Christchurch: Recoveries

IMG_0148.jpgScott of the Antarctic. I have a fixed memory of seeing him years ago in Latimer Square over the road from where we were staying rather than next to the river nudging the CBD as he now does, and apparently always has. I remember how his gloves looked weird as though suffering from some sort of gigantism, and that there was an odd stump affair holding up his back leg. I do. Clear as crystal. Memory (shakes head), traducer …

Now I also discover that the statue, sculpted by Scott’s wife, Kathleen, was never finished. The ‘stump’ is helping to hold the whole shebang up. The gloves were to be reworked. (Good idea. They add a hint of jocular insincerity to what is clearly intended to be a serious work.) It was commissioned in 1913, started (in Italy, the war) in 1916 and the ribbon was cut in 1917 in the understanding (hers) that further work would occur. It never did. (1917?! During the war to end all wars. Just how far away from Europe is New Zealand, and for that matter just how big a deal was Scott’s expedition?)

I also remembered, correctly, that the inscription includes a late extract from Scott’s diary.

I do not regret this journey, which shows
that Englishmen can endure hardships,
help one another, and meet death with
as great fortitude as ever in the past.

May I suggest reference to Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure for further insight into this specifically English form of masochism, that of building an identity out of the romance of defeat. Amundsen got to the Pole (and back, losing no one) 33 days earlier because he was better equipped, better organised, more experienced and less full of, what can I say, lordly self-engrossed bullshit.

Christchurch’s relevance is that Scott left from Lyttleton, nearly but not quite a suburb, and Kathleen was travelling there to meet him when she learnt of his death.

He fell off his plinth breaking both legs on the 22 Feb 2011, along with a lot of the rest of the city, in what could only be called a catastrophe. But now, … he’s back! Gloves and all. We were there, quite incidentally, for the re-installation ceremony.

The statue looks north to what was in 1917 the key civic buildings. And now eight years later? Everything back? Sorted?IMG_0158.jpgNo. Still work to be done. Fortitude still required.

* * * * * *

A catastrophe.

The earthquake destroyed or rendered unusable 90 percent of the 600 or so CBD buildings. 12,000 other properties registered damage exceeding $100,000. More tellingly, 185 people died.

If you want an idea of scale, today’s papers are full of horror about the possible dollar cost of the Australian 2019/20 bushfires. Could be as much as $1.2 or even $2 billion. Horrific. But not long ago the NZ Reserve Bank estimated the total construction cost of the rebuild in Christchurch to be about $40 billion, $16 billion for each of residential and commercial construction and around $7 billion for infrastructure. And that is the construction cost. There are so many other costs involved. (I don’t want to spoil my point about the magnitude — and concentration — of what happened in Christchurch, but in Australia, for example, the unimaginable damage of what is happening this very day to the natural environment and its constituents can never be quantified.)

A lot has happened in eight years. We were there in 2015 and I thought then that it looked at least partly like a gigantic building site. The motifs were chain link fences, blasted heath car parks loosely covered with grey road metal, public art and shipping containers.2015-07-22 14.37.18.jpgThat was then;IMG_0177 (1).jpgthis is now. It’s not over yet by any means.

On the more recent visit our favourite coffee shop, the C-One, was still there, still standing, but like a monumental outrider rather than a molar in a set of teeth.IMG_0174.jpgWhat was it serving? And this is important.

Top left below are Lamingtons w/- white chocolate, coconut and [I quote] ‘a hypodermic berry syringe’. But just below the Banoffie Pies and the Custard Squares and to the right of the Caramel Walnut Brownies and the Marshmallow Caramel Slice are the Hemp Raw Balls (bottom right): w/- walnuts, almonds, linseeds [sic], sunflower seeds, dates, apricots and prunes [the entirety, just in case it’s not clear] dipped in vegan chocolate, pumpkin seeds, cranberries and Kako Samoa (refined sugar free, dairy free, vegan, gluten free, contains nuts). By some lights extreme sure, but up to the minute, the very instant in fact. NZ scones might have gone off, and tragically we think this is possible, but there is no obvious impediment to the boundaries of innovative edibles.IMG_0168.jpg

Four years ago this plaque was embedded in the seats along the footpath outside.img_1908.jpgIs that what has happened? I don’t know. But the view from that seat in 2015 was this.img_1829.jpgAnd now it’s this.IMG_0170.jpgBack, and going: and I am pleased to say including corgius intactus. They survived.

Miro restaurant (a much more interesting chocolatey red than appears here), which had for several years housed squatters, is another example of fastidious restoration20190205-NAT_3770+midlands+building.jpgwith very stylish interiors.original_sin_-interior_seating.jpg

There are some interesting new buildings but not as many as I thought there might be. Bouncing on huge isolators, this is an extension to the main hospital. The ‘X’ feature on the right is a structural member.IMG_0160.jpg

I thought this was wonderful.IMG_0175 (1).jpgŌtautahi: the place/home of (Te Potiki) Tautahi, the Maori name for the place where some of Christchurch is now, specifically near the fire station next to the river some distance from this building. But why this is so striking is that we are looking at a flat surface (with two obvious indents where the balconies are). It used to be a flat cream brick wall, and now it isn’t. L’oeil is certainly tromped. Just wonderful. And part of the new groovy area which was never far from here. Maybe that’s the Amundsen approach to recovery.

As might be obvious this was one of several beautiful days (i.e. before it got to -4C in Dunedin), IMG_0163.jpgand Hagley Park, undamaged by the quake, was as glorious as ever. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to talk about a recovery from something that never happened, but this massive park in the middle of the city must be some sort of ‘recovery’ salve for the body politic.

Recovery is a complex notion. It might be assumed that it means return to a prior state. If so, there is no recovery and never will be from a natural disaster. Things will not be the same. The flavour of life, the form and colours of the background, social and economic as well as topographical, will have changed forever. I didn’t talk to enough people to get any idea about what they thought had happened but, even eight years after, the local paper ‘The Press’ still has plenty of column space for earthquake-related issues.

IMG_0715 (1).jpgSo over its centuries of life what has this magnificent tree seen?

The answer of course is nothing. Not a cracker. Trees can’t see. When SmoCo, the Australian Prime Minister talks about ‘the terrible threat that nature provides to this country’ he seems to be suggesting that, if not vision, ‘nature’ has agency and for that reason needs confinement, punishment even, a damned good thrashing! This is the sentiment getting a strong run in Australia’s Murdoch media — we must burn everything down to avoid everything being burnt down.

The real reminder should be that the only part of ‘nature’ that is capable of generating a threat is humankind. Only we can construct that as an idea. ‘Nature’ — if that’s what we call the climate, the vegetation, the landscape and its animal, bird and insect populations, the seas and rivers, the environment of which we are a part — may contain threats, but it doesn’t make them. 

‘Threats’ come from the idea that humanity’s task is to subdue nature and ‘have dominion over it’. If subdue means damage we’re going well. ‘Achieving dominion over nature’, a very strange idea in itself, will never occur; and only people who haven’t experienced droughts, earthquakes, fire, wind or marine storms would assume otherwise. This is the irony of the anthropocene age: we can make a first class mess of things, but we can’t control them.

This is where Scott (of the Antarctic rather than the Shire) and his ilk come in handy. They have words for confronting the implacability of ‘nature’: resolution, fortitude, backbone, fibre, pluck, dauntlessness. And those words are helpful to some degree. Who could complain about someone displaying fortitude?

But in terms of recovery efforts, if I had to choose I’d be turning myself inside out to make sure Amundsen was in charge.

The Little Town That Couldn’t

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Saturday 7 February 2009.

We were looking for somewhere a bit cooler, anywhere really which would provide some respite from the heat. Marysville, I thought, only an hour and half away would be five degrees cooler immediately and that would only improve in the evening and at night. The cool change would come late in the day and on Sunday we might do the Three Lookouts walk and come back from the Falls through the tree ferns along the creek or, maybe if we were feeling adventurous, climb Sugarloaf and have a scramble along the Razorback in the Cathedrals …

The car’s thermometer said 47.5 when we turned right at Eltham towards Yarra Glen and the northerly had turned ugly. Scatters of small branches were frisking about on the road and landing on the car. From the lookout at Christmas Hills the Yarra Valley was grey brown with dust. The smoke cloud from Wandong had just become visible but it was well away over our left shoulders. Well away, and not in the direction we were travelling. We stopped at Tarrawarra to look at the art. The rammed earth walls of the gallery were startlingly hot to the touch, but the valley view framed by the northern glass wall was stable, unthreatening.

We had some late lunch at Healesville. The sun behind the smoke cloud over in the north-west had become photogenic, a disk of magenta. ‘Still a fair way away’, I said to a bloke watching as we came back out of the cafe onto the street. ‘Yeah maybe. But,’ he replied pointing, ‘have a look there. There’s another one’. And so there was, a new one, now to the north. But damp, temperate, green Marysville would be safe. That was its speciality. Despite being embedded in thick forest, it hadn’t been touched on Black Friday in 1939, nor Ash Wednesday in 1983.

The Black Spur was reassuringly itself, one of Victoria’s treasures with its long winding avenue of straight and tall mountain ash. The Fernshaw Reserve at its foot seemed cool and inviting and the car’s thermometer was dropping already. By the time we got to Dom Dom saddle it was down to 38, so comparatively cool we opened the car windows for relief. No smoke; therefore no fire. At Narbethong down the other side of the Spur, clusters of watchers were standing around chatting but they didn’t seem anxious.

We turned off right to Granton and there was a fire tanker filling up at the side of the road. We started talking about turning back, going home. Myrna did. But I thought there would be relief on the other side of the hill. A swim in the Marysville pool would be perfect.

About three kilometres from our destination we saw smoke to our left, low and slow, but there were licks of flame at its base, and it seemed sensible to get out of the way. There were other people whose business it is to control fire. Myrna put her foot down. We turned round. No panic. We just turned around and went back through the Granton hills, through Narbethong and up over the Spur.

On the way home we listened to Richard Stubbs on ABC local radio. Talking to those who had been affected by the fires in Horsham, Bendigo, Kilmore, Bunyip, he seemed audibly moved. We were glad that it was all so far away. But by the time we got to Coldstream there were dozens of small grass fires racing across the paddocks. The cool change with its associated wind change still hadn’t come. Once on the Eastern Freeway we were back in town, inviolate. We had left nature and its elements behind for the well-insulated version of life that most urban Victorians, most Victorians, live.

I rang Marysville’s Tower Motel the next morning to apologise for our no show and to explain the reason why. We would want to stay there again, as we had so many times in the past, and I wanted to make sure they understood. I got the owner’s mother. ‘It’s all gone’, she said. ‘All gone.’ ‘What’s gone?’ I asked. ‘The town. It’s all gone. Look at the television. The ABC. It’s all gone.’

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It must be 35 years since we began going to Marysville. It was a pig in a poke, a happy mistake, somewhere we chanced on that we thought might be painless and different to go with young children when you got fed up with the city. A bit of water, hills, trees, maybe snow in winter. 

Unknown.jpegI wrote that about nine years ago and as I remember now and I think correctly, the very first time I discovered Marysville was by going to a conference there, a retreat, a charette, an event designed to correct the problems of the world. That would make sense. That was one of the things Marysville was for, one of its primary purposes. We stayed at the pub (at left). It was cold. That would always make sense. 

The first time we arrived as a family it was Autumn, and the massive European trees were awash with colour. It seemed as though around every corner there was another vista, something brilliant to see, another clutch of picturesque houses, mostly elderly from an Australia that had passed, with extraordinary gardens, huge banks of azalias, rhododendrons and camellias. The main street: an avenue of elms, branches reaching into each other across the road, petrol bowsers from the 1940s, occasional pieces of mock Tudor, the pub, the Cumberland guest house with its brick salute to modern times … the town was an intriguing Antipodean version of southern England with a thin wash of colonial style surrounded, closely, by magnificent Australian bush. Everything was a walk, and every walk a pleasure.

In winter, Marysville was the dormitory for Lake Mountain, with Donna Buang, the nearest snow to Melbourne. The groomed trails, in summer like golfing fairways, were home to cross country skiers. But there was tobogganing and, as the snow reports say, ‘sight seeing’. You could walk to the top, turn left and in good weather catch glimpses of Buller and Stirling before completing the circuit through alpine moss beds and tors of quartz. Our kids saw their first snow up on the mountain. We kept going back.

Like Sorrento, Ferntree Gully, Daylesford and Lorne, it was a town that belonged to the guest house era, a day’s journey from the city to a version of nature both beautiful and civil, to a time before jet skis, offroad motor bikes and downhill racers, to places where people could just enjoy sitting quietly, with the hills or the sea and each other for company. It was a place for romance.

But in time cars became more common, more reliable, faster; the roads were improved to all-weather tarmac; and Marysville became a way-station on a day round trip rather than a destination in its own right. Visitors would stop at the Bakery for a cup of tea and country cakes verging on the epic, fuel up at the Mobil or visit Uncle Fred and Auntie Val’s lolly shop, not knowing that a couple of kilometres away at Island Hop or at the falls or in the beech forest along Lady Talbot Drive or a bit further on among the big trees at Cambarville were sites of sheer delight.

Over the decades the town stayed the same. Shop owners would come and go, but their enterprises varied only modestly. In essence little changed. It was home for loggers, for retirees, for casual workers who needed cheap housing, for people who serviced the still operating guest houses and other tourist accommodation. It was place to honeymoon (a most important destination for this), to take your corporate group for team-building exercises when you didn’t want distraction, to lie back and think.

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We found Fruit Salad Farm, down in a dip on the fringe of town, for a start because it was cheap, but also because it was simple in the extreme. It was a place you always slept well. The kids played their first Pooh sticks in the creek that ran through the property. I found my way through the thickets of a book there when I was stuck trying to write it anywhere else. Several times I spent time there trying to recover from a disease that no one could pin down. Chronic fatigue syndrome? Myalgic encephalomyelitis? Post-viral syndrome? I walked every day and usually after a week went home feeling better.

We ate dozens of times at the pub snug in the lounge near the fire, where the food was good, wine was cheap and the service unfailingly friendly. We have celebrated more elaborately in the dining room at Marylands Country House. On one memorable night we dined in an establishment up on the Woods Point Road, the only customers, perhaps for some time. We ate Swiss, we had stories, we swam in someone else’s nostalgia, and left with photos that we still have of a couple of feet of snow covering the town.

We watched the mud brick adventure happening in Kerami Crescent and the expensive but delightful fantasies occurring in Keppel’s Court and at the end of Murchison Street. There was the exquisitely judged bungalow at the junction of Barton Avenue and Murchison Street with the wonderful garden. A year ago, and as it happens in many days since, we were thinking about buying a property there — 28 Sedgwick Street, a big block with a 40 metre oak tree in the northern corner of a well-established garden with long lines of berry canes, and a small but cosy logger’s cabin with views north down the valley to Sugarloaf.

And now it’s gone. It’s all gone. You can talk about resilience and the spirit of the people and how we’ll fight back. All that. Terrible things have happened in these fires. Unlike some of my mates, I have lost no loved ones, no property, nothing tangible at all. I was just a tourist. But for now, and for these reasons, my heart is broken.

That was then. Nine years and three months ago.

* * * * * *

It was a fire like few others.

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A satellite image from the night of 7/2/09, and below from higher up earlier that day.

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From one side of this photo to the other is about 550km, all of eastern Victoria. That smoke is coming from the Kinglake/ Murrundindi / Marysville fire.

From the report of the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday Fires:

‘The wall of fire that burnt Marysville that night was over 140 metres high. It travelled at speeds of up to 120kmh, burned at 1,350C and created blasts of exploding gases that erupted in lateral pulses as large as 600 metres. The radiated heat alone was so fierce it was capable of killing people 400 metres away.’

IMG_0370.jpgDaryl Hull found shelter in this small lake next to the football oval where the residents had gathered. Giving evidence to the Royal Commission, he said:

‘The smoke suddenly got very thick and very very dark, the colour of charcoal, and was bubbling towards me over the lake. I knew the fire was about to hit and at that point I thought I might die. Then there was an explosion and everything was luminous orange, and embers began to shower down on me. The embers hissed as they hit the water around me. To take cover from the embers I ducked underneath the water. From under the water I could see the embers descending, like orange lights through green glass. I would surface for a breath, sheltering under the branch I had found, and then duck under the water again. When I surfaced I could see the school going up in flames in front of me. Those flames came across the surface of the water like a massive blowtorch.’

This was at 7.15pm. We had turned around about 3.30. 

Afterwards, a police sergeant said that the main street in Marysville had been destroyed: ‘The motel at one end of it partially exists. The bakery has survived. Don’t ask me how. Everything else is just nuked.’ Reports on 11 February estimated that around 100 of the town’s population of approximately 500 were believed to have perished, and that only ‘a dozen’ buildings were left. After a brief visit, Premier Brumby described the situation: ‘There’s no activity, there’s no people, there’s no buildings, there’s no birds, there’s no animals. Everything’s just gone.’

All but 14 of 590 houses and commercial buildings had been destroyed. (One of the painful things for the residents was that the town was declared ‘a crime scene’ because of the possibility of arson and entrance was forbidden to them or anyone else for six weeks.)

Just before the fire peaked several hundred people had gathered on the football oval and a very courageous and very lucky group of police guided them in convoy out the Buxton Rd to safety in Alexandra minutes before it became impassable and the roof really fell in.

Nonetheless, 173 people died in these fires, 39 in Marysville. Ken Rowe was one of them, a sometime colleague with whom I rarely agreed on professional matters but that didn’t interfere with our amiable relationship. Like a lot of the residents, he was transitioning up from the city to retire to his garden and trees in Hull Road.

David Sebald, the real estate agent, was another. We’d had quite a few conversations with him and his wife Marlene (who also died in the fires) about Sedgwick Street. He was excellent company, and a real enthusiast for Marysville, for a time its main booster. 

IMG_0371.jpgHe may have had a hand in two low impact bits of pre-Fires community tarting-up: the wisteria walk and the re-making au naturel of the gutters in Murchison St. Nice, but not decisive. But bear those in mind in terms of scale as we proceed.IMG_0358.jpg

He’d just had a new subdivision round Timber Jinker Place approved and was positive, excited, that the town was ‘on the verge of really taking off’.

* * * * * *

And that’s the thing about Marysville. In our time of contact with it, the town has always been on the verge — when it was in the mood anyway; more commonly it was to be found lying back on its haunches some distance from the verge, somnolent — of taking off. But it never did. For us, that was one of its chief attractions.

In the past it has had its moments.

Logging has been big. But what with one thing and another, including agitation by green types, the bottom fell out until there were just enough loggers left to sprinkle around the front bar of Keppel’s Alpine Hotel, the pub whose walls were decorated with photos of massive trees and spectacular feats of felling them. 20 km away in Cambarville, a former logging settlement, are stands of mountain ash which were more than 90m high. They’ve now been whacked by lightning and are a bit shorter, but they remain formidable, thrilling. There have been times when logging has mattered around here. But Marysville’s mill, Sund’s, closed years ago, the two at Narbethong more recently. Tourism became the go.

VJY2134.jpgThe five guest houses at their peak used to accommodate 500+ visitors; this in a town with a resident population in 2008 of 406. (Marylands above and below) However modern people no longer want to stay at guest houses. They don’t play croquet. They like BnBs with or without Air. And you might now go to Bali rather than Marysville for your honeymoon.

The Cumberland had been updated and was quite a solid proposition. We would go there for our version of luxury. It was right in the middle of the main street, which may have been to its advantage, and it did fair to good convention business. But it expired completely in the conflagration.

5519f86a-607c-41fa-93d6-6d1dc0fe9743.jpgThe Marylands’ drawcard shifted from the croquet lawn, the full-size pool table and the rather limited concrete swimming pool to gourmet-ish food and queen-size beds. But during our time it was always teetering, full of fond memories rather than paying customers. The Mary-lyn became a successful haven for semi-permanent residents over 50 and, pre-fires at least, was an important staple of the town’s economy. It was destroyed and hasn’t been replaced.

Every time we came another shop, another set of shops, was having a farewell sale, had already packed up and gone or had a new set of owners. We wished them all well, but like everyone else we never spent much money in them. 

VictorianCollections-medium.jpgCrossways, opposite the church at the T-intersection, has somehow stayed alive since the 1920s. This photo includes a large sign saying CABARET attached to its roof. CABARET. Unimaginable in Marysville.

The Bakery too was an exception. It just burst onto the scene, a new enterprise in a new building, and for years ran at full bore. Marysville is near two of the great motor bike rides in Victoria: the Black Spur and Reefton Spur, and on Sunday mornings the Bakery would be bulging at the seams with bikies hoeing into the prize-winning pies, vanilla slices and large mugs of country coffee. IMG_1814 (1).jpgThe verandah would be aswarm with flocks of the King and Crimson parrots memorialised in its doors.

The Motel did all right too. In fact, weirdly enough, the three buildings in the main street the fires didn’t destroy were the three steadily going concerns in town, Crossways, the Bakery and the motel. (The pub which was utterly flattened might be considered a fourth.) The church went.

The time had already come when there weren’t enough residents for a footy or even a netball team (the Marysville Villains of the past). Or a lot else. 

* * * * * *

We came back for the first time about nine months after the fires on the way back from the Alps to Melbourne. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see what had happened, but we both were curious. Will Storr wrote a ‘one year after’ story for The Australian in which he says, ‘There’s nothing tender or poignant about this scene; there’s a violence in the razed spaces of Marysville. Even after all these months, its wounds are still raw and shocking and open.’ And at that time that’s exactly how it seemed to us.

The walks were gradually, very gradually, re-opened and we came back to do them. Some re-routing had occurred and, not only had they been tediously slow and manically cautious in restoring them, it felt a bit like they, whoever ‘they’ were, couldn’t leave well enough alone. But a new building went up here and there, a monster information centre and a palatial police station early in the piece, along with some really tinny new housing, more fire resistant presumably but ugly as sin. Most residents were off in portable cabins 3km out of town at ‘Camp Marysville’. I don’t know anything about that, but there is this feeling that the people or many of them who lived there had been isolated like refugees.

IMG_0353.jpgThe VIBE was built covering half the major block of Murchison Street where the pub and the Cumberland had been. To stay there, as we have, you need to schlep your bags about 100m from where you park your car. And I hate to say this but the reception area and the people who worked in it shrieked: Somewhere else, not here. We don’t belong. We want to be somewhere else.

It was suggested to us that the reason the building is so bad was that the architect had never been to Marysville. The documentary evidence is to the contrary. There were consultations with the residents. Can’t you just imagine them. A team of bright young things with orange shoes, no socks, tight black trousers and very sharp collarless shirts, up from the office in Docklands, blowing fluff in the face of a small recently traumatised group of 70 year-old Marysville stalwarts who had no idea what they were talking about. Because, truly, only art-speak is worse than architecture-speak.

Metier3 (!), the architects. They say:

We set out to re-establish the charm of an eclectic alpine village, by creating a fine-grained urban design response to enhance and rebuild the street. By taking cues from the local built character, materiality and rhythm of the streetscapes, the design’s visual and performative qualities are strengthened. [Check out the photo. Just how performatively fine-grained can you get?]

We now have the opportunity to recreate its charms in a contemporary fashion, and focus on rebuilding quality spaces that will cater for the needs of today and the future. Understanding these things, we have built up our design to reflect such elements as the individual dwelling rhythm of the streetscapes, the charred trunks of trees once burnt by wildfires and the snow on the adjacent ranges.

The conceptual response we have adopted in our design response, is one of figuratively rebuilding the streets — Murchison Street in particular, to create a fine-grained urban design that responds and reflects the town’s character. These elements present as individual buildings to Murchison Street, however are actually elongated ‘fingers’ of buildings that are connected to a delicate white-glazed walkway to create an holistic facility.

What is formally created, is a series of pure building volumes that remain unmistakably of this place. The simple shapes express a traditional alpine village, maintaining values while giving the downtown area archetype of the traditional house with pitch [sic] roof.

Construction was completed in early 2015, and the Hotel and Conference centre is the centrepiece of the town and surrounding shire.

And so as its ‘centrepiece’ — and that is unarguable — we have this horrible black elephant, a monument to misery with its blank-faced address to the street, dominating the built town. They might have visited Marysville but how could they have had no idea just how awful and out of keeping the finished building ($28m, partly funded by the Victorian government) would be.

It’s not just the look, or the fact that we have a team of architects who can’t tell the difference between a pitch roof and a pitched roof — it’s the functionality.

For example, you enter Radius, VIBE’s eating place, straight off the street. There is no vestibule or lobby. So on an icy night like the first time we ate there, every time someone came in or out of the giant door there would be a blast of cold air chilling all the diners sitting within 15 metres. The extractor fan over the cooking area wasn’t working effectively and the only way to get rid of the smoke, yes smoke, (smoke! might be to go with the charred tree trunks) was to open the door for through-flow of air. It was intermittently freezing. Last weekend, some years later, I noted this problem still seems to exist. 

It opened in February 2015; it was for sale May 2016. Asking price $13m. Marysville.

Unknown.jpegThe Kerami Manor and Day Spa with its commanding position on one of the hills overlooking the town is more successful. It knows where it is — built on the site first of Marymeadows Guesthouse (Eric Dowdle who built and owned these guest houses as a chain had a thing about naming), and then Kerami Lodge which, before the fires, was sliding downhill both literally and figuratively at an accelerating rate.

We haven’t stayed here. Prima facie, it looks bit fussy, but that might be just the right style — cosy, leather, magazines, flock wall paper, contemporary versions of chandeliers. The 35 people who have reviewed their stay on Travel Advisor have unanimously given it five stars.

But the bakery …IMG_1817 (1).jpg

Peak hour, Sunday breakfast. We were there a week ago celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary. The pies are probably still great but they stopped winning prizes in 2006. Or was that when the steam went out of the proprietor’s engine?IMG_1819.JPG

Fraga’s up the street was lively in its own Marysville-ian way.IMG_1871.JPG

images.jpegAnd The Duck Inn, the new pub, was a real find. Very well situated on the main drag, terrific food, great place to sit, cosy fire, excellent service. A real bright light on the horizon. One interesting thing was that the new baker in the bakery might have been Vietnamese, the person who checked us into the motel was Chinese and our hosts at the Duck Inn were assertively Korean. An Asian infusion might just be a launchpad for recovery.

 

Unknown-2.jpegThe new church is another success, a massive improvement on the old one (at left) which was a bit picturesque insofar as anyone noticed, but pretty much worn out. Marysville’s climate is quite hard on weatherboard as a building material.

The new one has great lines, a smart and easy entry with protection from the elements. It’s notable but nestles beautifully into its setting. In fact most things about it look just right.Unknown-1.jpeg

 

But is there anyone going to it?

* * * * * *
The thing that was striking about our recent visit was not the commercial building. We assume that will take care of itself and fall into a pattern probably very similar to that of the past 20 or 30 years. 
There was a lot more private housing than when we had been there last. $700m won in a class action against electricity provider SP AusNet in December 2016 has now been distributed. 
The gardens are coming back little by little. The preferred plantings are exotics, and autumn is on its way to becoming as colourful as it once was.
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IMG_0374.jpgThe view across the oval. With a couple of exceptions the new housing is still fairly unimaginative, fairly stock-standard suburban, rather than holiday resort inventive. But it has improved markedly from the first efforts of the recovery. 
One of the reasons for the slow pace of progress is the rigidity of the new building regulations applied after the Royal Commission: everything double-glazed, sealed against ember attack, no flammable cladding etc etc. This increased the cost of building, already suffering from having to cart everything over the Spur, by about 150-180%. (The Royal Commission did hear from experts who were emphatic that no building should ever occur again in Marysville.) Matthew Guy, as Planning Minister, relaxed these standards in 2014. (That’s a good example of the edges, the urgent matters set in stone, that get rubbed back over time after a disaster.)
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But the availability of building stock has had little effect on the number of permanent residents. Our main informant told us that it is about half what it was before the fires — meaning about 200. Lots (comparatively) of people are building, but they are building holiday homes. They ‘hardly ever come up here’. He lived in Buxton because he couldn’t afford to build in Marysville. There were 31 kids enrolled at the school immediately after the fires; there are now 50, enough for a going concern. But only just.
But it’s a luxury going concern. I might be way wrong about this but for its three classes it looks to have a dozen rooms. It does include a kinder on the same site but that’s in a separate — large — building. This is all set off by its proximity to a huge multi-purpose building, one purpose of which is to provide a multi-purpose room or rooms. Community Health is another. Dr Lachlan Fraser, Marysville’s health service, who was a figure in the firestorm is located there. (His story.) And then there are the change rooms/ club rooms. As I mentioned above it’s hard work trying to draw a footy team from a population of 200 skewed towards the elderly.
The Villains Objectives are to:

• facilitate the ‘importation’ of country football fixtures to Gallipoli Park over the next few years (in much the same way that Tasmania do with Hawthorn, albeit at the grass roots level)
• market Gallipoli Park as a regional venue of high quality that not only attracts imported football fixtures, but taps in to the financially lucrative football club pre season training camp market
• develop an Auskick centre for primary school aged children
• develop junior teams in a nearby league.

Not actually play there, but hope that someone else can use these magnificent club rooms.

IMG_0377.jpgAt country football games it is customary to nose cars up to the oval fence, all the better to honk after a goal. But I don’t know whether this car park will be much used. Ever. 
Just behind where I’m standing to take this photo is a substantial skate park. Up the hill next to the brand new ‘Men’s Shed’ the size and style of a three-bedroom home, is Marysville Youth Space, between them missing only ‘men’ and ‘youth’. The former Information Centre is being expanded to include another community space and an 80-seat theatrette as well as a smaller venue for watching the two films about Marysville available to visitors.
I don’t begrudge these facilities to Marysville for one instant, but what I’m looking at, what I feel I’m looking at, is buying shoes three sizes too big to grow into when the feet in question are actually shrinking. ‘Build it and they will come’ hasn’t been a principle that has defined life in Marysville.
The Royal Commission estimated the cost of the Black Saturday fires (in toto, there were many others besides Murundindi/ Marysville) at $4.3b. Insurance companies footed about one quarter of that bill; the state and federal governments made substantial contributions. The Red Cross bushfire appeal raised more than $372 million in total. This grew to over $400m during the period of disbursement. About 2/3 of these funds went on housing support, another big whack went on cleanup and recovery.
But money is not the issue. I had a feeling that we were looking at architectural attempts to assuage the guilt we feel about what happened to Marysville, and that those attempts are misguided. They miss the point of Marysville. They don’t understand cosiness, intimacy, romance. They don’t get the climate. They don’t know the meaning of a — controlled — open fire and the strange comfort of the smell of woodsmoke lingering in the mist. Fraga’s has got quilts stitched into its bench seats. Their impact might be subliminal, but they say where we are and what sort of people we are. We’re not off to Squaw Valley or Whistler. We’ve come over the Black Spur to a quieter time, and we don’t want a martini; we want a scone and a cup of tea. If we want more we’ll go down to the fire in the wall of the Duck Inn and have best sausages with creamy spud complemented with exceptional mashed peas and a glass of Yarra Valley red. And think we’re Christmas. Because we are.
So you might modify your school message. Currently:As a consequence (of the destruction wrought by the fires) our School, Pre School and Maternal Child Health Centre all combined/relocated to the same site to see what we have today – a proud and purposeful showcase of 21st century state of the art facilities, teaching and learning.’
I think I’d talk about care, personal interaction, affection; maybe the chance to use some of the facilities in the monster clubrooms but probably not. I’d talk about how our school provides shelter, as well as developing alertness and historical memory, how we are a calm family together like rural schools should be.
I came across this while I was thinking about this blog:
There is something miraculous about Marysville. On 7 February, 2009 it was at the heart of one of the worst bushfires in Victorian history. Most of the town and the surrounding bush was destroyed. Forty-five local residents died in the fires and it was estimated that nearly 90% of the town’s buildings – including the police station and the primary school – were destroyed. Yet four years later, while many of the trees are still blackened, the town has recovered. It looks modern and chic. The eucalypts are green with new shoots and the most obvious evidence of the devastation is the photographs which recall the day the town was destroyed. Marysville survives because of human tenacity, because it is a popular tourist destination and because it is beautifully located in a picturesque valley surrounded by heavily timbered mountains. The air is fresh and bracing and it is especially attractive when the flowers bloom in spring and the trees shed their leaves in autumn.
 
It’s a very well-intentioned puff piece, and it’s wrong. It’s missed it all, or most of it. It’s drive past material. That’s not what’s happening at Marysville. There isn’t anything miraculous about it. It will never be modern and chic. It will be itself, which is bigger and more interesting than that.
This came from another news article.
‘Bruce Ackerman, with his extraordinary portfolio of seats on local committees, has a remarkably well-informed perspective on the town’s structural recovery. “Initially, in the press release we said it would take two years, but I knew it would be five,” he says. “Then we educated people it would be five years, but I know it will be 10.” His assessment of the town’s spiritual recovery is starker yet. “Oh, we will never get over this,” he says. “Never, never, never.”‘
But we’re back. We still love it. Our hearts are true.
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Christchurch and its earthquakes

IMG_1885Christchurch. Third biggest city in New Zealand, just smaller than Wellington the capital. For those inclined towards using Geelong as a yard stick, and there are so many of us — twice as big. Capital itself of Canterbury the fertile plain where the lamb which fed Britain before its entry to the Common Market was raised. Dairy prices remain an important bellwether of community well being. IMG_1951Comfortable, dull, provincial, secure: the sort of place where you find an unusual number of private schools servicing the children of pastoralists and people clinging to traditions from elsewhere.

Chch has been described as the most English city outside England, and certainly at the opera we were surrounded by accents that began well back in the British throat. Salisbury, Gloucester, Worcester, Durham, Manchester and Hereford are street names in the central block. Ireland is represented by Armagh, Bangor, Tuam and Cashel; Wales by St Asaph; and the Empire, presumably, by Colombo, Montreal, Barbadoes (sic), Madras and Antigua. Hagley Park, 170 rather glorious hectares in the centre of the city could, by its plantings, style and usage, be Regent’s Park on the other side of the world.

83251448The architecture which provides the city with some of its more definable character is a localised version of Gothic using grey basalt highlighted with white trim. The Provincial Chambers and the old Canterbury University buildings which became an art centre are fine examples, although the jewel in the crown? The Anglican cathedral standing to attention at the side of the city square.ChristchurchCathedralTrams trundle round its heart, although on just one line and really only for tourists.

Tram at Christchurch Arts Centre, New Zealand

IMG_1905The Avon rises within the city  — at Avonhead: that’s Chch, prosaic but clear — a good deal less than a river but more than a trickle requiring eight bridges in the CBD alone. It ambles its way through the suburbs to the sea 10 k.s away as the brown trout swims.

One of Chch’s tourist offerings is to take to it by punt.

The Avon and the Heathcote, Chch’s other waterway, drain marshland depositing silt in the shallow estuary at their mouths.

IMG_1878A prosperous regional centre requires a deep water port and fortunately one exists 15 k.s south-east in the core of a volcanic crater. However the steep and rather intransigent Port Hills (the crater’s rim, from which the first photo above was taken and visible at right) separate the city from the port and its town, Lyttelton. A rail tunnel joined the two in 1867 but it wasn’t until 1964 that road traffic could avoid steep and winding climbs to get between Lyttelton and Chch. The road tunnel is 2 k.s long, bullet straight except for two wafty curves at beginning and end.

It wouldn’t do to talk Chch down. This is the home of the Crusaders. Played finals in 16 of 20 years of SuperRugby, winning the lot seven times. To the antipodean mind SuperRugby is the club world championship. The Crusaders offer big names, huge names: Dan Carter, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Kieren Reid aaaaannd Richie McCaw. International Player of the Year three times and now suiting up for his ninth consecutive year as captain of the All Blacks who have won 120 0f 136 international games in that time. He played the final of the last world cup with two stress fractures and a displaced screw in his right foot. ABs 8 France 7. If you think this doesn’t matter you haven’t been to New Zealand.
images-1 Richie and some of his closer friends.

imagesChch also has a very fine art gallery which opened in 2003. It was designed to cope with earthquakes, being built on a concrete raft intended to evenly distribute seismic mutterings.

We’ve been there and loved it,IMG_0195

and we have also found the groovy part of town down High Street south east from the city: vodka bars, good coffee, nice places to sit, interesting passing parade, amateur art and a shop where I bought my all time favourite shirt owned by a former All Black who had headed off into the rag trade. You’ll know the spot. Near the corgis.IMG_1835IMG_0201

 

And then you look up, and just behind where Gill is sitting, instead of a very nice place to have breakfast, there’s this…IMG_1829

•• •• •• ••
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Signed ‘Fred Tunnecliffe, 2010’ and found in Freeman’s Restaurant, Lyttelton.

On 4 September 2010 4.35am a network of faults slid and yawned producing three major earthquakes almost simultaneously. Felt throughout New Zealand, the epicentre was 11 k.s under Charing Cross 40 k.s west of Chch. It was measured as being magnitude 7.1, equivalent to detonating more than five million tonnes of TNT. (For comparison the combined explosive force of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs was equivalent to the detonation of 33,000 tonnes of TNT.) This quake lasted 40 seconds — time it, add the noise and the very bizarre physical sensations, and tremble — and caused extensive damage to infrastructure. Power, sewerage and water supply were all seriously damaged. Many stone buildings heaved and cracked. 1,200 repairs to roads and traffic infrastructure were required mainly in the northern suburbs although following a diagonal line north-east south-west. Two people were injured, another died of a heart attack during the quake but it is not possible to assign it as the cause. Minor damage was reported from towns 400 k.s away. Subsequently four metres of sideways movement was measured between the two sides of this previously unknown fault.

nasa_largeNew Zealanders are used to earthquakes. These after all are the ‘shakey isles’. The Southern Alps which form the spine of the South Island are one of the most visible and active examples of plate tectonics in the world. If you place a ruler on the snow line of the western side of this picture you will have discovered the Alpine Fault which has ruptured dramatically four times in the last 900 years, most recently in 1717. It is here that the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates meet and try to climb over each other. Intriguingly, the two islands are predominantly on different tectonic plates. 

Since 2010 there have been 27 quakes measured at 5.3 or (generally) higher, big quakes, in the country as a whole. In Christchurch itself the spire has been shaken off the cathedral several times in the last 100 years. A month after it was built in 1881 a tremor dislodged several blocks of ashlar from near the apex. Seven years later eight metres of the spire came down. But 2010 was a brutal example. 

Despite long term interest and intensive study, this fault had not appeared on the seismological maps. It was hidden under gravels and greywacke. Chch is under the cloud on the right of the photo, not obviously near the major faultline. But once this one was uncovered, a whole network of faults ‘all pointing at Christchurch’ became evident. Residents were warned of the likelihood of aftershocks and expected them. (Since then there have been more than 12,000. Twelve thousand.) However by Christmas most of the damage had been sorted out, the city was working, and much of the emotional bleeding had been staunched.

So when on 22 February 2011, a shake began at lunchtime, 12.51pm, it could have been an aftershock. But it wasn’t. Although measured in one way at 6.3, in terms of intensity and impact (on the alternative Mercalli scale) it became the strongest shock ever recorded in an urban area. It was shallow (under the Port Hills). What was breaking was very strong geologically, releasing even more energy. The shock waves didn’t bounce around but moved in the same direction actually gathering strength. And in a development which had not been seen before, the top layers of ground under the city were flipped off those which were deeper like an unsynchronised bounce on a trampoline, the shock of resettling intensifying the impact. Thirteen minutes later there was an aftershock of 5.8; less than two hours later one of 5.9. For an hour the ground barely stopped shaking. During that time the Port Hills in places became 40cm higher.

Ninety percent of the 600 or so CBD buildings were destroyed or rendered unusable. 12,000 properties registered damage exceeding $100,000. The tremors cracked and brought down masonry buildings, brittle regardless of their footings. IMG_1825185 people died, the majority of them in two office buildings which folded into themselves like layers of pancake. Millefeuille. One memorial, 185 empty chairs, is at right.

The earlier quake had generated 1,200 road repair sites. This one had created 38,000 if you could be bothered counting. You could just say whole areas like the northern suburbs and the region that lies between the city and the coast were stuffed: Dallington, Bromley, Bexley, Brighton, Sumner, Woolston, Mt Pleasant. Because while the tremors destroyed buildings via shaking, they were also creative.

708541Some of the most memorable photos are of the consequences of liquefaction, apparently firm soil being shaken so that it becomes a tide of silty sand with characteristics of liquid. Whole houses sunk metres into this material. The Avon became a grey trough in hundreds of hectares of ‘flood’.

The earthquake-proof Art Gallery which survived the shaking and was used as a command centre during the early stages of the aftermath, was discovered to be sitting on liquified soil. The whole thing had tilted and become unstable. It has been jacked up (much of the engineering in action in Chch is astonishing) and it will be put on base isolators, but it is still out of commission. 322,000 tonnes of liquefaction silt have been removed. As a result of this experience substantial sections of the city may be declared out of bounds for building. Just think of the legal and financial ramifications of that.

Nearer the hills there were massive landslips. One chased down the steep hill immediately behind Redcliffs School threatening the infants’ block. A teacher at the school describes being bounced up and down, ‘a foot or more’, as she tried to stand in a doorway hanging onto the door posts eventually leaving deep finger nail marks in the wood, but powerless to get to her students to help them. Fortunately the children all escaped harm.

Stray boulders wreaked their own damage.315116-christchurch-lyttleton-earthquake One which had followed a trajectory like this was named ‘Rocky’ and sold on eBay for $60,000, a contribution to the recovery fund. So very New Zealand-ish.

IMG_1863Ballantyne’s department store (below) was one of the few CBD buildings to survive the quake and despite still being surrounded by space and remnant devastation it’s a going concern. Sometime after the quake while they were trying to retrieve some semblance of order in the shop, the manager provided free buses fitted out with champagne to take customers on day trips to the Ballantyne’s in Timaru 165k.s away.

And that’s the sort of thing that makes New Zealand one of the world’s great countries: make-do, can-do, will-do all at once, with a bit of good humour tossed in — all the qualities you need to live at the end of the earth. While the wooden roof trusses over the Wharenui pool were flexing 30 or 40 cms, the kids in the pool had to be forcibly persuaded to leave because they were enjoying the waves slopping over the sides so much.

•• •• •• ••

So in the hard flat winter light of 42 degrees south what does Chch look like now four and half years later?

It looks like shipping containers and chain link fencing. The containers play a role in propping up bits of heritage or serving as a basis for ‘Re-start’ the shopping centre on the edge of what was the CBD.

IMG_1831IMG_1887IMG_1844It looks like a demolition site.IMG_1912
IMG_1819You look at a building and think, ah good fortune. That one got away. And then you look a bit closer and there’s windows missing, there’s bracing along one or more walls, the signage is broken and some of the kilometres of chainlink fence that is still everywhere in the city is keeping you away from ground level nearby. Despite not being wrapped in plastic like most of them are, it’s waiting for demolition. This also applies if in a more complex way to heritage buildings. The cathedral will not be saved in anything like recognisable form but the old Arts Centre might be.IMG_1856

 

 

 

 

 

 

It looks like a construction site.

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If you want a job and know anything about construction, I would consider relocating to Chch. I think I read in the paper that 4000 skilled and semi-skilled Filipino workers had been brought in to work on repairs and new projects. Certainly wherever you look, in the city, in the suburbs, out of town, building is in train. But decades of work remain. I suppose until the money runs out. The Wallabies won’t be playing in Chch again until a new stadium is built. For that $500m. is required.

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It’s also a place to see remarkable engineering. Look at the steel in this pier (at left). The rod is as thick as your arm. And, as it happens, that might be one of the Filipino workers.

IMG_1865This is a bit hard to see but instead of adhering to standard contemporary versions of post and lintel construction using heavy materials like reinforced concrete these buildings are being built on steel frames, webbed or holed for lightness, designed to flex laterally to absorb shaking motions. It’s all so clever. Clever, but slow.

It looks like street art.

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Above is the back of our ostensible destination, the Isaac Theatre Royal reopened, a real quality restoration job, for a performance of Madama Butterfly, the first return of opera to Chch.IMG_1824

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It looks like some places got off lightly. As Myrna said of the Victorian terraces of New Regent St, a street surrounded by air, they seem to be pretending that nothing has happened.IMG_1820IMG_1838And one of your very best coffee shops somehow survived largely unscathed. The management takes splendid potshots at the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery. As it happens the cafe is next to the corgis and as well as in very funny print, its sentiments are expressed on the seat Gill was sitting on.IMG_1908•• •• •• ••

How could the reconstruction have been uncontroversial? 
The recovery effort required was and is massive, both in the initial emergency but also afterwards. ‘The earthquakes’, says The Press, Christchurch’s major newspaper, ‘released a surge of community feeling and creative optimism. Christchurch was going to rebuild itself as a liveable, sustainable, adventurous, 21st century city.’

And that hasn’t happened. Yet at least. For a time united by the tragedy and its scale, the City Council and the national government have more recently been at loggerheads. Inevitably. Restoration has been slow. Insurers haven’t been as forthcoming as they might. Legal wrangling over complex property arrangements has slowed things down, along with what is claimed, as always, to be excessive bureaucratic oversight and interference. Heritage issues emerge regularly.

And no one has forgotten. In the first edition of The Press I read on this visit there were earthquake stories on 7 of the first 10 pages. Everyone we spoke to had a story. Of course they would have. 

But what has happened in those four and half years is that the locus of the city has shifted. The shopping action is in Riccarton, a suburb in the west which was considerably less affected than than the centre or the east. South of the city between Brougham St and Moorhouse Avenue now looks like the entry strip to a minor American state capital: tilt block, garish, fast food, fast furniture, fast tiles and hardware, fast garden stuff and fast anything else you might want to buy. It’s not so English any more. 

IMG_2006There’s a message here about good intentions and rational process. When you’re trying to normalise your life, the sustainable, adventurous, 21st century city will be made to wait. It will get trampled in the rush to stop the wall wobbling, to get water coming through the pipes, and to be able to buy a pizza more or less at will. But I hope something more is left of these splendid aspirations than a whopping big new convention centre. 

And this might just be me, but I would try to steer clear of Innovative Premises in the Innovation Precinct. That’s not New Zealand-ish. Not remotely.

Meanwhile … recovery, from what? A slip in the Alpine Fault may be close to due. Last time it produced a lateral movement of 8 metres combined with a vertical motion of two metres. This would dwarf the scale of anything that happened in 2011 and make a dreadful mess of probably all the scattered settlement on the west coast. The Hope Fault which runs not far north of Christchurch through Kaikoura shifts on average every 140 years. The last occurrence was in 1888. That’s the quake that shook the top off the spire.

So the other message has to be about our idea of permanence and its complement, the tractability of nature. As Joe Bennett writes in the preface to The Press‘s excellent book on the subject, ‘The quake brought Christchurch face to face with a harsh and simple truth: we live on the cooling crust of a molten planet and it is utterly indifferent to our well being. We are, in short, like ticks on a rhino.’

And that view, my friends, can be relied on. Solid as rock.IMG_1839

•• •• •• ••

And now for something more cheerful, a short love letter to NZ.