Tūranga, the new central Christchurch library. Photo: Supplied

Two big reasons to hope that Christchurch city is coming back to life

Add a new central library and a cinema complex to the Margaret Mahy playground and you’ll see a template for how the rest of the rebuild should work, writes James Dann.

Christchurch in the rebuild is a city of extreme moods. There are bursts of energy, followed by long periods of frustration and stagnation. The optimism of seeing a new foundation being poured can be fast tempered by the news of a new Wilson’s carpark. Along Victoria St, the series of new-builds in 2012 and 2013 was the first suggestion that the rebuilding city might be more than just talk. Skip forward to now, and many of the eateries that saw this stretch of road dubbed “The Golden Mile” are struggling, with a series of high-profile closures leaving the shopfronts looking sad and empty.

Tony Astle’s problems got the most attention, but he was just one of the victims of what a friend who runs a cafe told me was the worst winter they could remember in a couple of decades in the industry. Despite this, the mood in the city still seems rather optimistic, as the days get longer, and a couple of key projects bring a bit more life to the central city. These two ventures – a cinema complex, and a new central library – have given Christchurch’s residents and visitors a reason not only to visit the CBD, but to keep coming back in.

Pre-quake, there were a couple of legacy theatres in the CBD, but as the multiplexes headed towards the malls, Hoyts built on the city fringe. Their flagship, Hoyts 8, was on Moorhouse Ave, where it could better serve the needs of a population increasingly addicted to cars and carparks. This was demolished post-quake, with a bullish developer announcing in 2012 that they would rebuild on the same site, with an eight-screen cinema, complete with hotel, gym, and a rooftop bar, ready by November 2013. The site was cleared, including the adjacent historic Railway Station building. The cinema complex never eventuated, and the site is now covered, ironically, by a petrol station and a car yard.

Given the failure of this project to see the light of day, as well as an uncertain future for the cinema industry, I had been approaching the bold announcements of a new cinema in the CBD with some skepticism. I need not have worried. On the corner of Lichfield and Colombo Streets, Hoyts EntX shares an intersection with the Christchurch icon Ballantynes, the Carter Group’s “The Crossing” development, and the Bus Exchange. The top two floors are the cinemas, with the ground floor given over to a foodcourt that is clearly aping successful ventures like Ponsonby Central. Though the food on offer is relatively expensive, and many of the spaces are still for lease, the ground floor succeeds where The Crossing and the Terrace (Antony Gough’s stop-start riverside development) have failed; it feels welcoming, accessible, and inclusive. Like the Bus Exchange, it is one of the few spaces in the new city where people can just meet up, hang out, get out of the weather, and not feel like they’re being judged.

Photo: James Dann

The cinema itself is fine. Like the movie I went to see, A Simple Favour, it takes a few elements that should work on paper and throws them together, not entirely convincingly, but gets a weak pass mark on the strength of its fundamentals. Every seat in every cinema has the ability to recline (although I have heard that some of the reclining motors have failed already). If you can imagine an alternate cut of Bladerunner 2049 that is about five minutes long, and centred around Ryan Gosling trying to buy tickets to a movie, then you will have a good idea of what trying to get into the cinema is like. It is a very dystopian, post-human experience. When you get to the top of the stairs, you are bombarded by screens playing trailers for current and future films, and presented with a row of touch-screens, on which to purchase your tickets. You’re then corralled through the candy aisle, a neon-corridor with popcorn, ice cream, and drinks, that are eye-wateringly expensive, even adjusting for inflation in 2049. If you didn’t get your feed here, you then have the option of a coffee or a beer at the bar, before you finally meet a real human person who will collect your ticket and show you to your cinema – which will be about five metres away from the place where your journey started.

This is Hoyts’ flagship cinema, and shows the direction that the multiplexes might be heading – lots of screens, comfortable seats, very few staff, with as much of the purchasing being handled digitally as is possible. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, and the choices of films on offer are fairly limited as well. Though the movies aren’t always cheap – the prices are all over the place, from $10 for the movie of the week to $25 for a seat in the more-upmarket Lux cinema – EntX has already succeeded in doing something that few other projects in the CBD have been able to do: bring people in to the city. It opened just in time for the school holidays, and on the weekend before school went back, the city’s excellent new public library was officially unveiled.

Though it has been only open for a few days, and I’ve not spent much more than five minutes inside it, I don’t think it is premature to say the Tūranga is the most successful building, in both form and function, that has been built in the post-quake city. This is the new central public library, a replacement for the previous old building that was on Gloucester St, about 250 metres away from the current site. The old site has been subsumed into the all-powerful Convention Centre project, but unlike the Convention Centre, Tūranga is actually something that people want.

Crowds flood into Tūranga. Photo: supplied

The weather on the day of Tūranga’s official opening was atrocious, with the small bursts of hail a brief respite from sideways rain and bitter southerly winds. And yet there were still thousands of people queuing to get a glimpse of the new space. They climbed the Escher-esque central stairway to find one of the best views of the city and the square. They gazed in awe at the touchscreen wall. They might even have stopped to find a book.

Even on a grey day, the building felt light and open – a notable contrast with the oppressive former central library. One of the notable absences from the building are visible steel cross beams. These have become the default style of the rebuild, a heavy metal X both a marker of engineering strength, and a symbol denoting safety. Tūranga is still as safe as any other new build, but not encumbered by this weighty reminder of the past. Externally, the building is clad with gold-tinted aluminium which evokes both stacks of books and the harakeke that would have been found in the swampy square of pre-Colonial Christchurch.

Many people had questioned whether the rise of ebooks and other digital technologies would make committing $100 million a sensible use of ratepayer money in 2018, but this isn’t your grandmother’s library. It’s barely even the library of 10 years ago. Alongside the stacks of books, there are also a variety of activities that would have previously warranted a serious shushing and a stern glance from the librarian:  3D printers, vinyl cutters, robotic LEGO, even a recoding studio. This is the culmination of more than a decade of the Christchurch City Council’s largely successful attempts to modernise their libraries, particularly at New Brighton, Christchurch South, and Te Hāpua. In spite of relentless pressure to sell-off assets, here the council has built a new asset that is designed to serve, rather than to provide a sustainable dividend stream.

The Margaret Mahy playground, Christchurch. Photograph: Donna Robertson

Even more than EntX, it is an inclusive place, one that is a welcome respite from the weather (especially relevant last Friday). Aside from the warmth, and the books, it also has computers and wifi and toilets – all really important for the depressingly large number of vulnerably housed people that have been largely left behind by the rebuild. And like the Last Great Rebuild Project, the Margaret Mahy Playground, it is designed with children in mind. If you make something that’s going to entertain the kids for a couple of hours, then you’re also bringing the parents and caregivers in – and they’re going to spend money, whether it be on a coffee, a carpark, or a jumper that caught their eye on the way back to the car.

I realise that this might not sound like rocket science, but it is something that our rebuild leaders have failed to recognise, time and time again. The way in which the cinema and the library have been embraced by the public of Christchurch, as they did with the playground before, shows the importance of making a city that puts people at its centre. By making it an attractive and exciting place for kids, they are investing in the next generations of our city, rather than trying to squeeze more money out of the stingy burghers of Old Christchurch. The successes of these three projects, especially contrasted with the public’s generally ambivalent reaction to the heavily prescribed central core, will hopefully inform the direction of the few remaining major builds.

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