For this curmudgeon, one of the most memorable images after Christchurch’s February quake was the man from the munted suburb of Bexley who told a TV3 reporter that what his street needed immediately was “Portaloos and books”. That seemed to me to sum up in the most compelling way the essential ingredients of recovery – the immediate necessities of life and some of the simplest glue that holds communities together. I pointed out after the less disastrous September quake that the city’s libraries and the art gallery had done record business.
The books came, but sadly not to Bexley. Under the brilliant Gap Filler scheme, the inspired initiative of Coralie Winn, old shop refrigerators have appeared on vacant lots filled with books and are doing a thriving exchange business. Gap Filler is doing much else besides, and now with official support. It is a simple idea and a dashing metaphor for cultural recovery.
On that subject, there is a lot of complicated thinking going on, much of it about how a new Christchurch might look. There are a great many competing aesthetics. But architect Marshall Cook has stumbled on what might be a fundamental flaw in that. He has come up with a simple architectural equation that needs to be resolved first.
Before we can have any real idea about how built Christchurch might look, we need to know how it will be built. Style, argues Cook, inevitably follows technology. The history of architecture seems very much on his side. If I had paid more attention to algebra – my form teacher astutely observed that I was “easily confused” – I might venture an equation for you. Style follows technology. Technology is invented by cultures. Cultures are shaped by internal evolutions and external stresses.
Two examples: the enclosed barrel vault of Romanesque churches of 6th to 10th century Europe where the church was battling for power – the Church Militant – and the soaring arches and flying buttresses of the gothic cathedrals that followed when the battle was won and the church was in control – the Church Triumphant. History is littered with examples, such as Emperor Constantine’s vast dome of Hagia Sophia and St Peter’s Basilica, both celebrating the technologies of their age.
It is not hard to see what is evolving and what is stressing the larger culture of Christchurch – a decade at least of tectonic stress and an ingenious determination to remake a whole city. If Cook is right, those circumstances should be single-mindedly driving the invention of a technology that will allow that to happen. Once that has happened, the architectural language will flower; here are the essential pieces – rearrange them in as many ingenious ways as the art of architecture can devise. Gap Filler and the man from Bexley both seemed to grasp the essential simplicity of this process. Of course, to make that metaphor more encouraging and fair, the first fridge should have been in Bexley.