Pop-up architecture helps boost spirits in earthquake-devastated Christchurch.

Re:START is constructed of colorful, stacked shipping containers. 

One year after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 185 people, much of the city still lies in disarray. The central business district remains restricted to the public, with guards standing sentry at access points. Within this “red zone,” innumerable residential and public buildings have been earmarked for partial or complete demolition, including the iconic, Gothic Revival Christchurch Cathedral, whose 19th-century spire and tower sustained heavy damage. New Zealand economists speculate the rebuild will cost insurance companies between $15 billion and $25 billion.

If this sounds grim, it is, says 71-year-old architect Ian Athfield, Christchurch’s city-appointed architectural ambassador and the 2004 New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) Gold Medal laureate. “People are feeling more and more discontent,” he says. “Words [from politicians] about community are beginning to sound very hollow.”

But recent initiatives show that progress is possible. As architectural ambassador—a role he took on mere days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Christchurch and its suburbs on September 4, 2010—Athfield has helped organize local architects into think-tank groups to address issues of land use, housing, transportation, and urban planning following earthquakes (by a government estimate, New Zealand averages 20,000 minor tremors a year, with 200 of these strong enough to be sensed). Many of these initiatives are small, temporary interventions. A series of provisional structures for entertainment erected by the year-old non-profit group Gap Filler, for example, attempts to tackle the problem of dwindling morale. A new Gap Filler scheme, which opened on February 9, is an open-air cinema powered entirely by stationary cyclists on a series of metal-and-cinderblock stands. Modules of LED lights strapped to each rider’s handlebars indicate the amount of power he or she is generating.

Another temporary project is the Re:START shipping container mall, a 27-store complex located just outside of the city’s cordoned-off center. When Re:START opened on October 29, 2011, at the start of the country’s tourism season, thousands of people, local and foreign alike, flocked to the shopping center, says Anton Tritt, a Christchurch native and project architect with the mall’s design team, the Buchan Group. “It’s really been adopted by the local community,” he says. The mall continues to generate interest: It sees 50 percent of its foot traffic from tourists and will likely remain open beyond its projected disassembly in April 2012, pending approval by the landowners.

Commercial centers are not the only building type getting the temporary treatment. Construction will soon begin on an 8,611-square-foot provisional cathedral designed by Tokyo-based architect Shigeru Ban. The $3.3 million, 700-seat church, slated to break ground at the end of April, will be made of cardboard tubing and polycarbonate, with shipping containers lining the base. It is meant to serve as a stand-in for the Christchurch Cathedral.

Jasper van der Lingen, chairman of the Canterbury branch of the NZIA, cites temporary architecture as critical for keeping confidence and enthusiasm alive in Christchurch. “It’s going to take a long time to rebuild the city. Our real challenge will be this transitional period,” he says. While it’s been difficult to get the voice of local architects heard over the louder voices of business and political interests, he is hopeful. In some ways, he argues, damage caused by the February 22, 2011, earthquake provides a clean slate on which to try new modes of construction and land-use. “Now,” he says, “we get to consider the ways new green and seismic technologies can help make a safer, better city. And that’s exciting.”

Earlier this month, Gap Filler, a non-profit organization seeking to make spaces for leisure in downtown Christchurch’s newly empty lots, opened their latest project: a bicycle-powered, open-air cinema. See it in action above.