Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck close to the Christchurch city centre on 22 February 2011. As a result, massive and widespread devastation occurred throughout the whole region, the heart of the inner city was ripped out, and there was widespread injury with 185 fatalities. As part of Christchurch’s rebuild and recovery, on 12 July 2014 the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) launched a “Call for ideas to Remember” – an open international competition seeking design concepts for a proposed Canterbury Earthquake Memorial to be sited on a stretch of the ōtākaro/Avon River between Montreal Street bridge and Rhododendron Island. The competition attracted over 300 entries from more than 30 countries. Roughly half of these came from New Zealand – many submitted by well known and established landscape architecture, urban design and architecture firms. Albeit not destined to be the eventual winner, I was very much honored to be chosen by the Evaluation Panel as one of six shortlisted respondents to progress through to Stage Two. One of only two entries from New Zealand and as I understand it, the only landscape architect.

Site for Canterbury Earthquake Memorial

My initial design concept proposed a ‘curved and inclusive’ memorial wall set lightly within the memorial site with pathways connecting to the wider walkway network alongside the river.  Steps lead down to the base of the wall approximately one metre below ground level where water trickles and shimmers over the names of those who lost their lives (the ‘Veil of Tears’). At 2.2m high at this point, the wall affords privacy to those at the base of the wall whilst allowing unobstructed views across the wider landscape from the steeper, southern bank of the river and Oxford Terrace. Private mourners at the wall could ‘pass through’ the Veil of Tears and ‘touch’ those who were tragically lost to them in the earthquake. In the words of renowned poet, John Keats, “touch has a memory“. To the north of the memorial wall, two stone retaining walls form grass terraces and provide seating adjacent to the wall, before gently ramping back to existing ground level.

The Veil of Tears - shortlisted design for Canterbury Earthquake Memorial Competition

This was my first attempt at submitting a concept for an international design competition. I entered primarily because I have a strong and abiding interest in memorials and I found the site, albeit from photographs initially, to be one of serenity and beauty. A bit rushed for time as I chanced on the call for entries quite late in the piece, my plan and renderings were by no means particularly polished or professional. Consequently, being shortlisted came as a big surprise. Not only to myself, but also I suspect to those landscape architecture firms with large resources who also submitted an entry. I have no doubt that a number of them were a little unhappy not to have been selected themselves.

To progress the Stage Two design, assistance was provided by the Christchurch office of Boffa Miskell. Although no major changes were made to the initial concept, the design was tweaked and refined. An illuminated rill was added to the top of the wall and materials were selected – in particular the use of pounamu for the names of the those lives lost and backlit text was added to the south side of the wall. The four presentation sheets below were presented to the Evaluation Panel in January 2015 along with a report and Powerpoint presentation.

Memorial Wall for Canterbury Earthquake Memorial

Memorial Wall Christchurch Earthquake Memorial Hei Maumaharatanga

In line with competitions generally, responses throughout the competition had to remain anonymous. The six Stage One shortlisted designs under consideration were presented only to bereaved families, those who were injured, recovery leaders and other stakeholders. It was never the intention to make them public. However, in December 2014, local Christchurch paper, The Press, somehow obtained the designs and published them. At the time, they also ran an opinion poll and opened the article to comment. A consequence of this was that all shortlisted respondents became aware of what each other had designed. The poll and comments served further to provide us with additional ‘informal’ feedback. Although the results of the poll are no longer online, at the time, I was a clear favorite with 49% of the votes. I suspect this was in large part because the cherry blossom trees shown in my design resonated with people generally.

Memorial Wall commemorating the 2011 Canterbury earthquake

Changing seasons for Canterbury Earthquake Memorial Wall

In February 2016 the refined Stage Two concepts were made available to the wider public for a further round of consultation. Each of the Stage Two designs had been modified to varying degrees from those submitted earlier. I will admit to feeling a little chagrined at the time when viewing the Riverside Promenade entry (later becoming the Memorial Wall) for the first time. What were willow trees in the earlier design had become beautifully rendered cherry trees – prominently featured in the main ‘hero’ image designed to pull at the heart strings of the viewer. I doubt had the willow trees been retained, they would not have looked anywhere near as beautiful and the overall impact of the design would have been much less.

Chosen design

Anyway, after what seemed like an eternity at the time, in May 2015 Slovenian architect, Grega Vezjak’s Memorial Wall was selected as the preferred design. Essentially it came down to a popularity contest and although it wasn’t the public’s first choice – Memorial Ribbon Wall by New York architects, Bassett and Benner was – according to an article published in The Press, it was a “polarising close second“. Apparently Bassett and Benner’s Memorial Ribbon Wall “was ultimately rejected because it did not offer enough space for public gatherings, would be in the shade and would need surveillance at night“.

Par for the course, after the announcement of the winning entry, the often anonymous online critics came out in full force. Accusations of blandness, the dubious choice of a ‘heavy object’ to remember those crushed in the quakes and relevancy to Christchurch were just some of the many criticisms aired. It is fair to say that some of the criticism was undeserved; in particular the misunderstanding that the wall would block views of the river from Oxford Terrace. It is also fair to say that much the same accusations would have been leveled no matter which design had been chosen. Interestingly, in a poll run by The Press in February once the Stage Two concepts were made public, the three most popular concepts were all designed by overseas entrants who presumably never actually visited the site. Of the remaining three concepts, two of the designers (including myself) were based in New Zealand with a connection to Christchurch to a lesser or greater extent. The third was designed by an Australian-based team, with one of the three member team being Christchurch born and bred. Sadly, we barely rated with the public in comparison to the other three concepts.

As for myself, I am not a fan of the winning design. It is way too monolithic for my liking. It’s just my opinion, but at 150 metres long, it feels out of scale for the site specifically and Christchurch generally. It has also been suggested by some commentators that given the loss of life that occurred as a result of falling buildings in 2011, a wall such as this is not entirely sympathetic. In light of recent seismic events, in particular the 5.7 earthquake that occurred near Christchurch a mere seven days ago on 14 February 2016, I would argue they do indeed make a valid point. I do of course, appreciate this criticism can also be leveled at most of the other shortlisted designs – including mine. In my defense, at a mere 45 metres in length and just over 2 metres high in part only, it is dare I say, much less towering and far less risky. However, in light of the recent earthquake and with the expectation that there could be more, I also have some doubt that a memorial wall is best. Further, I am not completely sold on the vast expanse of concrete terraces at the river’s edge in Vezjak’s design. Given that there are very similar concrete terraces being constructed just a few minutes walk away, are more really needed? In addition, engineers working on the terraces found the soil in and around the waterway to be softer than anticipated and construction was delayed by six weeks. The upshot of this is bound to be additional cost.

Design issues aside, the most common criticism was the actual cost of the memorial. With a budget of $11 million, many in Christchurch including the author of an opinion piece in The Press, are questioning, rightly or wrongly, whether this is money well spent. For many, it is undeniably not. Although costed to come in within the proposed $11million budget, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the final cost of the winning design turns out to be much higher. Some of the other designs would undoubtedly have been less expensive. By way of a comparison, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the wall I designed, at a mere 45 metres in length would have to be at least two to three times less cost than the 150 metre long Memorial Wall with extensive riverside terracing. Further, in addition to the Memorial Wall, a ‘family area’/reflective gathering space is currently under construction for the northern bank. No doubt this also comes at an additional cost.

On perusing the design for the northern bank for the first time, I was somewhat disgruntled and disappointed to see how closely it resembled my design with a curved path and seat – minus the wall of course. This led me to reflect on just what is an acceptable limit for one design to closely resemble that of another. That, however, is a whole new blog post for down the track.

northern bank memorial

Last two images: Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority

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