few clues to their earlier lives.
These are all passing shards from another time now.
Moving on is inevitable and necessary - but I'm not ready to do it today.
Not for 27 painted shipping containers at least.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Niramaya - The Ultimate Tropical Retreat

When I flew from Melbourne to Cairns back on September 10, and then drove on up to Port Douglas, I was almost crippled with the pain of an injured back and dosed to the eyeballs with painkillers. But looking down on the vibrant blue of the tropical ocean and the coconut palms arching over pristine white beaches, I felt confident things were improving – and by the time my cousin drove me through the gates of Niramaya Villas & Spa, I knew I deserved the luxury haven that was unfolding before me.
Niramaya is a Sanskrit word I believe. I was told what it means but I’ve lost my important notebook, filled with just this sort of travel detail. I vaguely remember something like ‘peace’ and ‘calm’ - but as far as I was concerned at the time, when I opened the front gate to my villa, it meant ‘God, I’m glad to be here!’ I never wavered from that first impression throughout my five days at this divine retreat.


Set on 15 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, Niramaya’s Asian-inspired architecture (think Balinese-style pavilions), sets you up for a tropical indulgence you’ll remember long after the event. Designed by Grounds Kent Architects ( http://www.gkaperth.com/ ) and opened back in 2006 as Bale Port Douglas, Niramaya is just a short stroll from Four Mile Beach. In my opinion, it reigns supreme as the classiest resort environment in Port Douglas – and believe me there are plenty to choose from. I visited several others while I was in Port Douglas and while each had their charm, none came close to the level of personal comfort provided by Niramaya.

Every villa – and there are four different styles – is like a home away from home, only better. They all have covered pavilions, outdoor barbecue and lounge areas and, best of all, your very own plunge pool. This in addition to the main swimming complex located at the centre of the resort. Doors slide open to beautiful views over water-lily-filled lakes; lush tropical plants and colourful exotic flowers droop lusciously over pergolas; and plush day beds lie in wait after a day exploring nearby Port Douglas village.
It’s hard not to sound like a clichĂ© – or a travel brochure – when you write about a place like Niramaya but the truth is, it really *is* as good as the pictures – better even; because when you’re there, you meet fellow travellers and a staff determined to make your stay as blissful as possible. It’s close to the heart of busy Port Douglas village yet just far enough away, and surrounded by tropical forest, so that it remains a peaceful retreat. I know I was sorry to have to leave. It didn’t fix my back incidentally, but it sure as heck made the pain easier to deal with. I’d go back in a flash. www.niramaya.com.au            

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Re-Colouring a Broken City

I have taken hundreds of photographs of earthquake ruins in the thirteen months since the mag 7.1 quake on September 4, 2010 and as I was sorting through them today, I thought how endlessly dreary most of them were. I sat here wondering how long it would be before the city was, once again, a bright, busy, colourful place that I could happily roam , safe in the knowledge that if I ventured in there, it wasn't all going to collapse around - or on - me. I decided I couldn't wait however long that might take, and seldom needing any encouragement, I launched into Photoshop.
For me, there's just about as much guesswork involved in Photoshop as there is in predicting when Christchurch will seem 'colourful' again, so I sincerely hope no one asks me how I achieved these effects. I've forgotten already. But I like the results.
I was aiming for 'a change of mood' and I think an element of surreal has been introduced - which is appropriate given that that's exactly how the inner city seems when you walk around the cordon.
I quite like a green brick library.
And I definitely fancy bright green containers.
And I'm wishfully fantasising about a rainbow coloured ruin
Under a moody fluorescent rainbow.
It doesn't seem like a lot to wish for from where I'm sitting.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Christchurch - Then & Now

THEN: When the Warren & Mahoney-designed apartment building, The Establishment opened on Christchurch's Victoria Street a few years back (I believe it was about six years ago), it was quite the place and it's spacious, elegant apartments were sought after. And who wouldn't have wanted to live in Victoria Street then? It was close to the inner city and filled with cafes, bars, restaurants and boutique shopping, and just a short walk from Hagley Park.
NOW: This is what it had become last Friday. By now, it will be even more diminished.
Of all the churches I had photographed in Christchurch BEFORE the September 2010 7.1 earthquake, St Luke's in the City sadly wasn't one of them. They lost a lot of stonework in that event but they valiantly kept their signs out, welcoming in the desperate and disenfranchised.
Its a different story NOW!
This is the last lonely reminder of the once hefty stone building.
NOW reduced to a pile of concrete rubble, a lonely spire and a single roof gable cast adrift on a dirty demolition site.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Returning to Shaky Ground - Back Home in Christchurch

In August, I flew away to Australia for two months to escape Christchurch. After a year of endless earthquakes and after shocks, a year of filth, grime and uncertainty, I had finally had enough. While I was away, I quickly adapted to steady, unshaking ground and I quickly forgot about locating my torch and my car keys in a sensible place, ready for a fast escape. I quickly outgrew the automatic urge to check doorways and nearby highrise so that I might make a clear run for safety.
So immune have I become to earthquakes, that when the largest earthquake since June occurred - the 5.5 last Sunday - less than 24 hours after my arrival back in Christchurch, I hardly blinked an eye. I just sat on my sofa and thought, 'oh, it's an earthquake.' I wouldn't have thought about them again either, except everyone keeps asking me, 'What's it like to be back in Christchurch again?'
I decided to find out yesterday.It was a brilliant sunny day so I took my camera and wandered around the perimeter of the inner city cordon. These are some of the things that struck me.
As soon as I got out of my car on Cambridge Terraces I noticed how dishevelled and overgrown parts of our 'Garden City' have become (see above). Forget pristine borders and perfectly manicured lawns - the grassy banks of the Avon have been reclaimed by the ducks.
I was struck by the pace of demolition and by the number of gaping wounds in the cityscape. In just 8 weeks away, so many more buildings have been razed to the ground - and in the case of the elegant, old Christchurch Library Building across the road from the Police Station, history is being nibbled away by the slow but steady chomping of diggers and cranes.
I noted with particular sadness, the demise of the Cashel Street apartment block (rear building in above photo), designed by Christchurch architect Thom Craig. Its penthouse has been lopped off the top and the rest of the building is on the way down too. I used to fantasise about living in that penthouse. It seem so perfectly placed, close to the heart of the city and high enough to be quiet and 'removed' from the social bedlam of weekends.
I noted again, that despite the disastrous mangling of our city over the course of a year, there have been so many high points and moments of (sometimes black) humour that it's hard to be disheartened for long. I have found so many light-hearted, inspiring and funny scenes, signs and occurances that I refuse to believe the people of Christchurch aren't damn good sorts ready to laugh in the face of adversity. That's not to belittle, or make light of those who have suffered - and continue to suffer - severely of course. I am however, completely over this 'Kia Kaha Christchurch' business and I don't think Cantabrians are any more steadfast and resilient than anyone else facing disaster anywhere in the world - it's human instinct to rise up in adversity. But when I see and hear jokes playing out in real life - like the two guys taking a break from their demolition site to rest in the sun on the edge of the Red Zone yesterday, good-naturedly bantering with passersby about it being 'a hard day' - I am glad I returned.
When I saw the teetering form of the Grand Chancellor Hotel glimpsed through The Bridge of Remembrance, I was overwhelmed by the irony of the situation. Almost the entire lower section of Cashel Mall just beyond the bridge, has been demolished. It's all gone and as I stood there, I *couldn't* remember what had even been there eight weeks earlier. And soon - well, in a few months' time - the Grand Chancellor will also be gone. It's that relentless erasing of my memories that strikes me the most about Christchurch in the aftermath of the September 2010 7.1 earthquake. Ever since then, whole parts of my own (20-year) memory of Christchurch have slipped away. We get on with our daily business here because we have to and it's easy to lose touch with 'that other reality.' It's not until you wander around the inner city cordons, or drive through the worst-hit suburbs, that you realise it's not just a city being demolished, its the fabric of your own history.
And now the rebuild has begun. Well.....the new temporary Bus Exchange in Tuam Street is underway at least. It was a hive of activity yesterday as orange-jacketed workers sealed new stretches of a wide, barren expanse. As for other obvious steps towards the much-touted City Rebuild Plan, it's hard to see any evidence of action, which is understandable I guess, when you consider the number of inner city buildings - whole stretches of them - that still await demolition. I know these things take time, but coming home after eight weeks away, it seems to me that politics, bureaucracy and nit-picking among the powers-that-be have swamped the good intentions of the Plan. I hope someone is going to prove me wrong.
I did feel less-than-positive yesterday though, when I took in this vast 'scrubbed-clean' section of Colombo Street. It's now hard to believe that this was once the busy 'main street' of Christchurch central, filled with shops and restaurants. And as I stood there, peering through a high fence, I wondered how long it would be before we could say that about Colombo Street again.
And how long it would be before we could call this slum-like area of High Street, trendy and boutique again.
I wondered what it will take to bring 'life and excitement' back to these now-barren and all-too-plentiful empty lots scattered throughout the inner city - and how long will we have to wait? And how many people will leave the city for good before any of this ever gets off the ground?
By the time I got this far around my city wander, my enthusiasm and generally positive attitude had taken a bit of a beating and the cynic in me took a pernicious delight in the irony of this tourism billboard. The board in itself (promoting the very successful Scenic Hotel chain) is perfectly fine but juxtaposed as it is, against a huge, blank, windswept stretch of city land, advertising 'For Kiwis who deserve a weekend away,' it takes on a whole other meaning. I doubt there are many Kiwis at all, who, if they are honest, really want to come and spend a leisurely weekend in Christchurch as it currently stands. That they are often misinformed and that there plenty of tourism beds and things to do in and around the city, doesn't seem to carry as much weight as it should.
Personally, I think one of the most under-rated tourism activities in Christchurch at the moment is Earthquake Tourism. Rather than trying to pretend the earthquakes haven't happened, that they haven't impacted severely on tourism activities within the city, we should be embracing the ruins and encouraging people to wander the streets with their cameras. There are astonishing photographs everywhere; there are humbling and moving sights everywhere; and there's a weird fascination in watching demolitions taking place. You only need to wander around the cordon perimeters to encounter hundreds of others doing exactly the same thing. I've chatted with people from all over the world on what I now fondly call 'my earthquake rounds' and they all want to know more.
There is sadness associated with the demolition - that whole memory thing I mentioned earlier, not to mention the keen loss felt by owners and tenants of buildings. As I stood with many others yesterday, watching and photographing the demolition of the 'virtually new,' upmarket apartment block, The Establishment on Victoria Street, I couldn't help wondering about the people who had invested in apartments there and what they might be doing now. At the same time though, I marvelled at the images unfolding before me and as the giant snapping jaws of the demolition machines (below) tore at the fabric of this recently-stylish building, I couldn't help a small tide of excitement rising as I imagined what might occupy this valuable patch of land in the coming years.
In the meantime though, if anyone asks me what it's like to be in Christchurch right now, I'll be pointing them to the above two photographs - the snapping 'teeth' of destruction. Because that seems to be about where things stand (and fall) in Christchurch right now.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Painted Portals - The Doors of Melbourne's Brunswick Street

Over at http://www.melbourne.com.au/ they describe Fitzroy’s
Brunswick Street
area as “the cafĂ© food precinct bordering the CBD that encapsulates the soul of Melbourne.” It’s tolerant and accommodating they add and is home to the rich, the poor, the Bohemian, trendy, young, the alternative and the rich. “It’s where you see someone driving an Audi TT or riding an old pushbike – someone with purple hair or someone wearing a business suit. It’s trendy, fashionable, chic and shabby all at once.
What they don’t mention, is the street art and graffiti, which seems odd given that you can’t miss it. It’s everywhere. It’s something that defines the area just as much as all of the above; and love it, or hate it, there’s no escaping it.
I love it. To me, it pays homage almost to what was once – many decades ago – a grungy working class area of low rent and cheap shops. It wasn’t until the 1970s when students, artists and fellow Bohemians moved in that it began to be popular; and today, they’ve been joined by suave hipsters, young professionals with fat wallets and baby boomers wanting to settle in an inner city Melbourne suburb close to cafes, bars and chic boutique stores.
I always visit Brunswick Street when I’m in Melbourne – as much for the street art and the people as the stores and cafes. It’s much more upmarket than Footscray (see blog post below) but still grungy enough to get my attention. I like that the place embraces a crazy mish-mash of visual expression – from creative shop window dressings and walls covered in posters and street art to the colourful, multi-cultural street wear of the inhabitants and visitors.

Most of all, I love the shop doors – colourful portals embellished by street and graffiti artists that line both sides of every street. It’s almost as if there’s a silent, accepted rebellion against the hedonistic culture of consumerism, an embracing of difference and individuality that many more sedate and pristine areas could learn from.
There doesn’t appear to be any anxiety about the graffiti and wall murals. Shop owners haven’t gone out of their way to paint out the colourful swirls that pop-up overnight. Its as if they’ve accepted – even welcomed – the additional, unsolicited graphics that make their store stand out.
In fact, in Brunswick Sreet, you stand out if you *don’t* have graffiti and/or street art plastered across your premises. I like that. And I’m always much more likely to spend money in a place like
Brunswick Street
(or in Melbourne’s graffiti-covered back laneways), than I am in the sanitised department stores of
Bourke Street
, or the sleek, stylish streets of Toorak.

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