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The Christchurch that could be: How the FESTA festival of urban renewal is creating magic out of disaster

This Labour Weekend, Christchurch welcomes back the Festival of Transitional Architecture, a biennial examination and celebration of the post-earthquake rebuild. Summer Hess talks city-making with the FESTA team.

Most people wouldn’t plan an event in central city Christchurch while the army still controlled the Red Zone. But Jessica Halliday, an architectural historian and the co-founder of the Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA), wanted to welcome residents back to their city with a bold, massively-scaled street party. She hoped to reignite the vitality banished by the 2011 earthquakes, which killed 185 people and decimated the city.

FESTA 2014. Photo: Jonny Knopp

FESTA 2014. Photo: Jonny Knopp

In 2012 Halliday, along with an expansive team of volunteer architects and designers, conjured up a temporary cityscape of magical features and unusual proportions for one night only. They fashioned a carnival of lights, built giant puppets to roam the streets, and mounted large-scale installations to swallow the crowds up in wonder. Halliday remembers how the carcasses of mid-demolition buildings still loomed over the event site on Gloucester Street. “There was a sense of grief initially,” she says. “People were adjusting to the state of the city and the changes it was going through. But as night fell and the city came to life with colour, the energy turned and it became more a celebration with joy and wonder.”

Five thousand attendees were expected to brighten the heart of the CBD at that first FESTA. When 20,000 people turned up, organisers realised they had created more than an exhibition of unique post-earthquake structures. They had administered some much-needed social first aid to the people of Christchurch by fostering new, collective experiences in the centre city.

Of course, one night can’t change everything. But it can catalyse a shift in consciousness. Through tours, presentations and workshops about the temporary structures, and the philosophies behind them, FESTA stitched together the story of the city’s post-disaster installations in a new way. The Transitional Cathedral, the Pallet Pavilion, the Sound Garden and many other projects were presented as more than cute, creative one-offs. They were now part of a cohesive movement.

FESTA showed that transitional architecture in Christchurch had become an artful moving-meditation that put citizens at the centre of urban renewal.

Kids play on an installation at FESTA 2014. Photo: Erica Austin

Kids play on an installation at FESTA 2014. Photo: Erica Austin

Now that the city has transitioned from Red Zone to Rebuild Zone, the biennial festival has adopted a new mission: keep the rebuild of Christchurch people-centered and democratic. To do this, FESTA’s governing organization, Te Putahi, hosts ongoing roundtable discussions called One Conversation, One Hundred Communities. Organisers use threads from these conversations to improve FESTA and develop other projects that include a diverse range of voices.

An example of this kind of inclusive city-making is a recent conversation with the Earthquake Disability Leadership Group (EDLG). “We’ve always struggled with accessibility,” says Halliday. Vacant sites are typically unlevelled and it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to be fully inclusive of all populations. Nonetheless, her team invited an intern from the geography department at the University of Canterbury to develop an exploratory report on accessibility. FESTA organisers don’t know how they can make the event work “for every body”, as the EDLG slogan goes, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to figure it out.

FESTA has also expanded the exploration of what’s possible to a global scale. This year Dutch architect Jos de Krieger joined the team as its first international creative director. De Krieger specialises in urban installations and helped conceptualise the 2016 theme—Lean Means—which challenges artists and students of architecture to delve into ‘Superuse.’ This radically sustainable design philosophy reuses surplus or waste materials in new constructions.

Christchurch-based groups like Our Daily Waste and Rekindle have partnered with seven design studios from across New Zealand and Australia to forge this year’s cityscape from diverted waste streams. They have also accepted the challenge of proposing zero-waste or low-waste afterlife solutions for their installations.

De Krieger believes that sustainability is one of the most important aspects of contemporary design and is excited about Christchurch’s contribution to a global conversation about sustainable city-making. “I hope that the students involved will take the lessons they’ve learned in this project as a benchmark for decisions in their design projects to come. Knowing that every aspect of your design, from material choice to shape, has an effect on a global level will make you do things differently.”

An installation at FESTA 2013. Photo: Jonny Knopp

An installation at FESTA 2013. Photo: Jonny Knopp

The topic of sustainable design is timely as Christchurch buckles under massive amounts of waste from demolition and construction sites. Halliday hopes that experimenting with superuse at FESTA will prompt a deeper conversation about the rebuild and encourage a transparent exploration for ways the city can do better.

“I hope we’re not getting too grandiose or unrealistic,” Halliday says, “but change doesn’t happen unless you ask the question, is this possible? Then you have to demonstrate it. You have to reimagine what’s possible then present it as an experience.”

As we will find out again this weekend, FESTA certainly has a knack for that. So much so that the Garden City may someday be known as the home of the Festival of Transitional Architecture—a uniquely local event with global impacts— and an international celebration of a resilient city’s post-disaster revival.

FESTA: 21 – 24 October 2016, Christchurch

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