Part Four: “Is this what you meant?”

If I was to sum up my critique of CERA in the shortest way possible it would with this one sentence: ‘Is that what you meant?’ This sentence is a critical part of any complex process. A person asks their opinion on something, they formulate that opinion into another form – a document, a design, a proposal, a sketch – and then go back to them and say ‘This is what I have done, is that what you meant?’ What normally then follows is a complex, intriguing, and difficult conversation where the questioner explains all the reasons that it is turning out this way, and the questionee reflects on what are the more or less important parts of the original answer. There is iteration, compromise and new ideas are formed.

This is precisely the process that has been missing in the redesign and rebuild of the central city. The people had a say during the “Share an Idea” process. For the government this is the end of it. They seem to have taken to heart the joke that ‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.’ (H. L Mencken). I don’t particularly believe that people, as a whole, know what they want, but I also don’t think the government or any of the shipped in advisors know either. However, it would be nice if we (and others like the representatives of those that can’t speak) were included in the conversation. That would be the first step.
Over the past three articles I’ve tried to articulate that not including the public is dumb politics that leads to dumb design, but I’d also suggest that it is dumb economics. The financial meltdown that rocked the world in 2007-08 hinged on a number of Wall Street firms developing stock options so complex that it was impossible for investors to have any understanding of what was in them. The heavy reliance on these options that turned out to be dodgy compositions of bad loans was what brought the banks down so quickly. This could not have happened if the market could see what they were investing in. It would seem that both democracy and the economy rely on transparency to function.

And if so, is the complete failure of the government to attract international investment into their rebuild project partly to blame on the opaque government structure that is developing the new city? We have stadiums, conventions centres, justice precincts, and many other government-led projects emerging with no publicly available business cases behind them. Should we be surprised that this isn’t creating investor confidence? If CERA won’t even release their organizational structure, how are we are supposed to trust them with rebuilding a city?

Over the holidays it struck me that Minister Brownlee’s unfortunate health problems have inadvertently removed the most effective metaphor to describe the performance of post-quake CERA; being an overweight, top-heavy and opaque bureaucracy that develops its own internal inertia which logic and common-sense can’t budge. I’ve repeated this idea enough times now, and figure its probably getting pretty boring. So to finish this short series of 4 posts I’m going to briefly comment on each of the so called anchor projects.

In our upcoming book (released October this year) we will have a much closer look at the logic that is guiding the focus on anchor projects (anchornomics) but for now I’d like to do a David Killick-inspired update of the good and bad of the projects as they are at the moment. Killick has a regular feature article in the Press called Design Matters which presents an extraordinary opportunity to communicate the depth and beauty of matters of design, yet Killick has developed a design-lite approach to writing that raises important issues in poetic lists without any sort of explanation or context. One friend said if you read it out loud it sounds like Ralph Wiggum from the Simpsons.

So here goes:

1. Avon River

I covered this in the last part of this series here. Great idea, poor process. Will probably come out ok, but well short of the extraordinary potential this project offered.

2. Hospital and health precinct

I don’t know the details of this, but there is significant funding in place and they have hired some of the most competent and experienced designers in Australasia for this project, so looking promising.

3. Justice Precinct

The building isn’t going to change the world, but the project is based on a really sound idea that emerged from the post quake experience – to keep ministries and departments close to each other. So this building will have emergency, courts, corrections and other departments all in one area. Reports are that it is going well and looks promising on both an urban and organizational levels.

4. The stadium

Too big and too expensive. Do we really need to spend another $50 – $100 million on a stadium just for a couple of Lions Tours? Crazy stuff. A small and well-designed stadium might work this close to the city if carefully arranged, but anything as big as proposed should stay where it is.

5. Convention Centre

This is the most dangerous project for the city. It occupies two large blocks in the heart of the city. I don’t know of any other city that thinks it’s a great idea to stick a monolithic project with an internal focus at the centre, its normally much smarter to put it on the edge so it can do its own thing, but close enough that the business of hotels and restaurants and cafes feeds into the heart. The original proposal that was given to the designers was for a convention centre 4 times the size of the previous one (this is apparently now being reconsidered.) The key with this project is to keep the edges alive so that no part of the city is destroyed by parking, entrances, storage and the sides of large internal spaces; it is hard to see how this can be done on four edges, so will inevitably kill at least one street in the city. This is a really big project and there has been no information released on it yet.

6. East and South Frames

Like the convention centre and the Avon this is big stuff. Do this badly and the whole inner city rebuild will be compromised, do it well and Christchurch could easily become the best city in the country. What was originally conceived of as a land bank and edge condition to the city, got sold to the public as a park, and it now being conceived as the only real opportunity to get twenty thousand people into the city. This is potentially game changing. We could see the design and construction of the first 21st century housing in NZ. Meaning proper density, sophisticated design, integrated transport and ecology, and at affordable prices. Instead it sounds like treasury is leaning on CERA to get some money back from the expensive land purchases, so are pushing for the land to be sold of to the highest bidder. This’ll inevitably be the groups that can make the most money out of the projects, and sadly this isn’t like to lead to the best outcomes. Government needs to lead these projects so it caters for a diversity of residents (this is what makes cities work) and to use the scale of the construction to develop new safer cheaper offsite manufacturing. So again, there is hope, but I can’t see why this government would see the light on this issue when they haven’t so far.

7. Innovation Precinct

This project is a joke. It was introduced by Minister Joyce at day 93 in the 100 day plan. It’s been under-developed and under-supported. It represents the worst of government interference. Leaving people to just get on with their own buildings would have been many times more effective. Who knows how this will develop from here, but the horse has already bolted. Key players may now be the centre of an exciting development elsewhere on the edge of the city.

8. Children’s Playground

Nice idea, but again caught up in the rubbish from the British designers. I can’t for the life of me work out why the playground can’t be constructed around the centennial pool and Elsie Locke Park instead of necessitating their demolition. I’d ask CERA and the CCDU, but that’s right, they don’t talk to the public.

9. Performing Arts Precinct

This one is a doozy that has been drawn into the controversy of the Town Hall. Now that it looks like the Town Hall is staying (thankfully) the rest of the arts precinct can start to be conceived. There is around $40 million and a large piece of prime central city land to do this. At the moment this will cater for CSO (who were going to get a new building pre-quake), School of Music (who are bringing in their own money) and Court theatre (who get another new theatre). I have followed this project closely and can’t for the life of me work out why there hasn’t been a proper consultation process to work out what goes in this area. What about youth spaces? What about community access? What about a BATS-sized theatre space? The Court Theatre is obviously important, but I can’t understand why they get some $20 million of rate payer money without a public conversation.

There is heaps of land here that the government is gifting to this project my two cents would be to encourage more groups to come in and make this a dense and amazing collaboration of spaces and groups. Other thoughts are that the James Hay should be substantially reconsidered so that it becomes a loved part of the city. There should be a small but beautiful bridge built from Victoria Square to the southern entrance of the Town Hall, and finally that the whole Arts Precinct should go on the site next to the river between Colombo and Manchester.

10. Metro Sports

I don’t really know much about this project. It’s another big one. Sounds like some of the master planning is quite exciting.

11. Library

This is an interesting one. The old library would apparently only take $8 million to fix and instead a new $90 million library is being built one block closer to the square. The idea of having a contemporary and great library on the square is a strong one. Or they could spend $30 million the old library to fix and it and built a new contemporary area. However CERA (as with the centennial pool) won’t let this happen because the old library is on the site of the new GIANT convention centre, so MUST be demolished. I’m in two minds about this as it would be amazing if a really good design is built right on the square. How about an international design competition?

12. Residential demonstration

Another good idea, great to see CCDU and CCC working so close together. This project illustrated the importance of public competitions with a fantastic array of entries from around the world. The 4 short listed entries were actually quite exciting. The project has however now become mired in economic issues as the government is allegedly trying to get ‘market’ value for the land and thus making the whole project unfeasible. I’m not sure how a ‘market’ value is reached in the middle of a city so dominated by a government landlord. This is supposed to be a demonstration project, be good if it was demonstrating amazing and affordable design rather than demonstration why we can’t ever build anything decent in this country.

13. Retail precinct

While the Re:Start mall has been a great success and illustrated the importance of quick and experimental thinking, the retail precinct has illustrated the opposite. A similar story to the innovation precinct but on a bigger scale. Nothing has happened here in the 18 months since the 100-day plans were launched. Dozens of designs have been proposed, millions will have been wasted of fees, lawyers, accountants, QS’s, and other professionals. The project does at least illustrate how we aren’t being victims to disaster capitalism, but rather the much more mundane reality of incompetence and bureaucratic obstinacy. Now, belatedly the government has thrown up its hands and done what they should have in the first place and said to the land owners ‘fine do what you want then but here is a master plan you need to fit within’. Apparently some pretty good architects have now being brought into the camp to do this master planning.

14. Te Puna Ahurea Cultural Precinct

This is a bit of a phantom project. Rumours are that it just isn’t going to happen. The piece of land that it was designated for was a bit strange in the plans, so I reckon it’d be better put someone more centre, either on the current site of the commons (where the pallet pavilion is) so it really feels like the entry to the city, and over the river from market square/Victoria Square, or next to the Avon where the new arts precinct was originally going to go, or if the old library was kept this building could be put on the square as a sister building to the cathedral. I’m not sure what it is supposed to be, but it feels to me that Ngai Tahu should be more present in the centre of Christchurch.

What this list clearly illustrates is repeated point about involving the public. All the projects that don’t have the public as the main user group have done well. The Health Precinct and the Justice and Emergency Precinct both have strong clients who can formulate their needs and work with the designers to achieve them.The River, the east and south frames, the arts precinct, Cathedral Square, the innovation precinct are all going awfully because the main user group has been ignored, or has had no proper representation.

Looking outside of the Anchor projects to what is actually happening in the city I predict another long, blur of a confusing year. There’s going to be some BIG political battles this year around the election and locally with the cost-sharing agreement. The city itself is going to suffer from a lack of intermediate initiatives. It’s looking like both the pallet pavilion and Re:Start will be gone by April* without anything in the pipeline to replace them. This should be the moment when projects such as the Arts Circus should be in full swing. People need to realize that the big projects are still years away. A few great things like the Isaac Theatre and parts of the Arts Centre will begin to come online, but really the big projects haven’t even finished master planning, lets alone proper design, let along construction and opening. We are in this for the long haul.

* editor’s note: Re:Start will be staying in a different configuration