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How cute is Tyler with his baby orange & yellow kahdu balls!

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This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure.

‘The New Normal’ is a phrase you often hear in Christchurch these days, uttered with characteristic local irony. Devastated by the series of major earthquakes that began early in the morning of 4 September 2010 and lasted for more than 15 months, everyday life in the city is of course far from normal. In the central city alone, nearly 800 buildings have been demolished and there are many more to come down before the red zone cordon is lifted. ‘The New Normal’ describes the myriad adjustments to daily life that Christchurch locals have had to make in the aftermath of the quakes: changed traffic patterns, constant roadworks, the torch under the bed, the mobile phone kept constantly charged, the portaloos that are still being used in some suburbs.

While reconstruction of the city hasn’t started yet, temporary buildings made from converted shipping containers have popped up on vacant sites: dairies, an art gallery, a furniture shore, boutique dress shops, bars and cafes. And in the central city an entire shopping precinct has been built from them. The Re:START Mall opened in late October 2011, the initiative of a group of retailers who anchored their development around Ballantynes, the venerable Christchurch department store. Around 60 shipping containers–stacked and placed in various configurations, pierced with windows and folding doors and painted in a bright and cheerful palette – have been fitted out as high-end shops and cafes.

The mall’s edges are critical to its success, being intimate, sheltered, human spaces.

 

Re:START is built on the site of the old Cashel Street pedestrian mall, whose Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings have been largely demolished. Only a couple of buildings remain, isolated in space. Re:START includes a specialist grocer, a handmade shoe shop, an independent bookstore, a lingerie boutique – the kind of shops, in fact, that used to populate the buildings in the historic part of town (the part of the city worst hit during the earthquakes, when ornate concrete pediments and brick facades collapsed over the street).

When Anton Tritt of the Buchan Group was appointed design leader and project architect of Re:START, he had just finished designing a container house in the Port Hills. Driving home from his office every day over the Waltham Road overbridge, he passed the shipping containers stacked high in the railway yards. The containers provided an obvious solution to the problem of building a temporary shopping precinct in an earthquake zone. They’re strong, modular, ubiquitous and most importantly exude a sense of safety in a city fraught with architectural danger. Their very mundaneness was a recommendation. “We’re an export nation,” says Tritt. “We’re used to shipping containers.”

 

ReSTART Mall: A tiny purpose-built city in the middle of a vast wasteland.

 

There is no firm finish date for Re:START, though it will start to be reconfigured as new buildings are built around it. In the end, I expect that the converted shipping crates will be scattered around the region, becoming freestanding shops or even holiday homes.

There is a long New Zealand architectural history of repurposing modular buildings. In the 1960s and 70s, ‘baches’ (beach houses) and sleepouts were commonly built from the crates used to import car parts. When I mention this to Tritt, he laughs, recalling holidays spent stripping down plywood car crates with his father for extensions to the family bach. “New Zealanders use what’s to hand, what’s affordable,” he reflects. “We have to be clever with what we’ve got.”

In fact, at architecture school Tritt studied the work of Louis Hay, one of the architects responsible for the rebuilding of Napier in the Art Deco style after the M7.8 earthquake of 1931. (Tritt comments that the Art Deco style met the needs of post-quake Napier, with its stripped-back detail and lack of dangerous pediments.) Faced, like Christchurch, with the wholesale rebuilding of the city centre, the burghers of Napier constructed Tin Town, a temporary shopping precinct built of corrugated iron that lasted for three years.

The biggest constraint on Re:START was time, with an eight-week building period for the shops and public areas. This included the provision of power and drainage, as all essential services were damaged in the earthquakes. Tritt says, “It could not have been done without the goodwill of everyone involved.” Volunteers from out of town grew plants for hanging baskets, and others assisted landscape architects Rough and Milne with planting. Access was a problem, again solved by goodwill and good communication. They were building in a live disaster zone, behind a cordon manned by the New Zealand army. When the precinct opened to the public, it was a symbolic reclamation of the city by its residents.

Re:START Mall at night.

 

When I met Tritt at the mall, although it was mid-week and a hot autumn day, it was bustling with tourists and local families, as indeed it has been every time I’ve visited – at the weekend it can be extremely crowded. I’m particularly struck by the sociability of the public spaces. The edges of the colourful container buildings are as important as what’s inside them. People sit, chat, drink coffee, listen to music and the spaces are intimate, sheltered, on a human scale – they find a receptive public. People clearly feel safe there and they relax. There are many lessons to be learned from Re:START about the construction of public space in a new city. In effect, the mall itself is a tiny purpose-built city in the middle of a vast wasteland. As Tritt comments ruefully, parking is no problem. It is so lively and cheerful that you forget, for a while, the great strangeness of its context.

As I leave and head towards Ballantynes, I’m stopped in my tracks by an operatic soprano singing the aria from Catalani’s La Wally, the song that featured so prominently in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva. As the busker’s voice trembles and rises in the small plazas between the shipping containers, and the northwest arch frames the city, the sound of jackhammers swell like a chorus behind her as the high-rises are demolished around us. It is the New Normal.

Read Lara Strongman’s January column on the Christchurch earthquake here.

Olympic park 2014

When London dignitaries and sportspeople mounted the podium in Singapore in July 2005 to make their final presentation to
the International Olympic Committee,  it looked unlikely that we’d be celebrating London 2012 – the city’s bid was considered to be a distant second or third behind Paris and Madrid.

London’s surprising win that morning was attributed to its focus on urban regeneration and legacy: perhaps the first time an Olympic bid had specifically presented the Games as merely the warm up for a longer-term rejuvenation. Bill Hanway is executive director of operations at AECOM and behind the master planning for the 2012 Games. ‘We decided not to speak about the architectural wonders of the Games but focus instead on the total outcome the Games could deliver for London, and in particular East London, which has a range of social challenges and economic deprivation,’ he says. Or, as Mike Taylor, senior partner at Hopkins Architects and designer of the Velodrome puts it: ‘We thought of the Games as a kind of housewarming party.’

Now, after almost 10 years of planning, the party has begun. But when the celebrations are over and the hangovers clear, what will Londoners find? Will we see an East London regeneration that has the hallmarks of Barcelona’s transformation, or an empty and bedraggled temple to hubris of Athenian proportions? Hanway says legacy is enshrined in the project. ‘Right from the beginning, legacy was a strategic decision. We never drew up a plan that was just an Olympic plan. There was always also a transition plan and a legacy plan. For example, we made sure that infrastructure was in the right place for legacy use, not just for the Games; that roads were placed where they’d be needed after the Olympics,’ he says.
It’s clear that legacy has played a key role in the design of the main venues. The Zaha Hadiddesigned Aquatics Centre will have a capacity for 17,500 spectators during the Games, reduced to a maximum of 2,500 post-Games. The two clumsy wings on either side (which house additional seating but detract from the centre’s visually pleasing wave shape) will take 10 months
to dismantle, after which the centre will provide two 50m swimming pools for public use, doubling the number of Olympic-size pools in London.
In designing the Velodrome, Hopkins Architects had to address conflict between Olympic Broadcast Services’ (OBS) needs and legacy requirements. ‘The broadcast service wants total control of light in venues and this means minimising natural light because the OBS can’t control it,’ says Taylor. ‘We decided natural light was the right answer for legacy users, to reduce running costs and improve the environmental performance of the building, so we designed for legacy. We pressed on with rooflights, leaving the OBS to black them out if it insists on it for the Games.’

Olympic park 2012
Other stadia, including the white-clad basketball arena, have been built specifically as temporary venues. Says Hanway: ‘Fundamental to the London plan is that for those events with little legacy value and smaller followings, such as fencing and taekwondo for example, the stadiums are temporary.’ In part this obsession with post-Games legacy can be traced back to the Athens Games of 2004. Athens’ legacy is considered among the worst of any Olympiad: as many as 21 out of its 22 venues lie abandoned and maintenance of the sites alone has cost as much as £500m.  ‘We didn’t find a plan for the post-Olympics development of the venues,’ said New Democracy politician Fani Palli-Petralia in 2008, before the financial crisis and its subsequent impact. ‘When a city gets the Games, it should make a business plan and decide what the country needs for the day after the Olympics. This did not happen.’

Greg Clark, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Europe and the author of a number of books on legacy, says Athens is sometimes unfairly judged. He points to improvements to transport, in particular the Athens’ underground, its airport infrastructure and significant improvements to building codes and tourism. But he does acknowledge that ‘there was no plan for how to use the Olympic venues post-Games and most are still mothballed. London has learned from that. It has been very keen to secure post-Olympic usage of key venues as a result of the Athens experience.’
Sydney, too, provided key pointers. Sue Holliday, the former chief planner for the Sydney Games of 2000, told a conference recently that the host city should have focused earlier on the legacy programme for the Olympics site. Legacy planning didn’t begin until after the Games finished and there was no long-term plan for the park’s redevelopment until 2005. A business campus is now being established but the space still needs a public subsidy of more than £35m a year. ‘We didn’t really have a policy for what would happen to the Olympic site after the Games and we paid the price for that,’ Holliday says.

London organisers took note. Says Peter Tudor, director of venues at London Legacy Development Corporation, ‘London is further ahead with its legacy plans than any previous host city. We have secured the future of six of the eight permanent venues and are well on our way to appointing operators for the remaining two.’  The main stadium and press centre are the only two permanent venues that have yet to find a post-Games use, and Tudor believes both are likely to be finalised shortly. A creative or Silicon Valley-style commercial hub is the most likely use for the press centre and the hope remains that a football club will take over the main stadium.

But the real legacy of these London Games will not be in its temples to sport. Legacy goes far beyond stadia, which is perhaps just as well as architecturally there are few gems – the Velodrome and the lean but appealing Copper Box multi-use arena
by Make are two; the John McAslan and Partners rust-red energy centre is another. The main stadium in no way rivals the complex visual delight of the Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei-designed Bird’s Nest in Beijing and the site itself will never compete with Barcelona or Sydney’s sun-drenched parks. Instead, the legacy of the 2012 Games is most likely to be judged on their impact on urban renewal and place-making in East London. Clark points to the importance of public realm, architecture and urban design in achieving long-term social legacies. ‘If we want East London to have a different future it has to look different,’ he says. ‘It needs a high quality of place and amenities so that people decide to stay there rather than move out as their wealth increases. To become a more mixed-income location, the place-making agenda is a very important part of what we have to do.’

Olympic park 2030

A key aspect of the place-making legacy is the Olympic Park itself, which will become the Queen Elizabeth Park, one of the largest urban parks to be created in Britain in the past 50 years. Waterways, cycle tracks, footpaths, sporting facilities such as tennis courts and hockey pitches and lush acres of new parkland are planned, and the park should be open for public use from July 2013.
East Village – the Athlete’s Village during the Games – will also play a key role. It will be converted to housing, with some 4000 properties becoming available to Londoners by mid-2014. Other developments include 900 family homes in the Chobham Manor area in the north east of the park. Five neighbourhoods in with 7,000 homes are scheduled to open; 42 per cent of which will be family homes, 35 per cent affordable housing.

Social infrastructure is also planned: three schools (two primary and one secondary); nine nurseries; two walk-in health centres; one primary care health centre; and community, leisure and  cultural facilities are all on the cards. Jonathan Kendall, director of urban design at Fletcher Priest, the master planner of East Village, points to the accelerated time frame as a positive legacy of the Games: ‘The development of the housing and community spaces of the village would have taken 20 to 30 years to build in a non-Olympic world; the Olympics have condensed delivery to seven years.’  The architecture of the estate is not immediately lovable: 10-storey blocks in
a repetitive scheme that lacks a sense of warmth. But Kendall believes a sense of community will develop over time. ‘In Barcelona there are retail and commercial spaces on the lower levels of the village but the end result is an area that feels a bit sterile. We’ve gone for front doors instead. We’re emulating the London grain, the London typology,’ Kendall says.
The architectural planning may have been inspired by developments such as Maida Vale but the result – a dense
grid of high blocks – is not typical of the area in which two-storey terraces are still the norm.
‘I think we’ll be able to measure the success of the legacy by how much the edges blur between the new and the existing,’ says Kendall. ‘At the moment there’s an internal completeness, but there’s no getting away from the physical distance between this estate and the existing world. I hope a seamlessness will follow over time. In Barcelona you can’t quite tell where the edge of the park is, and that’s part of the success.’

The village will be handed over to its new owner, Qatari Diar, by March 2014. Some 30 per cent has been designated as affordable – the true measure of legacy may well be how affordable it actually ends up being for the economically deprived communities that border the area.  ‘Legacy isn’t just about whether  a development is economically sustainable but also about whether it delivers community cohesion, how it transforms the built environment and how it transforms how it feels to live in the area,’ says Iain Macrury, director of the London East Research Institute. ‘It’s important to measure factors such as the reputation of the area, community displacement or development, transformation of physical space and the way the city is used. We should be looking at livability surveys after the Games that assess the urban realm, who lives there, how it feels to live there, and how people use it.’
Clark concurs that measuring legacy outcomes is not straightforward. Economically, he says, it looks like there’ll be some success at least. According to an April 2012 report from property agent CBRE, £1.6bn has been invested in East London over the past two years, and
Clark believes there’s ‘a palpable boost of investment in the area’ pointing  to investments in homes and retail developments. ‘And we’re seeing a physical infrastructure legacy too, with power lines, Underground and road building. The social legacy though is rather more uncertain,’ he says. And, as Macrury points out: ‘Legacy won’t just happen.’ To be a success it needs ongoing stewardship, investment and management. After the Games we need to capitalise on the money that’s been invested and make sure we deliver
on-going regeneration, social and community support.’