Dance-O-Mat, Christchurch, New Zealand, Credit: Gap Filler, 2013­

The “Good Death” of Buildings: Filling Gaps in Post-Earthquake Christchurch

By Heidi Kakela

The city of Christchurch was irrevocably changed on September 4th, 2010, when a magnitude 7.1 Richter earthquake rattled its sleeping residents awake in the early hours of the morning. The disaster that ensued was wholly unexpected for a city that had always imagined itself far from New Zealand’s most likely site of seismic activity, the Alpine Fault. Equally unexpected was its largest aftershock of magnitude 6.3, on February 22nd 2011, a little over six months after the first earthquake. The February aftershock killed 185 people and total damages were equal to 20 percent of New Zealand’s GDP (McCrone 2014, 102). In material terms, this included the demolition of 80 percent of Christchurch’s damaged central business district. As once familiar buildings began to disappear, leaving behind vast empty sections, the city quickly became a patchwork of dusty streets and looming absences.

This article discusses these absences in the cityscape and their “reactivation” by an organization called Gap Filler. True to its name, Gap Filler addresses the disaster by temporarily filling lots left vacant after the demolitions through performative actions and installations. Its multitude of projects—from poetry readings to non-commercial retail outlets—are built, choreographed, and realized on borrowed land through volunteer work, with recycled materials, and small financial contributions. They are opportunities for citizens to experiment with alternative visions for Christchurch’s urban space, whose future is largely determined by the New Zealand government’s plans. Gap Filler offers residents a venue to critique and challenge the top-down character of the reconstruction. Its work consists of identifying locations for installations, approaching their owners for permission to temporarily reactivate these for various purposes, and marshaling both the human and monetary resources necessary. The organization also concerns itself with these sites’ former purposes, which guides the shape their projects will take.

In their own words, Gap Filler generates and facilitates “desires” to use vacant land as a vehicle for reimagining the identity of a city (Reynolds 2014). It works with anyone who comes up with an idea for a project and, through these, aims to stoke residents’ imaginations to consider gaps not as places stripped of their former identities, but as a places of infinite potential. The organization believes the desire to address these spaces and not to consign them to official reconstruction is instrumental for both civic renewal and the restoration of a sense of belonging. The space it reimagines is replete with a past whose physical referents may have been lost to the earthquake, but whose presence is still felt by residents. The sudden changes in the cityscape shocked many residents, who felt the city they had known had become unrecognizable. Where any kind of reconstruction provided a respite of sorts from the absences, it was clear those that addressed former landmarks evoked stronger reactions. In this article, I argue that the reactivation of vacant lots is not only a grassroots critique of the rebuild, but indirectly amounts to a socially acknowledged and therapeutic ‘good’ death for familiar vistas.

Integral to these deaths were the absences that spurred the gap-filling projects, the projects’ preoccupation with the sites’ past, and their intention and ability to envision the city’s future. To facilitate the description of the absences Gap Filler seeks to address, I turn to Tim Ingold's work on familiar surroundings and particularly to his notion of “taskscapes” (2000, 195). At their most simple, taskscapes are landscapes in motion. If the landscape refers to a space of interrelated features seen from a particular perspective, the taskscape is the networks of different kinds of labor, or tasks, that these features generate. These networks are not ahistorical, but have come into being through years and decades of life in particular surroundings. Basing his argument on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2000) and Gilles Deleuze (2011), Ingold argues that they constitute our sense of being placed somewhere, where we are constantly in a process of shaping and being shaped by our surroundings. This suffuses our familiar vistas with meaning and, unavoidably, attaches a sense of temporality to them. To attend to a taskscape is to effect a momentary artificial abstraction of one’s sense of duration. As such, taskscapes are a moment where the past and present meet, affording us a vague sense of the likely shape of the future. Here it is the inherent sense of historicity in Ingold’s concept that makes it apt to reason with around placed memories and meanings.

Pre-disaster Christchurch taskscapes faced an unmooring when their physical referents were demolished, leaving residents experiencing a sense of grief. It is this bereavement that Gap Filler’s work indirectly addressed. By engaging with the past meanings and purposes of demolished sites, through everything from thematic inspiration to archaeological digs, its activities emphasized their lived histories and memorialized them before they are built over. This memorialization, in concert with the temporariness of Gap Filler’s installations, establishes a “good death” for the mental image of Christchurch by commemorating the loss of the familiar.[1] In his study of modern Western funerary practices, James Green terms this kind of commemoration the poiesis of memory (2008, 186). He borrows the term from Michael Lambek’s work, where it refers to Aristotle’s notion of “poetic” creation that forms the emotional, affective part of a triad with theoretical contemplation and practical making (1998). Poietic creation offers a third way between abstraction and materiality, which Green believes is necessary to understand how memories are formed, interpreted, and used. He suggests that through poiesis, memories of the deceased are refined, linked to a cultural imaginary, and utilized to envision a future without them. Applied to Christchurch, this means that Gap Filler’s poietic (re)creation of past sites incorporates them into a shared civic memory. In Ingold’s terms it helps the residents patch up an unravelling taskscape and to resist the more alienating effects of reconstruction.

This article draws from a variety of sources. Alongside extensive interviews with Gap Filler’s creative director Coralie Winn, conducted in 2012 and 2014, my research is based on three months of ethnographic fieldwork in Christchurch, where I carried out 23 interviews in ten neighborhoods. Working with a community support organization called the Neighbourhood Trust, I conducted participant observation to learn how people linked perceptions of disaster-induced uncertainty and loss with their surroundings. During this time Gap Filler was already active in Christchurch and their projects were received enthusiastically by my participants, who were both struggling to come to terms with their loss and pummeled with weekly aftershocks. For them, Gap Filler provided a much-needed respite from disaster-exhaustion and one way to tackle the rebuild.

Gaps in the Scenery

It all began with the demolitions. The February aftershock killed 185 people, most of whom were crushed by falling debris or collapsed buildings in the city center. In response, the central business district of Christchurch was closed off from the public by a military-enforced cordon. The vast majority of its buildings were declared structurally unsound, irreparable, and bound for demolition. It was perhaps no surprise that when the cordon was lifted six months later, the abrupt absence of formerly familiar buildings loomed large. People I met eagerly pointed out empty lots in order to recount former buildings and past purposes. The rapid demolition of Christchurch effected a presence of absences, where the lack of what had once defined a place made it both present in memory and absent in reality. The successive disappearances of its defining structures, such as heritage buildings, were emotionally disturbing.

To illustrate the tone that views of the demolitions took and contextualize the problem Gap Filler’s work came to address, I will briefly quote two people I came to know during my fieldwork. Freda had worked as a city councillor before her retirement. She emphatically argued for the importance of Christchurch’s heritage buildings for her former job.

It was a heritage city and many people worked to save that heritage. Fought battles with the Council on why you should save that building — and it ain’t there anymore. That’s like a death. To me, it’s like a death.

By virtue of their broad scope, the demolitions were interpreted as abrupt departures and extractions. They were questioned, accepted, and mourned by residents who reacted to them as a form of passing. The other quote comes from Sue, with whom I visited Cashel Street’s re:Start mall, which was one of the first public-private attempts to lift parts of the central city cordon. As we surveyed the area, she looked around at the jumble of damaged buildings and construction sites and mused aloud:

It’s just so many empty lots and all these stones and bricks and it just — it makes you feel a little bit speechless. What will the city look like after this is all cleared away? What will they put there and will it do justice to what was there?

Where creative destruction and the clean slate evoke the potential for renewal, I found that Sue, Freda, and others rebuilding their lives were more preoccupied by what they could no longer see than what they could envisage in its place. It was as if the city had suffered an identity crisis over the loss of its physical landmarks.

Juxtaposed against these salient absences were meaningful presences. If Ingold’s (2000) taskscapes are historical networks of comings, goings, and “hanging-abouts,” they exist in connection with landscapes that are the accumulated traces of these tasks. In this archaeological notion of spatiality, the physical signs of human duration and situated life together are what make a place familiar. While Sue admittedly held no particular love for the city center’s “concrete blocks” over its heritage buildings, they both had served as spatial referents for memory that anchored her sense of familiarity with her city. Consequently, she now noted with some dread that their absence had changed Christchurch’s identity completely. Within Ingold’s conceptual framework, Sue had considered the buildings a part of the “lived” landscape or the taskscape of Christchurch by situating them in her experience of the city and conversely placing her experiences within the city with their help. As an integral part of our worldview, then, the taskscape goes largely unnoticed until its existence becomes threatened.

Feelings towards the demolitions were mixed, both expressing grief over the loss of the old Christchurch and invoking a list of urban problems that could now be addressed through the rebuild. Gap Filler’s impetus came in response to this discrepancy between the memories of a city pre-earthquake and visions of it after the rebuild. After the September earthquake the government and private investors rushed to rebuild the city, sparking public concern over the potential alienation of its residents. On its website Gap Filler states it was founded as a movement seeking to prove reconstruction did not have to stem solely from the government or private sector.[2] From its modest beginnings after the first earthquake, Gap Filler has now grown into a full-scale civil society organization employing seven people and to a trust fund. Most of its financial support comes from Christchurch City Council and the Arts Council of New Zealand. The organization collaborates with people from both Māori and non-Māori communities and other initiatives, like the Life in Vacant Spaces trust, which facilitates legal issues with transitional projects’ access to vacant lots, and the Greening the Rubble trust, which creates and maintains temporary green spaces. In 2014, its creative director Winn received the Queen’s Service Medal for her outstanding service to arts (Cairns 2014).

Gap Filler has occupied over 20 spaces around Christchurch for a number of purposes, some of them brief and transient and others popular enough to remain for over a year. For example, the Pallet Pavilion, an outdoor events venue and community space, was continued out of popular demand and lasted for two years. The success of some projects, including a public jukebox called the “Dance-o-mat,” has endeared them to the city strongly enough to merit discussions of permanent installations. Others have come to stand for the organization’s commitment to community, artistry, and the banality of the extraordinary in times of disaster, such as the decommissioned industrial refrigerator installed on a vacant lot as a book exchange library. Despite their prominence, the built, physical manifestation of the projects matters less to Gap Filler than their ability to appeal to disaster-weary residents. They manifest the desire not only to envision something in the place of absence, but to act upon it as well.

The organization considers its work a form of “adaptive urbanism,” maintaining that it addresses urban life beyond more customary forms of creating and developing cities. Winn considers the term a processual one, but agrees with the definition put forth at the International Congress for Adaptive Urbanism held in Christchurch, which Gap Filler helped organize. The concept is defined as:

…the growing practice of residents, artists, community groups, and more getting actively involved in conceiving, designing, implementing, activating and maintaining flexible city spaces. This empowered mode differs from conventional public and private city-building where most residents are solely consumers of ‘permanent’ developments created for them – rather than active producers of, and participants in, evolving public space.[3]

Gap Filler’s emphasis, thereby, is not on asserting concrete changes on the physical rebuild, but the public desire to envision alternatives. The organization believes it essential for these installations to be temporary to avoid prescribing a shape for what they believe ought to remain fluid and responsive.

Although cities are resistant to erasure, they can be reconstructed without fully recovering (Campanella & Vale 2005). It is not enough to provide a physical framework for urban life, rebuilding as a process must also restore cities’ social and cultural networks. This proved to be the common tune among those doubtful of Christchurch’s official plans. After the September earthquake, the Christchurch City Council launched their lauded “Share an Idea” campaign (Future Christchurch 2013), which openly solicited the public’s views on the rebuild. Some of the keywords assembled were eco-friendliness, seismic resilience, cultural heritage, as well as easier access to public space. The draft proposal produced, however, was deemed financially unfeasible at the governmental level and largely abandoned in favor of a more centralized plan, the “Blueprint”. It was conceived in a breakneck hundred days on the basis of the earlier draft but without public consultation, involving mostly experts, private investors, and bureaucrats, but also the local Māori iwi, or ‘tribe’, the Ngāi Tahu. It viewed the city as a blank canvas (McCrone 2014) and strongly re-zoned its central business district.

Gap Filler and other civil society actors found decisions problematic. “It assumes there was nothing there before,” Winn explains, “It is a canvas, but it's not blank.” She felt that what was being evoked was an iconoclastic urban utopia, drawing parallels to the city’s founding. In 1850, the visionaries of Christchurch, the Canterbury Association set out to create an antipodean, utilitarian version of English society. Their plans for the city laid it out in unnatural, perpendicular lines and emphasized its European character through gothic architecture (Rice and Sharfe 2008). Existing signs of Māori settlement were razed to produce what would later be the “Garden City” of New Zealand. To Gap Filler, the government’s Blueprint implied the same kind of abstract and proscriptive idealism that sought to pave over both material and psychological wounds caused by the disaster.

In the central city, the plan specified 16 large precincts called “anchor projects”, shaped around a rectangular green space called The Frame. This was meant to help owners by raising the value of properties in the core, but proved problematic when parts of the Blueprint bogged down in local government and led to its halting implementation. This coupled with the ambitious proportions of the precinct projects themselves has caused capital to flee into the suburbs (McCrone 2014). The development of Christchurch’s city center has slowed down and its absences have prevailed. Whether good or bad, the Blueprint’s vision to redesign Christchurch from the ground up lags behind the private sector, which has proved better at flexing with the demands of a city in transition.

In elaborating on Gap Filler’s “desire for the gap,” founding member and trust chairperson Ryan Reynolds presents gaps as empty spaces with just enough form to hint at their imaginable purposes, turning a jarring presence of absences into a wealth of potential. Evoking Georg Simmel, he observes; “life must either produce forms or proceed through forms” but that these “contradict the essence of life itself” (2014, 175). From this perspective, all form of urban development in Christchurch is subject to change and this is what allows healing. In this, Reynolds’ and Ingold’s work converge. A taskscape is equally fluid, as its form is tied not to the presence of social life but to its process. It can only ever be congealed momentarily by taking in one’s position in the world through the artificial distancing effected by introspection. Where Ingold moves further than Reynolds is when he argues that it in this moment of artificial abstractness that the present and past come together (2000, 189) like Sue’s simultaneous perception of her former familiar places and the absence that accentuated them.

The “Good Death” of Buildings

Gap Filler’s temporary and transitional ethos attaches it firmly to the rebuild. This both aids it in securing space for its projects and hinders it by constraining projects to an interim temporal period between the disaster and the rebuild. While Winn saw this as a potential drawback of the organization’s ability to contribute to Christchurch beyond reconstruction, I would argue otherwise. I venture that Gap Filler’s work indirectly establishes the “good death” — a passing marked by dignity, mourning, and acknowledgment — of familiar vistas though their response to the transitional temporality of post-earthquake Christchurch. While maybe an indirect consequence of the organization’s work, it is no less significant to the reimagining of the city.

Gap Filler’s activities fulfilled two goals in Christchurch’s rebuild. On the surface, they simply patched up a streetscape of disruptive absences. However, they also formed a focused desire to reconsider the gap itself as a past site of activities. Perhaps the best example of this is the archaeological dig set up on the former site of the Pallet Pavilion. The Pavilion was built on the lot of the Crowne Plaza hotel, damaged beyond repair the February earthquake. During its deconstruction people wondered about the various objects that had slipped between the pallets, a curiosity that turned into full-fledged scientific inquiry. The project unearthed material remains all the way from the pre-European settlement of Christchurch, or Ōtautahi, creating new kinds of popular awareness of the city’s history. Most of the projects, however, deal with its more recent past.

If, as Freda argued, the city had indeed died, participating in envisaging its future was a way of bringing about a certain sense of closure through a “good death” of acknowledgement and commemoration. Green (2008) posits that while we may have once sought to emphasize the hallowing effects of death, today funerary practices aim more at celebrating life. Collective, and often selective, memories of a life lived well are what constitutes a “good” death, anchoring it in a shared cultural ethos. Evoking Michael Lambek’s (1998) use of the concept of poiesis and linking it with modern styles of commemoration, Green observes that these memories are strongly subjective cultural re-interpretations of past events brought forth in the present (2008, 184-185). This process of memorialization purifies them, making the mundane and the profane into the necessary, virtuous, and foundational.

One of Gap Filler’s projects was a cycle-powered cinema set up to fulfill the demand for destroyed arthouse cinemas. The project was built on the lot of a former bicycle shop, where Gap Filler installed bicycle-powered generators. These provided clean energy for the cinema but also a much-needed space for socializing and exercising in the inner city. Using Green’s concepts of memory (2008) the installation addressed the site’s past in two ways. Firstly, it refined it by condensing it to cycling, the task most essential for it. Secondly, it drew not only on Christchurch’s past cultural imagery, where it was a repair shop and a cyclists’ hub, but also as the eco-friendly and open public space people had called for in the first plan. This reliance on familiar values of participation and sustainability also evokes Green’s third condition of the poiesis of memorialization; by reaffirming the past and the present, it envisions a future.

By arguing that Gap Filler’s projects memorialize a pre-earthquake Christchurch, I risk representing them as shrines or even potential permanent memorials to the disaster.[4] This is not the organization’s objective and their work differs from other such markers in at least two important aspects. Firstly, the majority of their projects do not directly engage with the most common impetus for memorialization: the casualties. For example, while the collapse of the Twin Towers strongly symbolizes 9/11, its spontaneous street shrines and commemorative expressions, both performative and monumental, evoke the loss of lives (Fraenkel 2011; Gunn 2004). The 185 victims of the February earthquake will be immortalized in the planned Christchurch earthquake memorial and their demise has arguably had a strong impact on the future shape of the city. Gap Filler, however, gears its projects towards the surviving residents, not unlike the funerary practices considered by Green.

Secondly, where reconstruction has symbolized healing and trauma attached to the built environment, it has usually claimed indestructibility. The felling and subsequent restoration of Dresden’s Frauenkirche as a partial return to the city’s pre-war identity as “Germany’s Florence” is rather a permanent act of defiance against the city’s firebombing than an attempt to move on (James 2006). Gap Filler, in contrast, does not aim to restore what was lost, but to engage with it in order to both mourn and celebrate it before letting it go, probably to be built over. The sense of temporality in its projects is therefore the artificially seized temporality of taskscapes, of cyclists’ hang-outs, and not the physical reinstitution of past cityscapes and landmarks.

A secular sense of death in Western societies is often vague about the thereafter.[5] It does not easily conform to a facile interpretation of funerals as a transmissive rite between the immanent and the transcendent. Green posits this is why, at our death, those around us celebrate our life and through it offer us the only certain form of immortality: remembrance (2012, 161). This makes funerals less about cadavers and more about survivors. In commemorating the dead or the absent we engage in a creative process that links the past to the present, and projects it forward in an idealized form. Through remembrance, the past and the absent becomes integrated in our worldview. This grants both it and us permanence, as it also reassures us of our own survival.

I argue, however, that Green’s focus on remembrance has a further effect on those surviving the deceased: by incorporating the past, we are able to move on from it. To draw on a last example from Gap Filler, I consider their contribution to Christchurch’s “ghost signs”. As demolitions progressed, advertisement signs once painted on old buildings re-emerged from behind the modern cityscape. One of Gap Filler’s projects, an art installation by the urban poetry project, Poetica, used these signs as inspiration for their own “Ghost Poems,” which took the form of four commemorative murals painted on walls that would eventually be built over.

The organization’s physical legacy is meager. Although permanence is not its goal, Winn admits “they [the projects] are what people will remember.” Beyond the projects themselves, many now just photographs and memories, Gap Filler aspires to contribute to the city’s future by changing the way residents view empty spaces. Rather than merely seeking to facilitate the transition of a city from one form to another, it thereby also mediates the transition of its people. The murals of “Ghost Poems” are both ephemeral and concrete additions to the cityscape. They retain a link with the transitional period, perhaps to be unearthed someday. They allow the residents to acknowledge their losses, to engage with the potentiality of empty spaces, and finally to let these both go. Seen this way, filling gaps constitutes memorialization and the poiesis of an immaterial Christchurch civic imaginary able to persist through ownership. It opens up a future beyond the disaster in a way material reconstruction does not.

In closing our last interview, Winn pointed out that the organization’s ethos of impermanence is not meant to counteract the rebuild, but rather to bring the city’s residents closer to it. She maintained that rebuilding something equally alien as the absences had been would not do justice to the former Christchurch. With this in mind, I have argued that instead of seeing the gaps and Gap Filler’s projects as strictly material features in a damaged cityscape, they might be better viewed as parts of an unraveling taskscape. Freda was not alone in asserting that in the absence of its heritage buildings, its most obvious historical ties, Christchurch itself faced death. When Bruce Ansley heard Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee dismiss its historical buildings to the scrap heap, he decried the minister’s disregard for the “city’s soul” (2011, 9). Such poetic language was mostly evoked by activists, but large parts of it resonated with all residents, who felt that the earthquakes had drastically disturbed the city’s warp and weft.

Gap Filler was formed to address Christchurch’s transitional period. The temporariness of ghostly murals, bicycle cinemas, and refrigerator libraries makes them relatively unassuming experiments at adapting to the changed premises of life in Christchurch, but their capacity for teasing out placed memories by far surpassed the cathartic abilities of the official reconstruction. Not all Gap Filler’s projects succeed, Reynolds (2014) and Winn both emphasize, and neither are they meant to. It is more important that both unsuccessful and successful projects shape instead a sense of belonging in a city of irrevocable losses and drastic change.

[1] This paper peripherally raises questions of Māori funeral traditions and mourning, tangihanga, that are too broad for its scope. For those interested, Benton, Frame and Meredith (2013, 379-394) offer a more comprehensive discussion.

[2] “About” Last accessed: March 26, 2015

[3] “About.” Last accessed: March 26, 2015. International Congress on Adaptive Urbanism.

[4] It does not bear mentioning that practices of commemoration are varied, from spontaneous shrines (Santino 2006) and roadside memorials (Clark and Franzmann 2006; Kennerly 2008) to national monuments (Herborn and Hutchinson 2014; Patraka 1996) and park benches (Kellaher and Worpole 2010). Natural disasters, however, tend to occupy a more ambiguous position vis-à-vis human-made ones due to their unclear sense of culpability, which affects their memorialization (Hastrup 2010).

[5] See for instance Tercier’s (2011, 17-23) discussion of modern and post-modern death or Ariés’ (1981) classic work, The Hour of Our Death.


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Author Bio

Heidi Elisabet Käkelä received her BSc in Social Anthropology from the School of Global Studies at Gothenburg University (2011) and her MA in Anthropology with First Class Honours from the University of Auckland (2013). She spent a good part of 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, dodging earthquakes and doing ethnographic fieldwork with disaster survivors. She was awarded the 2014 BGHS Start-up Scholarship at Bielefeld University and is currently working on her future Ph.D. research project on the anthropology of humanitarian morality and disaster aid after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

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