Standing on the fourth-floor balcony of Tūranga, Christchurch’s recently opened library sited on Cathedral Square, I gazed down onto the sagging ruin that is the post-earthquake Christchurch Cathedral. From this angle the decision to restore makes even less sense than it did three years ago when I viewed the wreckage from behind a ground level wire-mesh safety fence. The building is a sad sight, a stark reminder of the devastating February 2011 earthquake and now, nearly nine years later, of how very, very challenging the rebuild has been.
Just across the road from Tūranga are the remains of a building demolished some years ago, jagged concrete walls and pillars topped with rusting steel emerging from a basement half-filled with water. The locals have named this site “the swimming pool”. Irony is, I suppose, a valuable weapon in staving off despair.
But the library itself is a triumph of architectural imagination, and on this school holiday morning, the ground floor, devoted to children and an excellent café, is full of families enjoying the space and the various shiny entertainments that 21st Century libraries must provide. From Tūranga’s heights on the other side of the building, the Christchurch Convention Centre build is going at full pace, the wonderfully sinuous decorative panel winding around its façade nearly complete.
I was spending a few days with my cousin Toria, keen to see how the city was progressing. Both at university in the seventies, we flatted together near Carlton Mill Corner. I left Christchurch but Toria stayed to raise a family, follow a career and become a loyal Cantabrian. Literally shaken out of her central office building in the February quake, I remember how stroppy she was in the days and months after the earthquake: “Everyone in New Zealand should visit Christchurch,” she’d say. “It’s the respectful thing to do after a loss as big as this.”
My family roots go deep into Canterbury soil. My mother grew up in Lincoln, her father, Dr Arch Johnston, a much-loved local doctor. Her grandfather, George Laurenson, was MP for Lyttleton from 1899 to 1913. And in 1955 I was born in Christchurch. My grandfather, who saw hundreds of Canterbury babies safely into the world, wasn’t about to have his daughter deliver her firstborn on an isolated French Pass farm with no road access, attended by the Havelock doctor who might or might not get there in time depending on the weather.
My grandparents retired from Lincoln to Tai Tapu and welcomed my parents’ growing tribe during holidays. They lived next door to the picturesque St Paul’s Anglican Church and Library, both built by Otahuna’s Sir Heaton Rhodes in the 1920’s and we had the run of the grounds. I was an avid reader of English school-girl stories, (Dimsie Goes to School by Dorita Fairlie Bruce was a favourite), and it seemed to me then that this was the nearest that I would ever get to that romantic English world of old stone churches with leaded windows, velvety green croquet lawns, lush flowers in wide borders and high, clipped hedges.
We always visited my Great Aunt Jessie who lived in a colonial-era cottage on Papanui Road, just north of Bealey Avenue. A redoubtable and energetic spinster, retired from her position as chief pharmacist at Christchurch’s public hospital, Aunt Jess drove a Fiat Bambina at terrifyingly high speeds, was a keen Port Hills walker and the perfect great aunt. She volubly adored everything about us, filled her tiny cottage with hidden treats and considered our most outrageous suggestions for entertainment with genuine seriousness.
When I left secondary school, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d go to Canterbury University. I met my husband Steve at University during orientation week. We both took classes in the soon to be closed ‘town site’ that became the Arts Centre.
Cash-strapped students, we got to know each other walking around central Christchurch, the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park with the odd visit to picture theatres in the Square as a special night out. In the winter we huddled together in the cramped library or the Student Union. We were often cold and uncomfortable but our romance gave the shabby buildings’ stone walls and wooden stairways a patina of warmth and light.
Christchurch has always held a special place in my heart. This spring, as Toria and I visited the central city, our grandparents’ former homes in Tai Tapu and Lincoln, walked around the beautifully repaired Arts Centre and the now mature and established Ilam Campus, I reflected that growth and renewal, even when precipitated by painful and traumatic events, eventually deliver a richness and depth that becomes a city’s legacy. I wish the Anglican Church and the City had been able to agree on a more progressive and architecturally inspiring solution to the problem of Christchurch Cathedral. But the battle that raged over its broken bones, and the restored cathedral which will one day grace the Square, will themselves become part of the legacy of a great New Zealand city.