June 1, 2012

Ruined and unruinable city

As is well known, the Press newspaper, my employer in the business or trade  or perhaps art or even hobby (reference in last par) – of journalism returned to the mostly-ruined centre of Christchurch this week, into a building that was finished before the February 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people. We were two weeks away from shifting from the old building into the new when that quake hit; the old building collapsed and one staff member was killed and several more were injured. I was off work that week, on leave – the quake got me at the movies, watching True Grit. This week, that cinema complex was pulled down – yet another unsafe or unrepairable building.

Yesterday – Thursday – I went into my new workplace for the first time after 15 months working from home. Above: the view from the sixth floor. Below: as I leave, a protest. This is almost literally three men and a dog, but there are more – including socially conscious Reverend Mike Coleman and former children's TV presenter Olly Ohlson – protesting around the back. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee is inside, paying a visit that coincides with the launch – did anyone really notice? – of an earthquake recovery strategy.

For more than 100 years, the venerable Latin slogan "Nihil Utile Quod Non Honestum" was carved into the stone arch above the front door of the now-ruined Press building. Below, it is now immortalised in the new Press reception area. Call it the Cushion of Truth.

The CTV site below. Forget about the city's many religious buildings: this area is as close as any earthquake site will get to problematic and contested concepts like sacred or holy.

Ghost signs on Madras Street. I wrote a piece for the paper (not online) about these and other ghost signs, which are appearing and disappearing again as the city is cleared. Each is a strand of vanished commercial history.

Ghost posters? I've tried to record – when I can – the faded altmusic posters that, before the quakes, promoted secretive experimental music shows in now destroyed buildings.

Release the books: on the ground floor of this still cordoned-off office building, there are the remains of a long-running book sale. The word is that the books inside have become curled and faded after 15 months in the sun.

Inevitable ruins below. This is the site of the former St John's church facing Latimer Square. It was built in 1864 (some history). It is soon to be the site of the Anglicans' cardboard cathedral.

Below: intensities in tent cities (obscure rock joke).

Already some ruins are taking on the appearance of antiquity. This is on the western side of Latimer Square. The excavated basement looks archaeological; weeds are growing over it. In the new edition of the excellent Christchurch Art Gallery magazine Bulletin, Rebecca Solnit writes about ruins and remembrance:
At the site of a ruin, you pause, you contemplate. Time and space open up a little. You might remember the specifics of why this ruin is there or the sweetness and sadness of all transience. Every ruin is a window into the past, whether the long past of entropic processes or the sudden past of a revolution that smashed up monasteries or bomb that took out neighbourhoods. If a ruin is a place that is not doing the ordinary work of cities, it is because it is doing the extraordinary work, the deep work that matters most, the work of remembering, connecting, caring, and belonging.

Looking inside the forbidden zone, still sealed off from the public. On the other side of the wire fence, the Octagon, formerly the Trinity Building. Further rock obscurity: in the 1980s, the Axemen recorded their 3 Virgins album in this building over one Easter weekend, with photographer Larence Shustak producing. There should be a plaque. A second later, a truck came past: naturally, it read "DEMOLITION".

An unexpected consequence, a rare positive: absurdism and weird humour has come through the cracks in the once staid city. A fridge on the corner of Madras Street and Gloucester Street: "My Dad is bigger than Your Dad." A sign on a fence on Gloucester Street, outside the Theatre Royal: "Why is this real not that."

Back to the start. The Press' impromptu outdoor carpark, on the now-cleared site of the old Press building, is increasingly becoming a viewing spot. You see the public on pilgrimages, with cameras (better ones than the mobile phone I used for these pictures). This is as close as you can get to the city's doomed Anglican cathedral. It's an unexpectedly strange sensation, encountering the city again after all this time, the city inside the city.