BBC News

Christchurch: The pop-up city

By Megan Lane
Christchurch, New Zealand

image copyrightChristchurch City Libraries
image captionThe Isaac Theatre Royal has undergone a major rebuild, including restoration works of its iconic features

Cardboard, shipping containers and pallets are key building materials often seen in post-quake Christchurch. But a much-loved and much-damaged Edwardian theatre reopens this month after a $NZ40m ($31m, £19m) restoration. Is permanence returning to this pop-up city?

When the curtain first went up at the Isaac Theatre Royal in 1908, it was surrounded by vacant lots.

"For a while, we thought that might be its fate again," said Neil Cox, the theatre's chief executive. "Half the block has gone."

For today's Christchurch is not unlike the Christchurch of old.

Three and a half years ago, an earthquake shook the city to its core, claiming 185 lives and leaving its badly-damaged centre cordoned off. More than 1,000 demolitions followed, including the nearby Christchurch Cathedral's toppled spire.

The theatre, however, has undergone a major rebuild since the quake, including restoration of its period features.

UK stage and screen actor Sir Ian McKellen, who fell in love with the Isaac when he performed Waiting For Godot there in 2007, has raised $NZ350,000 for its resurrection.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe 2011 earthquake badly damaged the city centre, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSir Ian McKellen (pictured in this 2011 file photo) raised funds to repair the historic Isaac Theatre Royal

The Isaac Theatre - known as the Grand Old Lady - reopens on 17 November, the first permanent entertainment venue to return to central Christchurch after the quake.

"The half of the block we're on, it seems to be good land," said Mr Cox.

"The trams are running again past the end of the street, there are three hotels and a new medical centre. Yes, there are vacant lots but vacant lots make good car parks."

After its dramatic makeover - rebuilt from facade to proscenium arch - the theatre is almost ready.

"We've been able to take it back to its early history, such as restoring gold gilding on the decorative plasterwork and removing 100 years of accumulated grime, nicotine and dust from the painted canvas ceiling dome," Mr Cox said.

Heritage project?

The hope is the theatre, and its eclectic opening line-up of ballet, satirical comedy and rock group Jethro Tull, will attract people back to the city centre.

The cordons have been lifted but normal service has yet to fully resume.

Mr Cox hopes to serve up a captive audience to the shops and eateries that have sprung up in the past year, many still housed in shipping containers.

In a city that has lost so much, saving a slice of its heritage is widely welcomed.

image copyrightIsaac Theatre
image captionMillions of dollars went into restoring the Isaac Theatre
image copyrightDonna Robertson/Flickr
image captionThis mosaic armchair, by Crack'd for Christchurch, stands on a site where three people died in the quake

"We are thrilled when anything reopens in Christchurch, especially a wonderful heritage project. It is just a source of happiness," said Jenny Cooper, an illustrator-turned-mosaic artist.

She too has tried to bring beauty and people back to the city centre, in collaboration with Greening the Rubble, a charity that creates pop-up parks, and fellow mosaicists of Crack'd for Christchurch.

On a vacant site cleared after crumbling buildings killed nine people in the February 2011 earthquake, there now stands a mosaic armchair with matching mosaic ottoman.

'Unrecognisable and eerie'

The sculptures, made from donated china smashed by the tremors, are set in a cottage garden planted with trees and flowers rescued from homes earmarked for demolition.

"I started collecting china straight after the 2011 earthquake," Ms Cooper said.

"It seemed quite a mental thing to do amid all the dust and death. But people were grateful that something could be made from it. That's the thing with china - even when it's smashed, it's beautiful."

image copyrightJENNY COOPER
image captionSmashed but beautiful - Ms Cooper has been trying to restore beauty in Christchurch

Many fragments come with poignant stories, such as the remains of a grandmother's beloved tea set, first used at her funeral.

Christchurch is now "the weirdest place", Ms Cooper said.

"There's nowhere you can't go any more but lots of places where there's no reason to go. There are a lot of pop-ups, a terrible lot of traffic cones and it's horrible to get around with all the [reconstruction] roadworks."

"Some people are energised by it, others feel overwhelmed by the mess," she added.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSince the 2011 earthquake, many public spaces have reopened to the public

Pam Vickers, who wrote a quake diary for the BBC News website, is among those mourning a lost Christchurch.

"It is totally unrecognisable and eerie. The cathedral is a bird aviary and I must admit, I quite like that. We park on cleared rubble sites and I look at the road signs and think: 'Am I really on the corner of Litchfield and Colombo?' There are no familiar landmarks."

Like many others, she waits in limbo with no word from insurers on when her home might be repaired.

"I'm guessing April next year, more than four years after the quake," she said.

That's around the same time that Mr Cox hopes to tempt Sir Ian McKellen back for a gala celebration marking the rebirth of Christchurch's Grand Old Lady.

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