Hole in the Clouds

January 2014

Hungry Bird

Jan 2, 2014

New Zealand is a kingdom of birds. Evolution provided the land with no big predators–in fact, no mammals at all except for a few tiny bats. Birds ruled. They didn't even need to fly to live safely and well in New Zealand; flightless birds–penguins, kiwis, and nine species of giant moa, among many others–found food and nesting sites right on the ground all over the place.

Humans arrived with guns and quickly shot all the moas. Also, people began harassing the other birds with imported varmints that ate eggs and/or birdmeat. We are a pretty pathetic excuse for a species.

But some of the birdlife seems to have evolved to seek a certain revenge. Case in point is the kea, the world's only alpine parrot, endemic to New Zealand's high country. Wherever roads lead to mountain passes or overlooks, keas are hanging out in the parking lots, waiting for cars to chew.

Keas gnaw on and can completely destroy the rubber fittings on automobiles, such as gaskets around windows and antennas. They also eat ice cream a scoop at a time off a handheld cone, and they can figure out how to open backpacks and devour all the food inside.

New Zealand   bird   Te Anau   Milford   kea   parrot   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

Four Square

Jan 8, 2014

The little guy here in the white apron, with a pencil behind his ear–that's Mr. 4, the grocer-mascot of New Zealand's ubiquitous Four Square chain of supermarkets.

The mural featuring Mr. 4 covers a side wall of the art museum in Christchurch. The museum is closed at the moment and has been for a couple of years. All the artwork currently on exhibit is out in the streets of the city, like this piece.

Perhaps you are wondering why in the picture below there's a crane on top of the museum? Hold that thought; we'll get to it soon.

museum   New Zealand   art   streetscape   earthquake   mural   crane   grocery store   logo   Christchurch   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

The Hole in the City #1

Jan 11, 2014

On 22 February 2012, white-painted chairs were set up alongside busy Cashel Street in Christchurch, New Zealand, each one different from the others, all of them empty. They covered a freshly sodded swath of a freshly vacant lot, where Baptists used to go to church before an 18-second-long earthquake took out the church, along with about 8,000 other buildings in town.

The chairs memorialize the 185 residents of Christchurch who died in the quake. One hundred fifteen of them were in a six-story office building that day across the street from what is now the memorial; in 18 seconds, the building pancaked and caught fire.

The chairs appeared one year to the day after the quake. Like so much else in the city's recovery from the disaster, the chair memorial, designed by Peter Majendie, was planned as transitional and very temporary, to remain on display for a week.

It's still there. Believe it or not, vandals steal chairs from the memorial every now and then, but so far at least, they've been replaced.

This transition stuff can be tough. New Zealand's latest census figures came out last month, revealing that more than 40,000 people have left Christchurch since the earthquake. The city is no longer the country's second largest. The official estimate now is that recovery will take twenty years, minimum.

Here is how people in Christchurch described the quake to us: the earth heaved straight upward, we were told, and then plummeted, slamming back down. Eyewitnesses reported seeing people literally thrown up into the air.

The next several posts will look at what's going on there nowadays, a little less than three years later. 

New Zealand   streetscape   earthquake   chairs   memorial   Christchurch   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

The Hole in the City #2

Jan 12, 2014

The earthquake that devastated Christchurch wasn't "the big one" there; it was just an aftershock, one of more than 8,000 aftershocks of magnitude 3.0 or more during the months following a massive magnitude 7.1 quake in September 2010. 

The big one caused terrible damage to the city and its suburbs, but mostly to older buildings; most modern construction survived more or less unscathed, thanks to New Zealand's strict seismic building codes. And no one died that day.

Although all of New Zealand is at elevated risk of earthquakes, Christchurch was not considered at especially high risk. The 2010 quake came pretty much out of the blue, rupturing a fault west of town that was hitherto unknown to geologists.

The aftershocks that followed were unnerving, to put it mildly, shaking the city day after day, often many times a day. They threatened to destabilize already damaged buildings, and they discouraged any and all efforts to start the rebuilding process.

The February 2011 aftershock that finally flattened Christchurch was different from the others in several ways. Although its magnitude was measured at just 6.3, much weaker than the original quake, its epicenter was very close to the center of town, just 10 km east of downtown. It caused movement along a shallow fault, only 5 km below city streets. And most devastating of all, this movement was largely up-and-down in nature, as opposed to the sideways shaking characteristic of the vast majority of quakes around the world.

Ground movement during the February 2011 quake was recorded at numerous seismic stations around town. Acceleration reached an unheard-of 2.2 times the force of gravity, a violent vertical wrenching that even strict seismic building codes had not contemplated.

After it hit, city officials had to cordon off the downtown area–the Red Zone–with its perimeter patrolled by armed soldiers. Entire residential neighborhoods were emptied out and slated for demolition; some were deemed unsuitable for rehabitation ever again. At least 1,000 commercial buildings and 7,000 houses were completely destroyed. No modern city has ever suffered more devastation from any earthquake.

The aftershocks continued, but now they were only one of many factors slowing or stalling redevelopment. First, all the ruined buildings had to come down, and all their rubble had to be carted away. Heavy equipment and demolition teams soon arrived in Christchurch from as far away as Ireland, but they couldn't work fast; even if financing and permitting went smoothly, which they never did, extreme caution was needed at the work sites to protect weakened structures nearby.

The vacant lots that gradually replaced rubble throughout the city often became parking lots. In fact, parking is easy now even in the heart of downtown. Not that there's much reason for many people to drive downtown these days–the old shopping mall is gone, there are only a handful of restaurants functioning, the theaters and office buildings and almost all the hotels are gone. City Hall and most other government buildings are emptied out.

Given all that newly empty land in the city center, it was inevitable that people would come up with ideas for temporary uses–popup structures built with readily available materials to bring back a little life to downtown Christchurch.

The photo above shows the Re:Start Mall, as seen from a parking lot in back; the stores and cafes that have sprung up on the site of a ruined shopping center are all made out of shipping containers. 

Below, shoppers and tourists visit the new mall. And below that is the Pallet Pavilion, a new downtown cafe and performance space built out of wooden pallets, with plastic crates for seating.

earthquake   Christchurch   containers   pallets  

Cardboard Cathedral

Jan 13, 2014

Before the earthquake, Christchurch had two cathedrals: the Gothic-style Anglican Christ Church Cathedral on the city's central square and the Italianate Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament nearby. Both were ruined in the quake.

In the aftermath of the quake, both the Anglican and the Catholic establishments became notably secretive about their plans for rebuilding and/or repair. The Anglicans were sued over insurance payouts and municipal maintenance funds. The Catholics spirited away all the decorative elements and artwork from their cathedral and hid everything at a still-undisclosed location.

Both cathedrals sit in ruins today, not yet demolished, propped up by flying buttresses made of steel I-beams and stacks of shipping containers filled with concrete.

Meanwhile, the Anglicans have built a new cathedral, allegedly for temporary use, on the site of a nearby church that was also destroyed in the earthquake. The new cathedral, with its cardboard-tube roof beams, was designed pro bono by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who has achieved worldwide acclaim for his post-disaster structures, many of which are built from inexpensive and readily available materials, including paper, cardboard, plastic crates, and shipping containers.

The new Cardboard Cathedral opened last August. It can hold 700 people for church services and also serves as public meeting space.

New Zealand   architecture   earthquake   church   Christchurch   Shigeru Ban  

The Professor

Jan 20, 2014

Faculty members of Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, go the whole nine yards when it comes to academic regalia for graduation ceremonies, such as the commencement we happened upon last month.

We met this academician while waiting in line at a sandwich shop near campus. Arleigh, our kiwi sister-in-law, was clearly enjoying the chance to converse with him.

He was a professor of physical education, we were told, with particular research and teaching interests in the emerging new discipline of parkour.

restaurant   graduation   Arleigh   Otago University   parkour   Dunedin   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  


Jan 21, 2014

On Sunday afternoon, there was nyckelharpa music in the air at Third Street Gallery on Second Street (don't ask) in Philadelphia's Old City.

That doesn't happen too often in Philly or really anywhere in the United States, with the possible exception of the Seattle area, home to the American Nyckelharpa Association and site of occasional dance evenings accompanied by nyckelharpists.

In Sweden, on the other hand, there are an estimaed 10,000 nyckelharpa players, and the keyed fiddle is featured on the back of the 50-krona note and has in fact been declared the country's official musical instrument. Swedes have been building and playing and composing music for nyckelharpor for more than six hundred years. Five-hundred-year-old stained glass windows feature angels playing the nyckelharpa.

The modern version of the instrument has 16 strings, 4 of which are played by the bow; the other 12 vibrate sympathetically, producing a resonant, vaguely organ-like sound.

The bowed string on the upper side of the neck, closest to the player's body, is a drone, unaffected by the keys and used rarely. The other three bowed strings can be shortened by pressing different keys to produce several octaves' worth of tones; there are three rows of keys, each dedicated to a different string.

Most nyckelharpa music harks back to folksong or polka, but the instrument is used by a handful of Swedish rock bands, and some serious musicians can play pretty much anything on it, such as Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

The nyckelharpa occasion on Sunday was a reception for an art show featuring two Philly-area artists: Judith Schermer, who exhibited twelve paintings of clotheslines, and Priscilla Snow Algava, who showed a variety of drawings and paintings of "matriarchs and sages." 

music   Philadelphia   window   art gallery   Swedish   Old City   Second Street   art exhibit   (Image credit: Little Fuji)  

Black Sheep

Jan 26, 2014

This is not, of course, a New Zealand sheep; it's a Dutch sheep, trimmed to look not so much like a sheep, at the behest of Amsterdam artists Lernert & Sander, who'd been hired by a newspaper to illustrate a series on the theme of family.

Human families, needless to say, have black sheep. What about black sheep families? It took dog groomer Marieke Hollander almost a full day to do up this sheep like a French poodle, but the result was, at least arguably, quite a black sheep among black sheep.

animal   sheep   Holland   Marieke Hollander   grooming   poodle?   DeVolkskrant   (Image credit: Lernert & Sander)