Ear to the Ground

developed for Griffith REVIEW

If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?

- Erich Fromm

He aha te mea nui? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

- traditional Maori proverb

CHRISTCHURCH. I GREW up in Christchurch. It was a quiet, peaceful place. Most nights I’d finish work round twelve, drop my skateboard to the cobbles and clatter home. My wheels were often the loudest sound. I’d roll down Columbo Street, past the straggle of hoodie kids awaiting the last bus, then cut through the bleak granite expanse of Cathedral Square. I could hear street-sweeper trucks, and the murmur of the last-drinks crowd at Warner’s, and something else too, just on the edge of my hearing. From the eastern corner of the square rose a shrill electronic whine. It was like having a mosquito trapped inside your skull. It was maddening.

The sound was produced by a device attached to the offices of the local newspaper. People over the age of twenty-five couldn’t hear it. Only young people could hear it. It was designed to stop us loitering and drive us away. And it wasn’t just The Press broadcasting that needling drone. It felt like the whole city. The sound was the suburban status quo running smoothly in its tracks, and the tiny wheels of petty bureaucracies, and the antique machinery of monocultural privilege. Once you hit your later twenties and began thinking respectable thoughts, you’d gain immunity. But it was getting to everyone I grew up with. Change felt impossible. The rest of the country thought us stiff and stuck-up and white. The tiny, vibrant subcultures that grew in the cracks felt under permanent siege. No matter how we’d enjoyed childhood, no matter the family ties and lovers and landscapes, that sound drove us to leave.

I moved to France, then Australia. I remained proudly Kiwi, yet at odds with the city that formed me. Each time I returned to see family and friends, Christchurch felt a little more empty. There were flashes of colour, but the stern stone facades and endless one-way streets dominated. People and energy seemed to drain away like so much rain from the city’s slate roofs. On one visit I published an overheated opinion piece in The Press about the city’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to youth and change. I was politely told to piss off back to Australia. It seems the feeling was mutual.

Then, early on a cold spring morning in September 2010, I was holidaying with my parents in Tasmania. We stopped at a church fair. A man sold us a jar of honey. He asked where our accent was from.

Christchurch, he repeated, looking concerned. Is your house okay?

The question made no sense. Everything was always okay in Christchurch.

And so, a radical thing has happened to a conservative place. The city I grew up in, the city much of my family and many of our ancestors grew up in, has been largely destroyed. I have been back twice since the earthquakes began, full of love and trepidation, like visiting an estranged family member on their deathbed. I can no longer hear that whining sound coming from the square. Partly because I am a bit older, and I can see that plenty of the whining was my own restless impatience. But mostly because it has been drowned out by something much deeper, something much older. It is the sound of the earth, and the feelings the earth awakens in people. It is partly fear and it is partly strength. I am trying to understand the ruined city’s new resonance.

When the first quake struck, the heavy bronze bells in the cathedral swayed and rang a ghostly warning across the city. My younger brother woke to the jolt and his first thought was Shit, that must have been Wellington, and it must have been catastrophic. Luckily, it was neither. The sleeping city woke in panic but the bricks and stones and concrete and glass fell into empty streets. It was the first time in modern history a 7-plus quake had hit an urban centre with no deaths. The quake was an ocean swell, a great rolling wave that rose and fell but left things much as they were. The quake scared the hell out of people, and houses cracked and the ground flooded with a fine mud, but it did not truly destroy the city’s sense of safety.

I remember my Standard Two teacher, Mr Ellis, explaining why we were so safe. He drew a wonky map on the blackboard. He tapped the bottom corner. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is New Zealand. Imagine someone wanted to attack us.’

He drew a dotted line heading our way, an attack force from Nauru, perhaps. Halfway across the blackboard Pacific it turned back. ‘See, they come to attack but it’s too far. They run out of petrol, and they have to turn round and go home.’

Christchurch really did feel that far from the pain of the world. We had no idea there were fault lines under the city, that earthquakes ran in the family. Nothing much happened and we were grateful. The reasons parents wanted to raise kids there – the relaxed pace, the near-totalitarian stability – were the same reasons those kids wanted to get the hell out. The 7.0 quake in Haiti razed Port Au Prince, killed a hundred thousand and left more than a million homeless. Christchurch lost power, water and sewage, but often only for days or weeks. We treated crush injuries and concussions in our first-world hospitals and pulled down the damaged buildings. We had building codes, by god. Building codes and insurance. We had our deeply ingrained sense of luck. Even our earthquakes fit the pattern.

When I visited in December 2010 the main evidence of the quake was a rash of blue tarps over the city’s roofs. The streets were lined with piles of fallen chimney bricks, like little altars. There were a few cleared sites and some older buildings were fenced off, pending repairs or demolition. Everyone I met was compelled to share their stories, and those of their neighbours, all of whom they now knew. It was as if the quake had been a synchronising of watches, a zeroing of disparate lives that gave everyone a common origin: We survived the quake. We were scared shitless, and it’s been a drag boiling the drinking water, but we all survived. The gratitude was palpable. It felt like the city was a bit more willing to smile, even if its front teeth had been knocked out.

When I boarded a plane for Melbourne, the narrative was clear. You have a crisis, you respond, things get fixed up and life returns to normal. The Press published a letter to the editor claiming damage to the red-light district was a warning from God. Those little wheels began to turn. Things were going to be okay.


SOMEWHERE DOWN BY the hospital, in the crook of the river, is the site of a disaster, perhaps the area’s first. The place was called Puahi Pa, a settlement of the old Waitaha people. Our ancestors lived here, going back seven hundred years, then Ngai Tahu after them, moving across the landscape on foot, to the swamps and marshes, the grasslands and podocarp forests beside the river, hunting and gathering food, listening for the whoop of kereru. They used the long, hollow bones of bird wings as koauau flutes, and made putorinoBtrumpets from hardwood. Visitors were welcomed with the high and lonely cry of the karanga, and challenged with haka. The language itself that filled the landscape is deep and round. To my ear, the Maori word for ‘world’ sums this up: ao.

European whalers came in the 1830s, and European interest in settlement grew throughout the 1840s. For the people at Puahi and the other Ngai Tahu settlements, here was the first great rupture, the break point between one society and the next. It was a slow-motion disaster; it was catastrophic, and it was not. It was the founding of the city – land for my first European ancestor, William Newnham, in 1850. It meant the ring of picks on rock as foundation stones went down, and the nasal stammering of Maori spoken with a common cold; the sound of corks worked out of bottles, fence posts hammered in, the sudden thunder of horses and guns. Demand for land was fierce. Kemp’s Deed was inked in 1848 by the chiefs of Ngai Tahu and the land passed over. Ten per cent was to be held aside for the tribe, written into the deed of sale. The land was not held aside. The land was cleared and planted with oaks and willows. Christchurch would be an idyllic, pre-industrial revolution English town.

Ngai Tahu were moved out to reserves. When visiting they camped near Puahi at Little Hagley Park, squatters on their own land. The sound of their presence in the landscape was silenced, and this silence became the true marker of the disaster. Children were forbidden to speak Maori at school; the laterBSuppression of Tohunga Act attempted to stop priests from practising their chants and prayers. Ngai Tahu presence in the city was reduced to the cry of a produce seller in Market Square.

In Christchurch, perhaps more than any other sizeable New Zealand city, there has been almost no Maori presence. But even if a disaster is not named, or addressed, it doesn’t go away. The social damage of that forced displacement was felt through the whole of the nation’s society. The tribe did not stop fighting for redress for one day. And the geography of the ancestors – the pa and kainga sites, the trails, the swamps, rivers and marshes – were still there, just beneath the surface.



John Dodgson is an organist. To his trained ear it was the blast of a low C, the deepest note on the scale, coming from everywhere at once. He knew instantly what it was. My father, a jazz musician, knew it too. The sound came, and the fear came, and it surged up from a sound and a feeling into a mighty weight that roared through the house like an invisible freight train, twisting and popping the joists and beams, bursting open walls and floors. The ground tore itself up by the roots, and with sudden and extreme violence shrugged the people off.

The roar is louder than anything we can imagine. It’s the sound of a tectonic plate moving, and buildings collapsing and books and furniture going over, and it rises up through the scale to the wild crash of every fork and glass and plate hurled from every cupboard in your house, in every house, in every street. It’s the sound of the ground beneath your feet, and bedrock and safe as houses being torn down. It’s the death of the city’s narrative. Imagine the noise of it. Imagine the fear.

It was only 6.3 in magnitude but the g-force, the sudden ground acceleration, was among the highest ever recorded. If the September earthquake was a huge rolling wave, this was a sledgehammer. From the quake’s heart in Banks Peninsula, the ground jolted violently towards the city then, as the crust of the earth rose, then fell, a second massive shock rose up to meet it. The two shockwaves collided. This time the impact was catastrophic.

The cathedral spire and its enormous bells were thrown into the square. All across the city old brick buildings exploded. The central city’s heavy Victorian facades were tossed directly onto people and cars below. Buildings corkscrewed on their foundations and buckled and fell, and great halos of dust rose in their place. The CTV building collapsed and caught fire. The Pyne Gould Guinness office tower came down one floor at a time. Those on the top floor rode it down like a great concrete wave. Those beneath were crushed. As the buildings came down, the swamps and marshes and ancient, buried waterways rose up.

My uncle was at the back of a huge furniture showroom when it hit. He struggled through the debris of a dozen destroyed living rooms and out into the street, late enough to avoid the falling masonry. He spent the next few hours shunted this way and that through the carnage, past bodies crushed in cars and people trying to dig others out of the rubble. The city was filled with the deep concussions of aftershocks and the sharp, vicious clatter of masonry coming down on rescuers. Up on the Port Hills boulders thundered through houses as easily as a kid kicks in a sandcastle. In the Durham Street Methodist Church three people were killed when the roof collapsed. They were in the process of dismantling the huge pipe organ. I can only imagine the noise that made when it came down.

What happened immediately after the quake is the stuff of horror movies. From the sewers, from the drains, from garden beds and the cracks in roads, a thick, suffocating grey-black mud began to spill out across the ground. It pooled in gutters, then spread across roads and up over the footpaths and into houses. It flooded through kitchens and living rooms and in some cases flowed up through the floor itself. It came out of the toilets, mixed with sewage. It swallowed gardens and cars and whole suburbs, turning them into a toxic, featureless black moonscape.

People knew what it was, technically. The super-fast vibrations of the quake turned the fine topsoil to liquid, and as the heavier soil and rocks churned and sank, the liquid was forced up and out. It’s called liquefaction, but it felt like a nightmare. It felt mythical. It was as if the city’s fear had been made physically real, and come spilling out of the ground.

After the noise, silence. A frantic kind of silence punctuated by car alarms and the rolling boom of aftershocks. Strangers first, then police, then urban search and rescue teams moved through the city grid, shouting to one another, building-to-building, rubble-to-rubble. The city was declared a no-fly zone so that the search teams’ ultra-sensitive audio equipment could pick up the slightest sound – scratching, tapping, a voice, a breath. It was an incongruous picture: workers poised, almost on tiptoe, listening to the rubble; and at their backs, lines of huge steel diggers, claws upraised, listening too.

The strongest instinct was to get home to family. The city emptied out, but it was a slow and stressful process. The bridges across the Avon were all damaged, and the roads a buckled mess of debris, of mud, of people wandering in shock. I met a woman who ran home to find her children. She had been in the Family Court signing her divorce papers when the quake struck. She and the court clerk flung themselves under the table. Fuck it, she thought. She reached back up, grabbed the papers and signed them anyway, though the signature is unlikely to match the one on her licence. When the immediate shocks subsided she and the clerk ran. When she finally got home, seven kilometres through the mud, her youngest daughter said, ‘What took you so long?’

Many had no homes to go to. Their homes had either collapsed, been thrown off their foundations, were buried in sewage and mud, or lacked water, power and shelter from the weather. Hagley Park, where Ngai Tahu had squatted after being removed from their land in the 1850s, once again became a campsite for the displaced.


IN THE FOLLOWING days and weeks people helped each other. The porcelain veneer of Christchurch politeness cracked with the sewage pipes. No matter what Mayor Bob Parker was talking about on TV or radio, he stressed helping. Check on your neighbours. See how they’re going. Do it. Do it again. People were physically unprepared, but responded psychologically without hesitation. Thousands of student volunteers dug out the buried suburbs, and distributed food and water. The pragmatic, stoic, shut up and get on with it side of the city’s character came into its own. I felt proud when a work colleague spoke of interviews with Christchurch people on TV: ‘They’re so down-to-earth about it. The city’s buggered, but oh well, we’ll build a new one. Not like people I saw in Queensland with the cyclone. Oh! Oh! My house is destroyed – my life is over. Oh! Oh!

It was around this time that the word ‘munted’ gained almost universal currency, used by everyone up to and including the New Zealand Prime Minister to describe things that were severely damaged. My house is munted. The sewage system is munted. Yeah, the city’s munted. The word is blunt, flat, heavy in the mouth, without pretension or melodrama. It seemed perfect for the newly emerging Christchurch.

As people worked to clear the rubble, they talked. There was a sense of disbelief that could only be whittled away through talking. Underneath the specifics of each individual story, I imagine those conversations were all the same. They boiled down to people telling each other, over and over, this is shared, and this is real.


I WAS IN the bush outside Castlemaine when I got the news. My friend Malcolm looked up from his laptop and said, ‘Six point four, in Christchurch. Fatalities, they -‘ and I was gone, out the door, running through the bush to get phone reception. I blundered into a thick spider’s web that clung to my face, gummed my eyes and mouth shut. Christchurch was my family, my parents, my brother, grandfather, uncle, cousins, old friends and old flames. I stood on top of the hill behind my house in perfect sunshine, and called and called and called. I’ve never felt so sick.

It took days to get confirmation that everyone I knew was okay, and in those days I obsessively consumed the news. One video stayed with me, of three young women moving slowly through the ruins. I knew those women a generation earlier. Elegantly dressed in asymmetrical black, they were the ones selling Nom*D clothes, or making coffees at C1 or out for a dance at Ministry. The one in the middle had lost half her face. It hung off in a bloody clump that sagged as she walked.

For the first few hours the reporting was urgent and upset. It was hastily typed, hand-held, full of mistakes. Then the postings began to resemble news items, giving overviews and summaries. The press releases arrived, the carefully crafted statements of politicians and officials. But in those initial raw hours a conduit had opened. It was possible to feel the weight and distress of what was happening, and share the total disbelief that it could be happening to Christchurch. This was the place I’d escaped because of its immutable sameness. I thought of the people who might be dead. I thought of all the stories contained in those bricks. All the history I’d left behind.


I WENT BACK a month later. I sat up late with Mum in the dining room, talking about family, about our own crisis that ran parallel to the earthquakes. She said, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ and the earth said it for her. Thunder rose sharply beneath us, and the shockwave slammed through, a sickening drag in the guts like the thrust of a huge and wilful hand. It lifted and rolled the floor under our feet and set the house shuddering and moaning in protest. Every object reached a rattling crescendo then the shock passed on and was gone. I was terrified. Mum laughed, not unkindly. ‘Four point three, four point four,’ she said. ‘You’ll be okay.’ She bounded upstairs to check the Geonet website. She came back down triumphant. ‘Four point four.’

Having experienced thousands of tremors, the inhabitants of Christchurch had become accurate human seismographs. It was a daily game, this filing of earthquakes under precise, knowable numbers, and a small attempt to assert some human control. But the ongoing aftershocks were so severe that, according to the local mental health expert Cerina Altenburg, Christchurch citizens were displaying the symptoms of extreme stress usually seen in war zones. The adrenaline had worn off. Grief for people, land and place was setting in. One hundred and eighty-one people were confirmed dead. Whole suburbs would be written off. Most schools and businesses were closed or badly disrupted. My friend Eric posted on Facebook: ‘Um…what do we do now?’

I went walking. The city did look and feel like a war zone. The streets were silent. The city’s once private homes were visible in intimate cross-section, where a fallen wall or chimney had torn the side of the building open. Soldiers in tanks and troop carriers stood guard among the willows and oaks. An older woman with a lip ring asked what the tanks were for. ‘We’re a tank unit,’ insisted the soldier. ‘That’s just our ride.’

I headed through Hagley Park, down to Armagh Street and the river. I felt like I had lost the power of speech. So much was gone, and something in the line of the buildings still standing was wrong. They were dreamlike, somehow slumped or bulging, seen through distorted glass. Nothing was straight, not roads nor footpaths nor walls.

On Armagh Street the Provincial Chambers had not fallen down. They were as if bombed. In the autumn sun I had a moment of surreal clarity, watching the light catch on a jagged mess of stone against a blank blue sky. The building’s pulverised earthquake strengthening frame was visible through the ruin and, beyond that, its dragon-scale slate roof twisted down like some great creature with a broken spine. My experience and vocabulary were so inadequate that all I could write in my notebook was ‘like a large-scale public art installation’.

Walking south I came to the Worcester Boulevard Bridge. It stood at the centre of a colonial vista running east to the cathedral and west to the museum. A nostalgic tourist tram ran its length. It was peopled with statues of the founding old boys. The gentle willow-lined Avon ran beneath its ironwork railings, and a long-forgotten sandwich board advertised Genuine Edwardian Punting. This was the apex of the city’s conservative heritage, its visual link with the past. It was, as they say, munted.

At one end the city founder William Rolleston lay with his head buried six inches deep in the brickwork. At the other, Godley had toppled. Shackelton lay down there on the riverbank like a stiff-legged old drunk. All along this vista and throughout the city, heritage buildings had borne the brunt of the damage. The old city’s symbol, the Anglican cathedral, had been beheaded.

These monuments and beautiful old Gothic buildings were from the era of colonial arch-conservatism, of tradition and entitlement and the God-given right to the land. They were built stone by stone as the public face of the Better Britain of the South. They had such internal mass that when the earth changed direction beneath them, the buildings did not follow. They collapsed. Like the city’s old identities and self-beliefs, they were largely held together by their own weight, and by the unspoken premise that they would never, ever budge.

The streets of Christchurch contained more than the ghosts of an archaic British culture. They contained the personal ghosts of our earlier selves. Moving through Christchurch was always like moving back in time. Looking along Kilmore Street into the cordoned-off Red Zone, I could just see Victoria Square. If Worcester Boulevard was the apex of the city’s colonial history, Victoria Square might be my familial equivalent. I imagined myself jumping up onto the bricks, skating past my former selves, past the ghost of my mum aged twenty, reading TS Eliot on her lunchbreak. From the Caledonian I can hear the liquid-glass sounds of free jazz from my dad’s band. My grandfather is up by the bridge, a crowd gathered round the purring engine of his open-topped 1936 Opel, the same model that ferried Hitler through the streets of Berlin.

I imagine myself hitting the amphitheatre at speed now, popping the skateboard out on the two-step, catching it beneath my feet and resetting for the five. My great-grandmother Emerald Anne, a singer and a gambler, croons an old waiata to herself, waiting outside the courthouse where she translated for Maori prisoners. My wheels blur over the bricks, and as I crouch and then launch myself off the stairs, the earthquake hits my imaginings. It is impossible now to think about these memories without thinking about their erasure.

Up ahead, the great wide face of the Park Royal Hotel, where I ate my graduation dinner of bloody lamb, and wondered at the weight of my great-great-grandfather’s mortar cap: it ripples and bulges forward, and its windows shear down into the amphitheatre. Our Tuahuriri ancestors are there below, in the old Market Square, blankets about their shoulders, running. I imagine horses screaming in the streets, and my great-great-grandmother watching as the river, Te Otakaro, devours its banks, and the willows, and its English name. The European city going under. Stones falling, the earth opening, a phantom geography of swamp and marshland welling up. Waitaha ancestors stalking through the rushes. All those memories, all the way back, unearthed.

Standing there looking towards Victoria Square, it seemed to me that the memories bound up in the city were not erased, but unearthed. They had floated free from the wreckage, like the sound of bells, or the haze of dust that hung over the city when it all came down. We were thinking and talking about our own personal stories, and the city’s histories, as never before. Some would be retained and re-anchored in the new city. Some, like that thin, high drone of complacency, had already blown away.


DOWN BY PUAHI Pa and all along the line of the river Avon, the geography of the ancestors was still there, just beneath the surface. In the flooded suburbs, the pre-European landscape of waterways and marshes was suddenly and terribly visible.

This is a disaster; it is catastrophic, and it is not. Like colonisation, the earthquake means the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. It marks a symbolic rupture to match the arrival of Europeans, the break point between one society and the next. And with the CBD to be rebuilt from the ground up, there is an opportunity for Ngai Tahu to re-enter the city, and a bicultural identity to enter with them.

Ngai Tahu are, to use an Australian term, the traditional owners of Christchurch. But they are modern capitalist owners as well. Following the iwi‘s 1997 Treaty settlement the tribe has grown its assets to NZ$650 million, and is now a heavy hitter in the city’s residential and commercial development. Even before the quakes, Ngai Tahu had bought the central police station, the courts, the old army barracks, and a 50 per cent stake in the city council buildings. The tribal leadership has an eye for reliable tenants, and a healthy sense of historic irony. The tribe will be one of the key partners and financial engines of the city’s regrowth.

Beyond this economic role is the desire to give voice to iwi values and culture. The tribe has identified as key priorities the enhancement of waterways, indigenous ecosystems and sacred places, and has a focus on sustainability and good urban design. The heart of the new city is likely to be a huge bicultural riverfront park, built as a partnership between the council and Ngai Tahu. This is the land where our ancestors gathered, hunted and sang, and may include the old site of Puahi Pa. It would be fitting if the response to the current disaster also helped break the silence surrounding a much older one.


WHAT DOES CHRISTCHURCH sound like now? It shifts between the quiet, steady murmur of merely surviving the quake – filling buckets with water, rustling through insurance policies – and a healthy cacophony. Much is grief and fear, as people make sense of their loss by sharing it aloud. There is enormous anger and frustration too, ultimately caused by the earth, but being vented on those in charge of the clean-up. Civil Defence bulldozers are finishing off unsafe buildings, and those adjacent, and owners must stand by while their possessions inside are destroyed. In the working-class east, where a cold easterly whips in off the sea, whole suburbs are being written off. This is where most of the city’s Maori and Polynesian communities live, and it is a part of Christchurch that has never bought into, or been included in, the city’s Englishness. There is a slower, more subtle sense of tragedy unfolding out there, as each street is abandoned house by house.

The cacophony also contains a clear note of determination, and a healthy fuck-you to those who would downplay the city’s value or the disaster’s scale. Remarkable projects like Gap Filler are bringing music, film and creativity back to the city’s ruined spaces. Humour is present, too. In response to those who claimed damage to the red-light district was proof that God hates prostitutes, it has been pointed out that the February quake destroyed most of the city’s churches. Social connections formed through coping are moving from side effect to centre-stage. Whole streets have become more than just neighbours since September, and there is talk of relocating en masse.

Another aspect of the city’s new sound is intimate family conversation, prompted by the act of survival. Christchurch has been a stoic place in the past. Silence has been one of its strongest instincts. At my great-aunt and great-uncle’s funeral, a theme was they were so humble, and they never made a fuss. If there is one thing Christchurch taught its sons and daughters, it was never to make a fuss. But at their funeral I began to learn about the full, difficult, human richness of their lives. The same has happened since the earthquake in February, when people, faced with loss of life and loss of history, have given voice to more family stories.

I have learned about my great-grandfather, a ship’s engineer who survived World War I, lost everything in the Depression, and was forced to work on his brother’s raspberry farm. His bullying at times drove his wife to an asylum. He spent his days shovelling strawberries and raspberries and a swift, sour anger into the vats of jam. His daughter, my great-aunt, made that same jam, but rendered it generous and sweet. I have heard about the Panzer tank that picked off my great-uncle as he ran for cover in an Italian field. Shrapnel emerged from his skull decades later. He and his paralysed left arm helped build back-country huts throughout the Southern Alps. I have heard the quiet whisper of melancholia, that most subtle and destructive of tremors, starting with my great-great-great-grandfather who was a guest in the Lyttelton Jail. The superintendent treated him with books and conversation. In all of this, I’ve come to think about resilience and rebuilding. Each of these stories are disasters; catastrophic, and not.

It is sad that it takes a disaster to make a stronger city. So often, too, it takes a disaster to start the conversations needed to make a stronger family. These processes are underway, and to both the city and my family I say: let’s make a fuss!


THESE MYRIAD CONVERSATIONS have come together in the City Council’s Draft City Plan. More than a hundred thousand submissions were gathered, from a population of 380,000. My cynical, nineteen-year-old self assumed the conservative old city would simply propose a conservative new city, statues, willow trees and all. But, given the chance, Christchurch has collectively proposed something radically different from its old elitist robes. The plan details a green, people-friendly, low-rise, largely car-free space. Ngai Tahu are front and centre, and the river, Te Otakaro, will form a bicultural corridor through the heart of the city. We tend to think of the built environment as giving form to our values. But it can also constrain their evolution. Christchurch inhabited its old built environment as an adult still wearing its childhood clothes, stretched to bursting in some parts, hanging empty in others. Its population has seized the chance to make something new.

It is easy to be optimistic from thousands of miles away. The proposal is part design plan, part PR exercise and part wish list, written and read while the city is still in collapse. The proposal has plenty of problems, and the city’s conservative culture is still vocal and powerful. But if even half of the new plan could be achieved, Christchurch would become one of the great little cities in the world. I’ve never cried over a city council document before. Reading this one, I felt a surge of love and pride.

When the city is finally rebuilt, the council has decreed there will be a memorial at its heart. I have a suggestion. It is based on the resonance of the city. I think about the ghostly ringing of the cathedral bells in the first quake. I think about how church bells have rung in times of distress or celebration, and how the wave form of a seismograph resembles the wave form of a piece of music. After all, music and earthquakes are both a type of vibration.

I propose a set of earthquake bells, one for each of the 181 people killed in the February 2011 quake. The bells would be made from the materials of the old city – the bells and organ pipes, the copper roofs and domes. There would be bells of greenstone, and of wood, the materials of the even older settlements. They would range in size from tiny, high and clear all the way down to that biblical, thunderous low C. They would hang in a glistening galaxy beside the ruined cathedral for people to walk among.

Most importantly, the bells would translate the Richter scale into a musical scale. The bells would be played by earthquakes. They would turn the surges of the earth into a strange, exquisite music. The tiny, high-pitched bells would ring almost continuously, a faint flickering sound just on the edge of hearing, a constant reminder not of complacency, but of the living earth. At memorial services, the bells would replay the actual 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, tremor for tremor like a vast symphony. As the vibrations increased, the larger, deeper bells would begin to ring, with great volume and intensity, all the way up to the strikes of the great 6.3 and 7.1 bells. They would transform the power of the earth into a musical, cathartic act of remembrance.

September 2011

  • Client - Griffith REVIEW
  • Date Completed - Autumn 2011
  • Details - First published in Griffith REVIEW edition 35: Surviving Copyright Griffith REVIEW and Nic Low
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