Sunday, October 21, 2012

Let There Be Light

On Saturday night, parts of the Christchurch inner city red zone were transformed from earthquake ruined remnants into a lighting extravaganza that attracted thousands of residents..... I’m not good at counting large crowds but I’d estimate around 10,000. One friend was more precise when asked how many people he thought were there: “Shitloads,” he said - which apparently is more than a lot.

In short, LuxCity, organised by the Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA), was a roaring success and festival director, Jessica Halliday was rightly pleased with the turnout. Numbers exceeded their expectations (to put it mildly), and at one point, you could barely move in the squash of humanity. I saw one or two people with that wild, fearful look on their faces that hint at panic and I fleetingly mused on what might happen if there was an you do in Christchurch.

In collaboration with Christchurch-based clients, approximately 16 design studios made up of over 350 architectural students from five architectural schools (University of Auckland, AUT, CPIT, Unitec and Victoria University),  created “a city of light” for the one-night event. Fully functional bars, cafes, theatres and restaurants featured (as the clients) and each studio had to fulfill an individual client brief.

When I spoke with Camia Young, an architectural tutor at Auckland University a few weeks ago, she laughed at “nightmare task of organising such an event and coordinating so many students in so many different places.” Young was liaising with FESTA to bring LuxCity to fruition and while she may have had some ‘head-scratching’ moments, I’m sure she too, would have been  amazed by the response and delighted that students experienced such an intense learning curve.

“We wanted to create a unique concept for Christchurch – to look at it as a design opportunity for the students. There’s no other place in the world right now where they could do something like this and we’ll never have this context again,” she said then.

She said students would gain ‘real world’ experience in the process of organising their LuxCity installations. They had to find sponsors and work within tight time-lines. There were builders and budgets to manage; and they have to develop communication skills, timing and an understanding of all the technical facets of architecture. It was, she said, an excellent example of lots of creative thinkers coming together around design, to make a contribution to Christchurch.

The laser beams, projections, the coloured lights and the all-round sense of bonhomie set amid the ruins of our broken city turned out to be a huge success. By daylight, there were times, as I watched the teams setting up, when I wondered what on earth some of them were thinking (designwise) – and if they would ever finish on time; but by nightfall, it all  came together as a slightly surreal yet very uplifting event.

It showed just what can happen when creative thinkers come together and have the courage and the determination to push through the bureaucracy. It showed that a vibrant, non-conventional ‘arts culture’ can -  and should- be part of the Christchurch rebuild. It showed that innovative thinking ‘outside the box’ should be encouraged and *not*  set aside because there are more important concerns in Christchurch right now. 

The fact that so many thousands of people turned up for LuxCity shows there’s a real need for bright, positive initiatives that both entertain and inform – not just the crowds but  the participants themselves. As Camia Young said earlier, there is no other place in the world right now, where we have the opportunity to risk and to learn so much. We should be embracing that and making it work for us all.

Thankfully, there is a synergy at work in Christchurch right now – not always well publicised – but it’s there, working away at the edges, coming up with alternatives to conventional city planning and entertainment. Taking the arts out into the community is just one part of that and while it’s not what we chose – it’s been forced upon us by the earthquakes – it’s turning out to be one of the best things to ever happen to conservative Christchurch. And at a time when it’s easy to feel disempowered and burdened by the bureaucratic processes involved in earthquake recovery, events like LuxCity give the people of Christchurch life, colour and hope. All those bright lights last night, just reinforced for me that we’re living in interesting, dynamic times and it’s amazing to be a part of that.

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